The Watch Also Chimes

The elusive chiming watch has long been the ne plus ultra for collectors, and this year it’s back in the spotlight.

The chiming watch is a vestige of the days before electricity. Awaking in the middle of the night wanting to know the time, you might push a button on the watch by your bed, setting in motion gears, levers, and cams that would end with a series of delicate sounds. Even now, in an age in which we all have charging iPhones on our nightstands, a handful of watchmakers, like Stephen Forsey, continue to make sonneries, which chime automatically, and minute repeaters, which do so on demand, for the handful of collectors who can afford them.

Forsey is the watchmaker of your childhood imagination. At least he looks the part: hair permanently tousled, trousers slung with suspenders, and a loupe comically squeezed between his eyebrow and cheek. The workbench is where the English émigré to Switzerland looks like he really belongs, but as cofounder of one of world’s most exclusive independent watch companies, he often travels the world, entertaining clients and liaising with journalists. Every watch Forsey and his partner, Robert Greubel, sell through their eponymous marque, Greubel Forsey, is worth more than $100,000. That price tag is even more impressive because the vast majority of them do not bear a single precious stone.

On his most recent visit to Surface’s New York City headquarters in early December, Forsey clutched a case containing fewer than half a dozen of his latest inventions, which together totaled more than $1 million. This will surprise no one who is aware of Forsey, regarded by the horological cognoscenti as maybe the greatest engineering mind in contemporary watchmaking. Forsey and Greubel are the modern masters of the tourbillon, an early-19th-century invention that mitigates the effects of gravity on a mechanical watch’s accuracy. The tourbillon is an incredibly complex mechanism, and the duo have advanced numerous variations of it, specializing in those of the multiaxis variety. But still, he had not made a sonnerie, watchmaking’s most elusive “complication,” a fancy term for an extra watch feature.

While he sat in our lair, I asked my questions. A handful of watch-geek colleagues who’d heard Forsey was coming in stopped by pay their respects. And then, in an almost throwaway aside, Forsey dropped a bomb that didn’t fully detonate.

“Be sure to see us at SIHH,” he said, referring to one of Switzerland’s two major watchmaking trade shows. “We’ll have something really special; we’ve been working on it for more than a decade.” Such a tease.

The sonnerie—which Forsey was alluding to—and the minute repeater are watchmaking’s holy grails. Such watches require painstaking hand assembly and comprise hundreds of components, which is the reason for the prohibitive pricing.

When I next saw Forsey, in January, he was indeed wearing his own chiming watch. An employee of the brand told me that Greubel had been wearing a prototype of his company’s new Grande Sonnerie surreptitiously in the field for three years. (He once told an inquisitive passenger on a commercial flight that the tones emanating from his wrist came not from a secret watch project, but from an iPhone.) Greubel and Forsey needed to be absolutely certain of the 935-part timepiece’s functionality and durability before sending their most complex watch into commercial production.

In an era that has seen most of the other horological complications become industrialized at cut-rate costs in Chinese factories, the sonnerie and the minute repeater are the unfakeable real deal, the calling cards of the best Swiss watchmakers. Here are some of the best examples that collectors are clamoring to own.

Turn your sound on to hear the chime. 

Greubel Forsey
Grande Sonnerie

Though wound by hand, this piece features an automatic module for the sonnerie function, which itself has a prodigious 20 hours of power reserve. True to Greubel Forsey form, an inclined tourbillon escapement—itself a highly complex mechanism—regulates the Grande Sonnerie’s timekeeping. The know-how to craft such watches is exceedingly rare, and only two sonneries debuted this year at SIHH. The other was the first such watch from Vacheron Constantin, founded in 1755. It’s rumored that Forsey and Greubel had a hand in developing the Vacheron watch through their consultancy, Complitime.


Octo Finissimo Minute Repeater

The vagaries of fashion aside, watchmakers are always looking to reduce the size of their wares while optimizing their accuracy. A whole genre of timepieces called ultra-plate, French for ultra-thin, has arisen around the pursuit of scaling down watches and their components. Doing this to a highly complicated chiming watch while maintaining the quality of its sound requires a combination of dexterity and creativity. This goes some way toward explaining the paucity of svelte chiming watches on the market. The Octo Finissimo comprises 362 components and measures just 6.85 mm thick, making it the thinnest minute repeater in the world.


Turn your sound on to hear the chime. 

Audemars Piguet
Jules Audemars Supersonnerie

First off, despite its name, this watch isn’t a sonnerie; it’s a minute repeater. Both are very difficult mechanisms to make, and even harder to make sound good. The decisive factor and the paradox of the Supersonnerie is a movement and case construction engineered to enhance the watch’s acoustics when worn on the wrist. Most chiming watches sound fine when they’re “played” on a hard table. Try strapping one on, and you’ll quickly notice a steep reduction in ambient volume; some of the acoustic vibrations are absorbed by skin and hair. The Supersonnerie, however, is constructed to turn a weakness into an advantage through a closely guarded and patented method of construction. It’s louder on the wrist than off.


Patek Philippe
Grandmaster Chime Ref. 6300

Patek Philippe has a reputation for making the most collectible watches in the world, and the rarest, most complicated and expensive Pateks are the so-called “application pieces,” which collectors must formally apply for the opportunity to buy. The Grandmaster Chime, which debuted in 2014 to commemorate the brand’s 175th anniversary, is one of them. As the most complicated wristwatch Patek makes, the Grandmaster Chime is made up of 1,366 components and comes packed with 20 complications. It’s rare to see a watch company pour so much of its R&D into a single product—six patents’ worth.

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