Pure, crystalline, intense, rich...the descriptions abound when describing the sound of the Master Minute Repeater Antoine LeCoultre. This acoustic richness is even more surprising when you learn that the case of the watch is carved from platinum, a material that, although certainly prestigious, has a rather mediocre celerity when compared to gold. (Celerity is the technical term designating the quality and speed of sound propagation in a given material; for example, glass and crystal have very good celerity.) So, how was this exploit, both from a watchmaking and auditory point of view, accomplishedı This is what we will try to discover.
Starting with a clean slate
Janeck Deleskiewicz, in-house designer for nearly two decades, and David Candaux, a young and talented watchmaker-constructor begin to explain the story. But, before we start, it is quite clear that this project is the fruit of a very close collaborative effort between all the sectors in the manufacture.
“Right from the beginning,” says Janek Deleskiewicz, “the idea was to revisit everything, to question all the accepted principles, to start from scratch. The idea of starting with a clean slate led us to more than two-years of research, encompassing the sound itself, the movement, and the design. We wanted to bring something very strong to the table in terms of sound and mechanics, from all points of view. For example, we wanted to reach a working reserve of fifteen days. On a design level, we wanted to use nickel silver for the bottom plate, a metal that has incomparable qualities, but that is very delicate to work with. And finally, we wanted to create interesting and vibrant apertures to show the movement in action. Another goal was to succeed in creating a minute repeater that is water-resistant to 50 metres. Now, conventional wisdom says that a water-resistant watch will not chime because the sound remains a sort of prisoner within its water-resistance. So, we had to rethink everything. We wanted this new watch to be exceptional on all levels.”
A design open to the movement
In a certain manner, this adventure began with the design of the dial, which had to be in perfect harmony with the pure lines of the Master Collection, but which should also offer something spectacular. This decision dictated the architectural organization of the movement since the planned openings needed to be ‘not static’ but rather offer a visual ‘voyage’ into the interior of the mechanical production of the sound. After having considered different solutions, such as jacks (small animated parts striking the bell), a very pure solution was retained, which allowed the creation of three apertures, one at 12 o’clock, on the mobile of the snails (quarter-hour and minutes), the minute rack and the quarter plunger; one at 9 o’clock, on the strike barrel and the regulator; and one at 3 o’clock, for the operation of the minute and hour strike hammers and on the quarter banking. In this way, the ‘machinery’ can be admired… the minute cams that start to move, the hammers
But what, you might ask, is this unusual little part placed at 5 o’clockı It is a small stud in contact with the crystal, and on which two eighth notes and a sixteenth note are inscribed. Herein resides one of the major innovations of the Master Minute Repeater Antoine LeCoultre, as David Candaux explains.
Scientific research on sound
This young man is obviously passionate about the complexity of the subject of sound. And, for the first time, it seems, a watch manufacturer has tried to scientifically understand, not simply by using intuition, the nature itself of these sound waves.
“Four criteria were essential to understand the nature of sound and how to optimize it,” explains David Candaux. “The sone, which is the volume; the accuracy that allows the notes to be harmonized, the richness of the sound, which is measured in partial tones, perceived by the ear; and the duration of the sound’s reverberation. We have thus made an in-depth study of sound, using all the technical data available, and have rationalized our approach, in order to reach our goal of achieving a true artistic richness of the sound.
“We had precise ideas, which were theoretically correct, but which did not work at first. If we had held onto our sole intuition, we would have abandoned certain avenues. But we kept coming back to the theory, to try and see our explorations through to the end. Finally we were rewarded. Perhaps, the stubborn mindset of watchmakers kept pushing us forward,” continues Candaux.
All the facets involved in producing an excellent sound mechanically were revisited. Take the timbre, for example - more than 70 different timbres were tested in a methodical and scientific manner, using not only micro-phonic measurements (subject to the conditions of the medium in which they were made), but also laser measurements. The latter is quite interesting because they can be carried out under any given condition, and they also offer an objective ‘signature’ of the sound.
Another well-studied facet was the hammer. Contrary to what is normally thought, the researchers determined that the solution to obtaining a good strike and the production of a good sound was not in increasing the size of the hammers. Quite the opposite, one of the keys for obtaining good sound was in the delicacy and lightness of the hammers as well as the brief period of the actual strike. The analogy with a piano comes to mind. In a piano, the hammers are positioned under the cords in order to strike them as briefly as possible and then to quickly fall, damping their vibration as little as possible. The hammers were therefore made lighter in the Minute Repeater.
Seven partial tones
Next, it was necessary to find the best possible sustained note, and the greatest richness of the notes struck. As we have seen, this richness does not depend on the volume of sonority, but on the number of partial tones that the note contains. “In the present case, we wanted to determine precisely the exact position where the hammers should strike the timbres, a point closely dependent on the dimensions of the timbres, in order to get the purest sound. We succeeded in obtaining these notes, which contain seven partial tones,” affirms David Candaux, adding quickly that, “this development was also arrived at with the collaboration of a very great musician, the orchestra leader, Georges Prêtre. He worked with us. Listening to the timbres, he found the sound too crystalline and encouraged us to increase the sustainment.”
Another key result of this patient work was related to the ‘celerity’. How can the sound be transmitted correctly in a platinum case, since this metal conveys sound relatively poorlyı Even more difficult, the problem was compounded because the case is water-resistant. The researchers came up with the novel idea of making an element in the case ‘resonate’. In this case, the element with the best celerity is the sapphire crystal. “In theory,” says Candaux, “it is necessary to have the vibration take the shortest route. If we had directed it towards the base, it would be muffled. We therefore looked at the crystal, and made the sound vibrate on it, using a small stud, or a heel, soldered directly to the sapphire (using metal along the edge of the crystal). From the crystal, sound is dispersed onto the case. Thus we were able to get a sone of 55 decibels at a distance of 50 cm.”
A manufacture on the move
From theory to practice, to working model, the whole manufacture was mobilized and individual departments were coordinated. Philippe Vandel, the constructor of the piece, went to work creating a completely original calibre, measuring 43.7 mm in diameter, for the new Minute Repeater. “One of the major challenges,” he explains, with a modesty that is not customary in similar circumstances, “was to obtain a working reserve of fifteen days. We therefore came up with the design of two barrels for the movement and one barrel for the minute repeater. The two barrels of the movement are coupled, which means that one (the first) winds the other (the second) when it is ‘empty’. So that the watch’s wearer is most aware of the operation of his timekeeper, we added a complementary indicator to the classic working reserve indication. This extra piece is a torque meter, which allows the operating zone to be seen with the greatest precision.”
The strike mechanism, an additional plate superimposed onto the movement, was based on a modified Reverso Minute Repeater, and included its own barrel, which is ‘wound’ by the angular displacement of the slide. It is a complex device, which transcribes the hour indicated by the hands into a succession of strikes that count the hours, quarter-hours, and minutes. Without going into technical detail, let’s simply say that, with a view towards obtaining the best sound possible, the centrifugal force, which maintains the constant speed of the strike of the hammers, regulates itself by friction of the jewels on a polished surface of nickel silver, thus avoiding all extraneous noise.
We see the same communal effort in the brand’s case department, where we meet Nicolas Limousin, who speaks at length about the work carried out on the case of the Master Minute Repeater Antoine LeCoultre. “It is a very technical case,” he explains. “Its main particularity, the famous heel which makes the sound resonate to the sapphire crystal from the timbre, forced us to come up with another way of assembling and encasing the watch, not from above, as is normally done today, but from the bottom. But the degree of water-resistance required pushed us to find new solutions. The most sensitive point is the water-resistance of the external and internal spring catches that allow the minute repeater to be armed. Without going into too much detail, we designed a system with a watertight tube, ring bow, and compression gasket. The sapphire crystal and the case-back were fixed by four screws. The precision of this fixation system was crucial because the timbre has to be positioned very accurately in relation to the hammers, in order to get good sound quality.”
A summit of contemporary watchmaking
A timepiece so exceptional from a technical point of view must also have an irreproachable and equally technical level of finishing. Hand-chamfering and polishing of the smallest elements are ‘naturally’ part of the indispensable refinements of the piece, but the most splendid example is the nickel silver bottom plate, sumptuously decorated in a sunray pattern and visible through the transparent case-back. While the nickel silver resists corrosion and does not ‘budge’, it is important to note that engraving it requires extraordinary skill since the metal may easily be scratched, and it is impossible to ‘cover up’ these scratches. This is why this subtly tinted material is so rarely used.
A brilliant demonstration of technical and aesthetic savoir-faire, and the precious fruit of a wonderful collaboration within an entire enterprise, the Master Minute Repeater Antoine LeCoultre is a superb example of what contemporary mechanical watchmaking is able to accomplish, nourished both by science and tradition.
Georges Prêtre and Hugues Gall
” Magnificent, I love watches, and always have. But to hear the sound of this Minute Repeater is a real pleasure. You cannot help but be impressed by the genius of the human mind when you see these incredible creations, and how, starting with an invention, impassioned people can always go beyond their limits.
My passion for music has nourished me for my whole existence, ever since I was a small child. I believe that it is the engine of life, that which makes us all move forward.
By comparison, you have to be ingenious to make this watch, and to come up with the wonderful idea of combining haute horlogerie with the magic of music. This moves me, a lot. Hearing the hours chime is an extraordinary dimension, and the sound of time passing makes us dream.”
Georges Prêtre, Orchestra Leader
”The Swiss watch has been a part of my life for a very long time, and the Vallée de Joux always seemed to me to be an exotic place, where you find yourself far away from this world yet linked to it. It is easy to understand the reasons why haute horlogerie developed in this calm region, where you feel completely elsewhere.
In this absolute peace, the idea of giving time a sound could develop naturally. This idea particularly moves me since the aural approach of time is also the essence of music. Music is the only art form that is conceived in time. It exists only in the passage of time.
In listening to the Master Minute Repeater, all my memories of Geneva and Lausanne came rushing back. I remember an era of not so long ago, when the keepers would sing the hours from the top of the cathedrals. The echo of the music in the night… it is Wagnerian… it is this magnificent moment of the Master Singers… the sound of the horn… the cantilena of the keeper interrupting the clamour and the brawls.
The crystalline sonority of the Minute Repeater evokes, for me, all of these impressions. It is a happy mix of harmonious memories and a reminder of the time that passes.”
Hugues Gall, Director of the Operas in Geneva and Paris.
Source: August -September 2005 Issue
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