Famously, every minute repeater produced by Patek Philippe is controlled by the CEO –at one time Philippe Stern; today, Thierry Stern, who tests each repeater and either approves it for sale or rejects it, in which case it’s sent back to the workshops for refinement. The controlling process is not a rubber stamp; sometimes a watch is rejected and fine-tuned two to three times before it’s deemed suitable for sale. Patek Philippe tells us that in general they strive not for volume at any cost, but for a much more balanced and rounded auditory experience, with a marked preference for a warmer tone with a strong base of low frequencies.

Auditory experience is a highly subjective realm; in order to ensure that everyone’s on the same page, and understood each other, Patek Philippe developed an in-house vocabulary which it uses to assess its minute repeaters. Today, comments from the CEO may refer to volume, rhythm, harmony, pitch, duration, round sounds, hard sounds, warm sounds, and so on.

patek philippe 5070

Ref. 5074P, calibre R 27 Q, Minute repeater with cathedral gongs; perpetual calendar, moon phase, 24 hour display. 42mm, introduced in 2002.

Setting Up

Generally, one tests a repeater by setting it to 11:59 and activating it – this means you’ll hear the full suite of 11 hour strikes, three quarter strikes, and 14 minute strikes (and you’ll also know if the hands are set correctly in synch with the striking train.) In general, Patek prefers a maximum time of 18 seconds for a full strike. It’s easier to evaluate the repeater works when the watch is not running so the hands won’t move (and of course, the repeater still works just fine as it runs off a second mainspring wound by the case slide, not by the primary mainspring.)

You may or may not notice a faint background buzzing noise – if you do, that’s the sound of the traditional anchor recoil regulator, still used by several manufacturers. Patek Philippe’s minute repeaters are all equipped with silent centrifugal regulators. Whether or not you find the buzzing of an anchor regulator annoying is a matter of taste – to some, it’s a pleasant auditory link to the horological past but Patek prefers to have no additional sound.

Tell by Ear

The tempo of the chimes should remain even, through the full strike – in other words, it shouldn’t slow down as the last minutes are struck. And the tempo should not be so slow as to seem to drag, nor so fast as to crowd the individual strikes together; one should have enough time to enjoy the decay of each strike before the next. The volume should be adequate, but more importantly, the sound should be clear, without muffling of either high or low frequencies (bearing in mind that as we age, high frequency acuity is the first thing to go). After having listened to a reasonable range of repeaters over the years I’m inclined to agree with Patek that volume for its own sake is too narrow a goal; I’ve heard several repeaters that were certainly loud, but which lacked warmth and seemed brittle and over-bright.

It’s Physical and Emotional

Case material has a very marked effect on a repeater. It’s usually said that red gold is the best material as it provides the best balance of warmth, volume, and clarity. After hearing several different repeaters in various case materials, I’m going to be a little heretical; I’m not entirely sure this particular bit of received wisdom should be accepted uncritically. It’s true that red gold produces a certain type of sound –one which a lot of folks find appealing –but that doesn’t mean that the characteristic sound of a titanium, steel, or platinum case is objectively bad; it’s just different.

Platinum, in particular has gotten a bit of an undeserved bad rap. It’s true that its density makes it a more challenging material for a repeater case, as it tends to narrow frequency response and cause lower volume, but that doesn’t make a platinum repeater necessarily worse than one in red gold – just different; the sound is more austere, with a noticeably narrower range of frequencies, but on the other hand the narrower palette allows other factors to be heard more clearly. In some respects, it’s actually a cleaner auditory experience. You might just as well say that a drawing is always worse than a painting, or that saké – which has a narrower flavor profile – is inherently inferior to a big Bordeaux.

patek philippe 5059

Ref. 5216, calibre R 27 PS QR, minute repeater with perpetual calendar, retrograde date hand, moon phase, and seconds subdial

patek philippe 5035

Open “officer’s case” style case-back of the sibling ref. 5213, showing calibre R 27 PS QR

No Substitute for Live Performance

A final note on listening to recordings of repeaters on the Internet. It’s an essential aspect of experiencing repeaters for most of us – in general, it’s the only way any of us will ever be able to have any standard for comparison at all. That said, it’s obviously not the same as hearing the real thing, any more than a reproduction of Monet’s paintings of water lilies can substitute for the real thing.

A repeater’s obviously not a work of art of the stature of a Monet, but at the same time, it is the result of considerable history, research, craft, and refinement. Between the distortions imposed by microphone placement, lossy sound compression algorithms, digital frequency clipping, and the absurdly enormous variations in the end-listener’s room acoustics, speakers, and/or headphones set-up, what you’re getting is a shadow of the real thing. That’s a shame, in a way, but on the other hand, it makes it that much more exciting when you can hear the real thing.

That said — we can’t think of a better man to talk us through the basics of repeater appreciation that Patek Philippe CEO Thierry Stern himself, accompanied by the song of some of Patek Philippe’s most distinguished repeaters.

Thanks for listening!

All images by Jack Forster for Revolution except where noted; all rights reserved.  Nick ’em and you die.  Sincerest thanks to Patek Philippe USA, Patek Philippe Geneva, and Thierry Stern for access to, and permission to photograph, this remarkable assembly of minute repeaters.

This is  part of a longer article first published in Jul 5, 2013.