Say you’re the epitome of gentlemanly elegance. Thurston Howell III meets Thomas Crown. You hold the door open for any lady in the vicinity. And they in return along with small dogs and babies, hell pretty much everyone, swoon at your mere appearance.  You always smell like angels have anointed your scalp with frankincense and your touseled leonine mane actually looks better after a spirited drive in a convertible or when you lift your polo helmet after the last chukka. You are as Mick Jaeger described “A man of wealth and taste.” You are a pinstriped, double breasted waist coated, collar pinned, unlined seven fold tied, and benchmade goodyear lasted panjandrum of learned refinement. The signet ring on your pinky bears a heraldic crest that goes back 400 years to when your forebears were engaging in the practice of Prima Nocta, or as they called in your ancestral homeland in France, Droit du Seigneur.

What watch do you have on your wrist? Not a chronograph. Too busy, too many buttons altogether to pragmatic for your gentlemanly tastes. Maybe a tourbillon but the problem is too many of them are just plain showy with their arriviste spinning cages on – gasp – the front of the dial. No you sir, are a man destined to own a minute repeater. What’s a minute repeater? Only the single most complicated watch ever created.

Minute Repeaters Are Watches That Play The Time On Demand

Touch a button and suddenly your apparently simple watch ignites in sonic pyrotechnics chiming the time in a sequence of hours, quarters (of the hour) and minutes. Again like the most complications it was created to meet the demands of the aristocracy hundreds of years ago. Imagine your laying under your goose down duvet and you want to know what time it is so that you can eject that fetching ambidextrous scullery maid next to you before your wife returns from the opera. It’s a lot less effort to reach over and activate your repeater rather than go through the pedestrian rigmarole of stumbling in the dark to light a candle to check our watch right?

So how do they work? By pressing the slide on the side of the case you cause two tiny hammers to strike the time on two equally tiny gongs that circle the perimeter of the movement. The two gongs are tuned differently the first playing a lower note and the other a higher. Hours are struck on the lower gong. Quarters are played with a high low combination of both gongs and the minutes — specifically the up to fourteen minutes before the next quarter — are played on the high gong. Here’s how it works. 1: 38 would sound like this. Dong (for the hour) Ding Dong, Ding Dong for two quarters or 30 mins, and finally ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding for eight minutes.

Sounds cool right? The only draw back as that the average minute repeater is going to set you back the better part of a quarter million dollars. There is however one exception to this and it happens to also be one of the most functionally innovative and damnably good-looking watches in the world, The IWC Minute Repeater. And on the pre-owned market it will run you under 50 grand.

Since its introduction back in 1995 the IWC Portuguese minute repeater has established a reputation as one of the world’s most handsome, most innovative and incredibly enough most affordable minute repeaters. Strap it on and it is the perfect model of discrete elegance the only tell tale sign of its incredible complexity the slide on the side of the case that unleashes its sonic abilities.

But what’s important to know is that from a historical perspective the IWC Portuguese minute repeater is one the most important watches ever made. Here’s why. The IWC minute repeater had its genesis in another legendary timepiece from 1990, the brand’s first grand complication. You see, IWC had always been a brand that created smart, functionally innovative, industrialized but high quality timepieces.

Portuguese Minute Repeater, ref. 5240 (1995)
Portuguese Minute Repeater, ref. 5240 (1995)

The High Complications Race

Because their pilot’s watches were adopted by the RAF as well as the Luftwaffe, IWC had become associated with pragmatic tool watches. But when he took over the brand in 1985, Gunther Blumlein, a man considered to be one of the great geniuses in the modern watch industry, wanted to add another dimension to IWC’s abilities. He wanted to demonstrate IWC could enter the world of complicated watches. In 1989 a brand named Blancpain created the 1735 at the time the world’s most complicated wristwatch. It featured a tourbillon, minute repeater, perpetual calendar, split second chronograph. The 1735 was a hugely audacious timepiece that symbolized the renaissance of mechanical watchmaking after the quartz crisis and became a rallying cry to the entire Swiss industry.

Blancpain 1735
Blancpain 1735

Blumlein wanted to demonstrate that IWC could match the 1735, but in a smarter, more cost effective and robust way. He already had the split second chronograph mechanism ready to launch in 1991 with Richard Habring’s Doppel Chronograph reference 3711. He already had the world’s fully synchronized perpetual calendar created by Kurt Klaus in 1986 with the reference 3750. He already has a tourbillon, which first appeared in the Da Vinci family along with a perpetual calendar in the reference 375203. What he was missing was a minute repeater.

