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Striking Timepieces: A Sound Way to Know the Time in the Dark. Discover now an exclusive story signed by our international journalist, Victoria Townsend for Lifetime Magazine.

Long ago, in the dark ages ; ) there was no luminescent material on our clocks and watches to read the time in the dark.  While different substances had been tried, it was not until radium was discovered in 1898 by Marie and Pierre Curie, with its property to glow in the dark, that painted hands and indexes really glowed at night.  Sadly, it was deadly, deemed dangerous in 1925, and finally banned in the 1970s on all watch and clock dials. Tritium paint followed, less dangerous than radium, but … you can still see “T SWISS T” on dials to let you know it’s there. With Super-LumiNova discovered in the 1990s and its luminescent paint of non-radioactive substance that lasts for hours after absorbing sufficient UV light, time reading became Super-Easy and Super-Safe, day and night.

But how did we manage before all that?  With sound!

While acoustic clocks (without dials or hands) started to take shape in the 14th century in Europe to organize village life, it was not until the late 16tj century that pocket watches were equipped with a mechanism that emitted a muffled sound on the hour.  By the late 17th century mechanisms struck the time on demand, activated via a push piece on the top or a slide on the case band, first as quarter repeaters – every 15 minutes, followed eventually by five minute and minute repeaters.

Refined by Abraham-Louis Breguet towards the end of the 18th century, the earlier chunky bells were replaced with thin metal around the interior walls of the case, acting like a sort of gong for a more pleasant sound.  Today, different pitches and tones distinguish the hours, quarter hours, and minutes, with the timepieces divided into three categories: the Grande Sonnerie that automatically strikes the full hours and quarter hours, the Petite Sonnerie that strikes the hour on the hour, then every quarter hour without the hour, and the Repeater, that strikes only on demand when you activate the slider or push-piece on the side of the case, usually with a half-quarter and quarter repeater, a 5-minute repeater and a minute repeater.  Grande Sonnerie pieces are sometimes also fitted with a repeater mechanism so you can hear the time on demand, and many Grande and Petite Sonneries are now also equipped with a slide to allow you to silence the automatic mechanism, e.g. during meetings or while sleeping.

With more than 500, 600 and even 700 components, these mechanisms are among the most difficult complications to make; the magic was to reduce them to fit inside a wristwatch case.  Here are three “striking” examples.

Patek Phillippe has a long history of striking watches, since its first recorder repeater pocket watch in 1839.  More than 180 years and many striking models later, the Ref. 6301P Grande Sonnerie introduced in 2020 is the manufacture’s first wristwatch that presents the grande sonnerie complemented with a petite sonnerie and a minute repeater!

With three classic gongs of low, medium and high;  low marking the hours.  With two mainspring barrels, one for the going train and one for the chiming mechanism, the new caliber ensures a power reserve of 72 hours for the movement and 24 hours for the strikework. Its jumping seconds system is one of three patents awarded to this exceptional timepiece in a 44.8 mm Platinum 950 case.

Also introduced in 2020, in white gold, the Zeitwerk Minute Repeater from A.Lange & Söhne  chimes each completed hour, ten minutes, and minute, on demand. You can hear them on this video, and be further mesmerized by the jumping minute.  And just look at those hammers!

In a 44.2 mm case, with a deep blue dial crafted in solid silver, this model, powered by the manual-wound Calibre L043.5, holds six patents.

And last but not least, better known for its Italian Navy and dive watch history, Panerai is no less a manufacture that also makes its own movements, in Neuchâtel, Switzerland.  Among its Haute Horlogerie pieces is this PAM00600 Radio Minute Repeater Tourbillon GMT 49mm in a polished Goldtech® case.  The P.2005/MR calibre is mechanical, hand wound, and with 2 barrels has a power reserve of 4 days – an extraordinary performance considering all the functions.

Released in 2017, and you can still order it; count on a wait of 6 to 7 months.

Of course, we don’t really NEED any of these.  We can simply click on our phones to see the time, day AND night.  But where’s the fun in that? ; )

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