Repeater watches strike the hour on demand by pressing a pushpiece or sliding a bolt. The most sophisticated is the "minute repeater" which sounds the hours, quarter-hours and minutes. This fascinating function is one of the most challenging complications to make, and one of the most exclusive.
Repeater watches are a derivative of striking watches. Late seventeenth-century watchmakers, among them Daniel Quare, developed a quarter-repeater mechanism that struck the hours and quarter-hours on demand... extremely practical for telling the time in the dark. Pocket repeaters of this era used hammers to strike a small bell.
The minute-repeater is attributed to another English watchmaker, Thomas Mudge, circa 1750. Closer to the end of the eighteenth century, Abraham-Louis Breguet was inspired to replace bells with gongs, which are tempered steel wires coiled inside the case. Miniaturized to fit inside a wristwatch case in the twentieth century, the minute-repeater stands out as one of watchmaking's finest achievements. The watch needs a "mechanical memory" so that it always knows the exact number of notes to strike. This is achieved by a complex system of "feelers" which read information from the hour, quarter and minute snails and transfer this information to pallets that lift the hammers.
Watchmakers must also demonstrate a trained musical ear to tune the gongs as one would tune an instrument. Most minute-repeaters are fitted with two gongs, one of which strikes a bass note for the hours and the other a treble note for the minutes. Quarter-hours are sounded by a treble and a bass note. The striking mechanism is operated by pressing a pushpiece flush with the case or sliding a bolt.
A jewel in the crown of Fine Watchmaking, the minute-repeater is the preserve of a handful of Manufactures and craftsmen. Today it is again the object of attention as watchmakers imagine ever-smaller, more perfect mechanisms with innovative proposals for striking the gongs, carrying the vibrations, winding the striking mechanism, or the quality of the sound. A bright future for this most challenging and poetic of complications.