Big Ben issued its final bong in Westminster, London on Monday (21 August) before a GBP29-million renovation project of Elizabeth Tower begins, which is expected to take four years to complete. Residents, City workers and tourists alike will no doubt miss the familiar strikes of the number of hours and quarters. Of course we have mobile phones and watches but much like the sound of the Noon Gun in Cape Town, it is a reassuring timekeeper in our day.
This got me thinking about the repeater, which is among the most complex of all horological complications. Although Londoners are in an absolute tizz over the silencing of Big Ben, the more handy repeater came about at a time before electrical lighting around cities and in homes, chiming out quarters and hours on demand in the dark. The most complex of these is the minute repeater, which announces the time down to the minute through individual tones for hours, quarter-hours and minutes. These rare masterpieces are most often produced in limited numbers and you’re guaranteed to be charmed if you’re lucky to witness the intricate feat of engineering in action. Due to their complex nature, each repeater will also have a unique personality, as once assembled their gongs are set and individually tuned.
There are two stand out examples I’ve seen so far this year. The first is from Patek Philippe who are celebrated masters of complex movements. In celebration of the opening of The Art of Watches Grand Exhibition in New York in July, the manufacture has not only combined two complications in one watch but merged them in the innovative Reference 5531R World Time Minute Repeater. Unlike other World Time minute repeaters that signal home time of say Cape Town even when their owners are in New York, the Ref. 5531 always strikes local time in the time zone represented by the city aligned with 12 o'clock. To accomplish this, Patek created the 462-part self-winding caliber R 27 HU movement. Paying tribute to New York City, the dial features the Manhattan skyline by day or by night in an edition of five each at a mere R7,5m.