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Roberta Naas on Chiming Time

This story originally appeared in the March/April 2017 issue of Elite Traveler.

Greubel Forsey Grande Sonnerie, $1.15m

The big trend to emerge from the exclusive Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie, Geneva’s annual watch exhibition, is chiming watches. Featuring several hundred moving parts, these timepieces are true works of art.

Recently, we attended the 27th annual Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie (SIHH) in Geneva. An invitation-only event (although this year, for the first time, the show opened to the public on the final day), SIHH takes place every January, marking the official start of the new watch exhibition season and showcasing timepieces that have been years, sometimes decades, in the making. These are the watches that will not only set wrist trends around the world for 2017 but also, often, serve as benchmarks of perfection for the entire industry.

Some of the benchmarks unveiled this year are chiming watches – timepieces that strike the time either automatically or on demand in melodious beauty. Typically, chiming watches create sound using two hammers and two gongs, but more complicated versions may use multiple hammers and gongs to create sounds akin to church bells.

Speake-Marin Crazy Skulls, $400,000,

These rare and difficult feats of watchmaking range from minute repeaters (which strike the hours, quarter hours and minutes past the quarters on demand) to decimal repeaters (which strike hours and 10-minute increments past the hour) and sonneries that chime the time automatically, as well as on demand, and also have a silent mode. There are even grand sonneries that offer multiple types of striking within one watch.

This year, Vacheron Constantin and Greubel Forsey unveiled grande sonnerie wristwatches – each for the first time ever. Underscoring the challenges inherent in building a grande wristwatch is the fact that both of these watches spent at least a decade in the research, design and development stages, and each houses hundreds of tiny components within its case.

Vacheron Constantin, the oldest continually operating watch brand, unveiled its first-ever wristwatch grande sonnerie: Les Cabinotiers Symphonia Grande Sonnerie 1860. Bearing the coveted Hallmark of Geneva certification attesting to its outstanding craftsmanship, this horological masterpiece features an all-new 727-part movement (1860) that was assembled and built by a single watchmaker over the course of 500 hours. The 45mm white gold case with classical and elegant dial almost belies the fact that it is one of the most complex calibers ever made. On the side of the case is a tiny button to select the chiming functions: grande sonnerie, petite sonnerie (small strike wherein only the hours are sounded) and silent mode. The watch can also be made to chime on demand (like a minute repeater) via a button on the crown.

Vacheron Constantin Les Cabinotiers Symphonia Grande Sonnerie 1860, $1m,

Greubel Forsey also unveiled its first-ever grande sonnerie wristwatch. This boasts a grande sonnerie, a petite sonnerie, silent mode and minute repeater function. The Greubel Forsey Grande Sonnerie also incorporates a 24-second inclined tourbillon. More than 11 years in the making, the complex caliber – consisting of more than 900 pieces and housed in a 43.5mm titanium case – has two patents pending. There are safety features built into it to prevent damage to the chiming mechanisms. The hammers and gongs can be viewed on the dial side of the multilevel gold dial. Between only five and eight of these masterpieces will be built annually.

Making a different statement on the chiming-watch market this year, Peter Speake-Marin unveiled an unusual wristwatch, Crazy Skulls, with a minute-repeater carillon. In a carillon, there are three gongs instead of two, enabling dual-tone sounds for the chiming of the quarter hours and minutes. Crazy Skulls also incorporates a hidden tourbillon, revealed via animation of the dial. Two skulls face each other at 6 o’clock; when the
minute-repeater carillon is activated, the skulls move apart, revealing the 60-second tourbillon beneath and between them. At the same time, the numerals at 12 o’clock seem to fall apart until the chiming is complete and the skulls reunite, rejoining the numerals as well. Crazy Skulls is offered in two versions, with gray or black skulls.

Roberta Naas is an American journalist who has covered timepieces for more than 30 years. She is the founder of ATimelyPerspective.com, author of six books on the subject and a contributing writer for many publications.