Despite the hyperbole that sometimes accompanies news from the watch world, the truth is this: the hairspring and balance got together in 1660, Mudge made his first lever-escapement watch in 1755, and, with respect to repeaters, Barlow and Quare (both Englishmen) applied for patents for repeating watches in the late 17th century. Breguet developed the cathedral gongs still used in modern repeaters over two centuries ago, and the modern minute repeater — with its lever escapement, cathedral gongs and rack-and-snail striking mechanism — is, for the most part, unchanged since the early 19th century.
Improvements in watchmaking are largely incremental, not revolutionary, and for something as complex as a repeater, there’s a tremendous amount of incentive to stick to tried-and-true techniques and designs. After all, chiming watches — especially full minute repeaters and sonneries — are notoriously tricky to work on, demanding a level of patience, maturity and experience that makes them both the most charming of complications and the most intimidating. A conservative approach is both a matter of honoring tradition and staying out of trouble — better safe than sorry.
Which makes the last 10 years of minute-repeater design even more exciting. A serious study of repeaters gives the impression that one ought to be amazed when they work at all, much less when they work well. But there’s a new wave of repeaters that take the tried-and-true — if complex and temperamental — design of the minute repeater and tweak it with updates designed to give a new voice to watchmaking’s most venerable diva.
One of the most important aspects of minute-repeater design has to do with how sound is transmitted from the vibrating gongs through the rest of the watch — the case, dial, movement and caseback all affect the quality and quantity of sound. In a conventional minute repeater, the gongs are attached to a metal foot that’s part of the movement plate. That means that when the watch is on the wrist, sound has to travel through the movement plate, dial and crystal, as well as laterally through the flanks of the case.