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Review: IWC Portugieser Minute Repeater

It’s not often that an opportunity to peep inside watchmaking’s most revered complication, the minute repeater, comes along. Thanks to IWC and the calibre 98950, we’ve got an opportunity to observe what’s normally hidden inside this incredible device—and what better way to make the most of this chance than by seeing just how much we know about the minute repeater.

The Chime Is Twice As Old As Swiss Watchmaking

Striking the time is a tradition that’s not just old, it’s practically ancient. Swiss watchmaking has been around since the 1500s, thanks to a very religious leader called John Calvin who banned jewellery and forced jewellers into watchmaking—but that’s nothing compared to the chime of the time. Go back as much time again and that’s where the advent of the striking clock is to be found, not just for keeping the community up to speed with the passing hours, but also to call people to prayer. As such, these early clocks were mostly to be found in churches, and many of them didn’t even have dials.

A Repeater Isn’t The Same As A Sonnerie

But those clocks weren’t minute repeaters. A timekeeper that strikes the hours and perhaps quarters as they pass is known as a “sonnerie”. The chimes are booked in advance, if you will. The difference between that and a repeater is the ability to activate the chime on demand. The earliest repeaters were to be found in small clocks, invented by Edward Barlow in 1676 and perfected into the mechanism most commonly used today by Daniel Quare a decade later. Repeaters come in a variety of flavours, from the full minute repeater, striking hours, quarters and minutes, to lesser five-minute repeaters and quarter repeaters. There’s even the decimal repeater that strikes ten-minute intervals instead of the quarters.

They Weren’t For Blind People

It’s commonly believed that minute repeaters, especially in pocket watches, were designed for blind people. The theory is sound, the chiming present and at hand to be understood by someone whose sight is impaired—but not in the way that you’d think. For a long while, it was only the clocks, be they operated by button or pull chord, that struck the passing timing with a ringing chime—repeater pocket watches, on the other hand, had no chime, rather just a dull vibration as the hammers inside struck the case. These repeater pocket watches effectively operated in “silent” mode, and as such were used by courtiers keen to check the time without appearing rude.

The IWC Portugieser Minute Repeater IW544907

The IWC Portugieser Minute Repeater IW544907

They Weren’t For Use In The Dark Either

The other theory commonly cited as the origin purpose of the minute repeater is their practical use in darkness. In England, where much of this early technical progress was made, winters were dark, the evenings especially so, and without electric lights to read a clock by, time-telling was otherwise impossible. Again, this makes good sense—except for the consideration that these clocks and watches were very expensive. Wealthy individuals would rarely sleep without candle or firelight, and besides—man-handling an especially expensive clock in the dark would only lead to disaster. The truth? Chiming clocks were built to be impressively ornate and beautiful-sounding—they were lavish toys, built to be shown off.

It Hasn’t Changed For Over 300 Years

When Quare tweaked Barlow’s mechanism in the late 17th century, little did he know he was establishing the basic principle for how the minute repeater would work for the next three hundred-odd years. Being watchmaking’s most impressive complication, it is of course very complicated, although the principle behind it is quite easily understood. The chime is requested by the draw of a lever, which winds the spring necessary to operate it. A spinning mass called the governor regulates the duration over which the chime is read. Snail cams rotate with the time and act as blocks for racks that pivot into place with the pull of the lever. The position of those snail cams determines the reach of the racks, whose teeth trigger the hammers which strike the gongs. The further the snail cams allow the racks to reach, the more strikes of the gongs there are. If it ain’t broke, why fix it?

It’s Got a Self-Defence Reflex

Okay, so it’s not entirely the same as it was all those centuries ago. The original design had a big old flaw—namely the ability to trigger the mechanism with an incomplete slide of the lever. This meant the racks didn’t travel the full distance before being blocked by the snail cams and thus the time would come up short. Not good if you actually needed to know the time. The solution came in the form of the all-or-nothing device, which actively blocks the minute repeater from sounding if the lever isn’t fully depressed. The man behind that clever little idea was one Abraham-Louis Breguet.

The minute repeater calibre 98950—found in the IWC Portugieser Minute Repeater IW544907—has 402 parts

The minute repeater calibre 98950—found in the IWC Portugieser Minute Repeater IW544907—has 402 parts

Wire Changed Everything

Speaking of Abraham-Louis Breguet, how about this for a clever idea: given how the beautiful sound of a chime was really limited to clocks because of the size of the bells—which in turn rendered the pocket watch equivalents silent—it was only a matter of time before somebody figured out a genius way to combine the two. That genius was of course Breguet, who figured out how to use two wire gongs wrapped around the circumference of the movement to get the best of both worlds.

There Are Twice As Many Parts As A Chronograph

There’s a reason the term for functions like the minute repeater are known as complications. First and foremost, they are indeed very complicated, and to put a very simple metric on what’s meant by complexity, we’re talking number of components. The IWC calibre 69355 automatic chronograph, for example, has 194 components total. That’s quite a lot of parts, for sure, but it’s nothing compared to the calibre 98950 minute repeater, which has over double at 402—and that’s despite it being manually wound!

No Two Repeaters Are Alike

But there’s more to a minute repeater’s complexity than just the number of parts. For most movements, building one is most often a case of finishing the raw components to look nice and then assembling them as one finished piece. Not with a minute repeater. Building one of these puppies is more akin to making a Steinway, and not just because both produce an attractive noise that has to be pitch perfect, but because the mechanism of a minute repeater is so fiddly. Put the raw components together and it won’t work. Each one is carefully shaped by hand until it operates as it should, a process that can take months. Even the gongs themselves are quite literally fine-tuned to produce the optimum sound.

The IWC Portugieser Minute Repeater IW544907 has a diameter of 44.2mm and a height of 14mm

The IWC Portugieser Minute Repeater IW544907 has a diameter of 44.2mm and a height of 14mm

A Minute Repeater Will Cost You

The Portugieser Minute Repeater seen here may, on the surface at least, appear to be a pretty minimal timepiece—but the price is anything but. If you want the satisfaction of being able to read the time without looking, you’re going to be deciding between a Porsche Cayman GT4 or one of these, because at £72,500, it isn’t cheap. Compared to other minute repeaters however, it’s almost a bargain. An Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Minute Repeater is around a quarter million. A Patek Philippe 5539G is twice that again—and you’ll get interviewed before you buy it to make sure you’re going to keep it.

The minute repeater truly is the pinnacle of not just complexity and beauty in watchmaking, but also its history. With almost a millennium between this IWC Portugieser Minute Repeater and the clocks that were first heard and not seen, it is one of the oldest and most ingrained complications, evocative not just in the way it looks, but the sounds it makes. The chime of a church in the English countryside seems almost as old as time itself—and the minute repeater isn’t far behind.

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