These days, mechanical watchmaking is all about the visual. You look at your watch dial to read the time – even possible in low light conditions thanks to the wonders of lume – and most complications display information visually; for example, a flyback chronograph displays elapsed time, or a perpetual calendar displays just about every calendar indication you can imagine.
A few centuries ago, however, before the advent of electricity, it wasn’t that easy to read the time on your clock or pocket watch at night. Enter striking mechanisms, an early feature of pocket watches that sometimes preceded even hands and dials, and which was capable of sounding (striking) the time.
Widely considered to be one of, if not the most complex watch complication, striking watches are outside the remit of all but a few of the world’s most talented watchmakers. Not all striking watches are the same, however. Whilst the majority sound the time in one form or another, there are variations in the functioning of each different style. Broadly speaking, they fall into one of two categories: repeaters and sonneries. Read on to find out what the difference is between these two categories and to discover some great sonnerie watches.
Sonnerie vs. Repeater
The easiest way to understand the difference between a sonnerie and a repeater is to learn about how the different types function.
Grand sonnerie – a watch that strikes the time without any involvement from the wearer; every full hour it strikes the number of hours and every quarter hour it repeats the hour and strikes the quarter(s).
Petite sonnerie – a watch that strikes the hours and quarters without any involvement from the wearer, but unlike the grand sonnerie, it does not repeat the hours at every quarter; every full hour it strikes the hour(s) and every quarter it strikes the quarter(s).
Repeater – a standard repeater is a watch that strikes the hour on demand when a push-piece or a slide (usually on the side of the watch case) is activated by the wearer. There are several variations, including the half-quarter and quarter repeater, the 5-minute repeater and the minute repeater.
So, while sonneries strike the time in passing (i.e., at set points throughout the hour and on the hour), repeaters only chime the time on demand. To make things even more confusing, most modern day grand sonneries are also fitted with a repeater mechanism so you don’t have to wait until a specific point in time to hear the chime. As you can imagine, audible chimes emanating from your wrist every 15 minutes may not always be appropriate (i.e., if you’re sitting in an important meeting or trying to sleep, or both), so both grand and petite sonneries are usually fitted with a slide that allows the wearer to silence the mechanism at will.
Now that we know the difference between a sonnerie and a repeater, let’s take a look at a few notable examples of the former (which often also include the latter!)
Philippe Dufour Grande and Petite Sonnerie Wristwatch
The first watch on our list is arguably the most important; if for no other reason than because it was the first of its kind. That’s right, creating a sonnerie is so complex that despite the concept of striking mechanisms being around since the late 15th century, it wasn’t until 1992 that master independent watchmaker Philippe Dufour first succeeded in putting this complication into a wristwatch. Considered Dufour’s ultimate masterpiece, the original run eventually consisted of a total of four watches (created over several years), each as understated as the next. In 1999, he followed these up with an exceptionally avant-garde version with a sapphire dial that put the entire striking mechanism on full display.
Featuring both a grande and petite sonnerie, there are two slides on either side of the crown (or under the hinged bezel, depending on the version); one allows the wearer to put the watch in grande or petite sonnerie mode, and the other offers the selection of silent or strike mode. Pushing the integrated button in the crown activates the striking mechanism on demand. A true work of art, this model warrants a separate article dedicated just to it to truly do it justice.
A. Lange & Söhne Zeitwerk Striking Time
Over the years, striking watches have taken many forms, but none stand out perhaps as much as the Zeitwerk Striking Time from the German watch manufacturer A. Lange & Söhne. It stands out not so much for its complexity, although it is definitely complicated, but more so for its unusual aesthetic. The Zeitwerk features what is often referred to as a digital time display, even though it is 100% mechanical. A time bridge across the center of the dial displays the hours and minutes complete with instantaneous jumping hour and jumping minute complications.
If you look closely, you will also notice two small hammers on either side of the small seconds sub-dial at six o’clock. These are for the petite sonnerie complication. The hammer on the left chimes the hours in a low tone, while the hammer on the right chimes the quarter hours in a higher tone. This watch is not fitted with a repeater, however, so it is not possible to chime the time on demand.
F.P. Journe Sonnerie Souveraine
Those in the know about independent watchmaking will no doubt already recognize the name and the watch that we are about to discuss next. F.P. Journe is widely considered to be one of the world’s best living watchmakers and his Sonnerie Souveraine is an excellent example of why that is. Six years of development were required to make this timepiece a reality and it takes a single watchmaker over three months to assemble all 582 components.
Yet, it has been designed to be as simple to operate as possible; the button at two o’clock activates the minute repeater, while the button at four o’clock allows the wearer to easily change between grande and petite mode, or silence the watch altogether. It may sound straightforward, but F.P. Journe registered a total of ten patents while creating this masterpiece – incredible!
Credor Spring Drive Sonnerie
Last, but not least is the Credor Spring Drive Sonnerie from the Japanese watch manufacturer Seiko. This watch stands out on our list not simply because it is the only non-European entry, but also because it has a rather unusual striking complication. It’s not quite a grande sonnerie nor is it a petite sonnerie, but it fits somewhere in between. The mechanism offers the three modes: “sonnerie” mode, where the watch chimes the hours every hour on the hour; “original” mode, where the time is announced by a three-strike chime at the passing of every three hours, 12:00, 3:00, 6:00, and 9:00; and “silent” mode, where the chime is disengaged completely.
Changing between the different modes is easy and the current mode is shown on the mode indicator. There is also a manually activated hour repeating function. All in all, it’s unusual to say the least, but thoroughly fascinating at the same time.
Discover more about watches and their technology: