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Watch Complications: The Repeater

In this article, part of a series about watches, we take a look at the repeater complication. A repeater is a watch that is able to chime the time on demand at the press of a button. Dating back to the 17th century, in an age before artificial illumination was widespread, this function could be extremely useful. Now, it is valued more as an example of fine horology expertise and collected by enthusiasts.

Striking watches

Not to be confused with a watch that simply strikes the hour or quarter hour at regular intervals, the repeater performs this function at any time on demand. On later models a slide is pushed along the side of the case which powers a spring separate to the main spring and thus powers the repeater. There are a few different types of repeater differentiated by the accuracy of which they are able to chime the time.

Quarter repeater

A quarter repeater chimes the hours and then, with a different tone, the number of quarter hours since the last hour. This therefore has a maximum margin of error of almost fifteen minutes.

Half quarter repeater

A half quarter repeater goes one step further and chimes a third tone if more than half of the current run of fifteen minutes has passed. This therefore reduces the maximum margin of error down to almost seven and a half minutes.

Five minute repeater

A five minute repeater chimes the hours and then the number of five minute intervals since the last hour. Maximum margin of error reduces to almost five minutes.

Minute repeater

A minute repeater is probably the kind most seen in modern repeaters and is one of the most complex repeater mechanisms. It will strike the hours, then the quarter hours and finally the number of minutes since the last quarter hour. Typically, the hours are signalled by a low tone, the quarter hours by a sequence of two tones and the minutes by a high tone. The maximum margin of error is just under one minute. There are other types of repeater, but the above examples illustrate the genre adequately.

How they work

As previously mentioned, usually a button or slide piece is pushed along the side of the case of the watch. This action powers a spring inside the watch which operates the mechanism. Small steel hammers then strike differently tuned gongs composed of steel coils curving in a circular shape along the inside circumference of the case. As simple as this may sound, Patek Philippe claim that the assembly of such a watch will take a watchmaker with decades of experience 200 to 300 hours of work.

Examples of modern minute repeaters

Many brands manufacture minute repeaters today. Perhaps the world’s most famous watch brand, Patek Philippe, makes a minute repeater in rose gold, reference 5078R-001 (pictured above) which retails for around £290,000. Another fine brand, Jaeger-LeCoultre, manufacture a titanium version, reference 501T450 that sells for £129,000. So whilst prices are certainly not cheap, it is great to see this incredible complication continuing into the modern era. 

If you have any watches that you would like to sell, please contact Simon Rufus, watch specialist at Grand Auctions, Folkestone, Kent for further details.