Ref. 3711
Ref. 3711
Ref. 3750
Ref. 3750
Technical masters: Kurt Klaus and Giulio Papi
Technical masters: Kurt Klaus and Giulio Papi

The problem was, as his base caliber for his grand complication was the Valjoux 7750 a fully integrated automatic chronograph, he could not construct a minute repeater into its pre-existing architecture. His solution was to tap the genius of two maverick watchmakers Dominique Renaud and Giulio Papi who had created an atelier specializing in high complications. Since they couldn’t build the necessary strike train into the existing movement, they would create a module with all the repeater function to be sandwiched between the dial and the movement. But in order to understand the complexity of this let’s pause to understand what a minute repeater is and how it works.

How Does A Minute Repeater Work?

IWC Il Destriero Scafusia grand complication movement, based on the Valjoux 7750
IWC Il Destriero Scafusia grand complication movement, based on the Valjoux 7750

What translates time to music are a set of cams fixed to the center pinion, which turn all the time with the hands. When you press the slide and activate the repeater, mechanical feelers read the time off these cams and cause the hammers to trip a certain number of times against the appropriate gongs.

How does the repeater function get its power? Well each repeater has a second spring barrel. When you press the slide, you arm the barrel causing the spring to contract and when you release it, the power of it uncoiling sets the repeater into motion. The way you stop the power from releasing too quickly is by using a governor called a regulator. One particularity of the IWC repeater module is that the snails are not on the center pinion where the hands are attached but offset and driven by the minute wheel. Why? Because this kept the way clear for the switching impulses of the perpetual calendar module.

In 1990 IWC unveiled their initial foray into high complications with the stunning Grande Complication, an automatic chronograph with perpetual calendar and minute repeater and a solid caseback. But this was just step one in Blumlein’s grad plan. In 1993 for the brand’s 125th anniversary IWC unveiled the full majesty of Blumlein’s vision with Il Destriero Scafusia or “The Warhorse of Schaffhausen a demonstration that IWC could equal the achievements of he Blancpain 1735 at a more accessible price using their engineering intelligence.

IWC Grande Complication (1990)
IWC Grande Complication (1990)
IWC Il Destriero Scafusia (1993)
IWC Il Destriero Scafusia (1993)

As this watch featured a sapphire case back the decision was to remove the automatic winding system of the Valjoux 7750 to better observe the magnificent flying tourbillon replete with the world’s first titanium cage. The unique construction of this tourbillon would later become industrialized as IWC’s Mysterious Tourbillon.

Portuguese Tourbillon Mystere
Portuguese Tourbillon Mystere

In the meantime in 1993 also for the 125th anniversary IWC had resurrected one of its most revered and beloved models the mighty Portuguese. The beauty of the Portuguese is rooted in its poetic economy bellied by an incredible research in balance, typography and proportion resulting in one of the most beautiful and iconic men’s dress watches of all time. The Portuguese has always been distinguished from the moment of its creation by its large 42mm size.

IWC Portuguese Jubilee 125th Anniversary Limited Edition (1993)
IWC Portuguese Jubilee 125th Anniversary Limited Edition (1993)

Two years later in 1995 IWC decided to take the stunning aesthetics of the Jubilee Portuguese as well as the technology pioneered by IWC in collaboration with Renaud and Papi for both the brand’s Grande Complication and Il Destriero Scafusia and use it to create one of the world’s most compelling minute repeaters.

The thing about minute repeaters is that their movements usually integrate the strike function with the time keeping function. Which is why you see the hammers and gongs from the back of the watch. These movements require a tremendous amount of fine adjustment. A minute amount of material might be removed to get a gong sounding perfect and this involves taking the watch apart.

By creating a modular system, the strike mechanism and sound of the watch could be perfected before mounting it to the movement. Allowing for a shorter construction time. This smart functional innovation and modular construction allowed IWC to present what has to be universally considered one of the world’s most beautiful minute repeaters at a price far below that of the average super high end repeater. The one draw back is that the strike mechanism is obscured from view. However flip the Portuguese minute repeater over and you’ll be greeted by the welcome site of the stunning of the same Caliber 982 found in the historic watches.

The beauty of the IWC minute repeater is it is the very model of discrete charm. At 43 mm it is a scant 1 mm larger than the historic Portuguese 325 and only marginally thicker. Indeed worn on your left wrist it’s slide the only hit at is soaring sonic abilities is normally obscured from prying eyes letting you keep its high complication abilities a secret to be divulged to only those you deem fit. Considering its highly accessible price it is the perfect choice for your first minute repeater and a watch that is a testament to the incredible ingenuity expressed by IWC.

IWC Portugieser Minute Repeater IW5449-07
IWC Portugieser Minute Repeater IW5449-07

Over the ensuing years the model has maintain a slow progressive stylistic evolution. Again with this watch our preference is to defer to the most subtle and classic interpretations. However one model that is an absolute marvel to behold is the fully skeletonized version of this watch. In this version you have the pleasure to witness the strike train from the front of the watch in full glorious action.

Regardless of which model you choose the IWC minute repeater is one of the most storied and historically significant complicated watches of all time.

Portuguese Minute Repeater Squelette
Portuguese Minute Repeater Squelette