There’s a hierarchy to complications. Probably the simplest is the simple calendar. You put the numbers one through 31 on a disk, stick it under the dial, add a couple of gears to move it one increment forward per day, and you’re in business. As parts counts start to climb (along with prices) mechanisms require more and more hands-on attention from a watchmaker. At the top of the heap are minute repeaters and other chiming complications, which unlike the perpetual calendar and the rattrapante, have resisted industrialization. For all that, it’s hard to think of Patek Philippe nowadays without thinking of a certain blue-dialed Instagram cliché, what put Patek on the map historically, and has kept it there, was its mastery of the full repertoire of high end and complicated watchmaking. That means not only a grasp of all the decorative watchmaking techniques but also deep institutional knowledge of how to approach complicated watchmaking.
The “Rare Handcrafts” 2021 exhibition is running from the 16th to the 26th of June in Geneva. Under normal circumstances, we’d be on site to cover it in person, but we’re not quite there yet in terms of travel. We can tell you, however, that Patek has taken the opportunity to launch a number of new watches at the event, including a new version of the Sky-Moon Tourbillon, and it’s also launched three new minute repeaters. Each in its own way foregrounds different elements of complicated watchmaking, and at the heart of each is the minute repeater – a chiming complication which, maybe more than any other, is most strongly associated with Patek Philippe.
The Ref. 5304/301R-001 Minute Repeater, With Retrograde Perpetual Calendar
This is the latest version of a watch which has been with us in one form or another since 2014, when it launched in red gold. The new version is identical to the launch version, but with 80 baguette-cut diamonds decorating the bezel. The original 5304 was discontinued in 2019. At 43mm in diameter, with diamonds glittering around the already very detailed dial, this is not the sort of quietly refined complication that you might have associated with Patek from past decades. It’s very much a modern watch, albeit filtered through Patek’s tendency in recent years to steer a more decorative course in terms of case design. But if you’re fascinated by mechanics, you can’t do better. The back of the watch gives you a good view of the action of the minute repeater (the hammers and gongs are in their usual place, along with the centrifugal regulator, which controls the tempo of the chimes) but the view on the dial side is of something you generally don’t get to see. The components under the dial are for the perpetual calendar, which while not as dynamic in action as a repeater (if you really want to see the whole thing from overture to finale you have to wait for midnight on a Leap Year) they have their own charm. The heart of a traditional perpetual calendar is the program disk, whose steps encode the length of each month, and which is visible to the right in the above image, along with the cam for the Leap Year. There’s a retrograde indication for the date, and given how much is going on visually, Patek’s managed to make the dial surprisingly legible. Any skeletonized or open dial watch, especially a complicated one, involves tradeoffs between legibility and visual entertainment value, but I’ve always thought that on the whole Patek did a pretty good job balancing the two in the 5304.
The Ref. 5374G-001 Minute Repeater Perpetual Calendar, With Blue Enamel Dial
You can go a couple of different ways with complicated watches. On one hand, you can go for the full Monty maximalist visual experience you get with the 5304. The traditionalist’s approach, however, is to eschew watches that wear their mechanical hearts on their sleeves and go for timepieces (hey, they’re fancy watches, let’s use fancy watch words) in which the complexity is a mostly private pleasure. There is probably something in this decision for a Freudian to unpack, but that’s a story for another day. The 5374G-001 Minute Repeater is definitely in the low-key camp. When this watch launched in 2016, it was in a platinum case with a black enamel dial. The new version is in white gold, with a blue enamel dial. I’m a big fan of platinum minute repeaters because generally speaking, it’s a very tough material to use in chiming complications. Its density and crystal structure mean that it’s an uphill battle to get a good sound out of it (some of the worst-sounding repeaters I’ve heard in 30 years have had platinum cases, but some of the best have also been in platinum. Maybe hard-won victories are the sweetest). In white gold, with a blue enamel dial, this is classic Genevan watchmaking, emphasis on classic – discrete, quietly beautiful, and a watch you wouldn’t look at twice unless you knew what you were looking at already.
The Ref. 7040/250G-001 Rare Handcrafts Minute Repeater
Some take a more-the-merrier perspective on complications, and on that view, more is … well, more. From this POV, parts count is a good in and of itself, and complexity is pursued more or less for its own sake. I can sympathize with this take – I feel it myself sometimes, especially as a watch writer. Who wouldn’t want to go deep on a Patek Caliber 89 or Star Caliber 2000?
But when it comes right down to it, I mostly like seeing one thing done extremely well. Maybe it’s some sort of horological ADHD, but I find the clarity of expression you get in a watch that’s a rattrapante (for instance) and nothing else, is more bracing and refreshing than a horological layer cake. I admire the latter; I’m in love with the former. The new ref. 7040/250G-001 uses the same movement as one of the best-kept secrets in high-end watchmaking – the “Ladies First” minute repeater, which debuted in red gold in 2011. Several years ago, we had a chance to hear all the current production Patek Philippe repeaters at one time, in 2013 – Ben Clymer was on the story – and the ref. 7002R Ladies First repeater was, far and away, the leader of the pack in terms of clarity and purity of tone. That watch was discontinued in 2017, and it’s back now in a version with a diamond-set bezel and a flinqué enamel dial. Flinqué is an enameling technique in which translucent enamel covers a guilloché, or, engine-turned dial. Guilloché is a little more often found now than perhaps ten or fifteen years ago – Breguet is famous for its guillochê dials, for instance. It’s an interesting craft technique in that it requires both a very specific machine tool and a fair amount of manual skill in running it. The machines that do guilloché are called rose engines and they were not made at all for many decades; to this day a number of the machines in use for high-end horology are antiques, with decades of use, and very careful maintenance, under their belts.
Sound quality is the acid test for any repeater. In rose gold, the ref. 7000R Ladies First repeater from 2011 was one of the top five, maybe top three, repeaters I’ve ever heard; I’m almost afraid to listen to this one (assuming I get the chance, which nowadays is far from a given) because rose gold is the classic case metal for repeaters. You can wring good sound out of a lot of other metals, including titanium and platinum, but for well-balanced richness in tone, volume, and general seductiveness, rose gold is very hard to beat. But it’s nice to see this movement, and the model, come back in any way at all. It’s not the most obviously drop-dead technical piece from Patek at Rare Handcrafts Geneva, but of all the watches they’ve announced, it’s awfully close to being the one I’d most like to have (in a world where a rich uncle dies and bequeaths his millions) in my collection.
The ref. 5304/301R-001 Minute Repeater with a retrograde perpetual calendar: rose gold case, with 80 baguette cut diamonds on the bezel. Movement, caliber R 27 PS QR LU. 43mm diameter.
The ref. 5374G-001 Minute Repeater with a perpetual calendar: white gold case, blue grand feu enamel dial. Perpetual calendar with minute repeater. Movement, caliber R 27 Q. Champlevé enamel moonphase aperture.
The ref. 7040/250G-001 Rare Handcrafts Minute Repeater for ladies: white gold case, with 168 diamonds set in the bezel. Movement, caliber R 27 S, minute repeater, with microrotor automatic winding.