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Editorial - Watch Myths: Chime Time

Editorial Watch Myths: Chime Time

What’s that sound? Oh, it’s theory, clashing with empirical data.

Stop me if you’ve already heard this joke before — a white-gold minute repeater, a rose-gold minute repeater, and a platinum minute repeater walk into a bar. The white-gold minute repeater orders a gin and tonic, the rose-gold minute repeater orders a glass of champagne and the platinum minute repeater orders a Negroni, because he thinks he’s better than everyone else.* Question: Which one gets served first?

Answer: None of them gets served at all, because they can’t make themselves heard above the noise of the bar. There’s an actual basis to this otherwise pointless (and frankly abysmal) joke. Any time you start talking about minute repeaters, there will come a moment when the sound performance becomes the central point of debate. This is a completely legitimate subject of discussion. After all, the entire raison d’être of a minute repeater turns on its voice.

That said, the punchline of the joke is immediately clear to anyone who’s ever heard a minute repeater in real life, under real-life conditions — that is to say, not in a completely silent and soundproofed room with the watch draped across a resonator. The truth is, a minute repeater is a rather quiet thing. This is, as they say in software development, not a bug but a feature. The low volume of a minute repeater’s chime is not a flaw, because it highlights the intimate nature of this complication. It is meant to be soft, it is not meant for the whole room to hear, the coded information it delivers via hammer-and-gong staccato is for the owner only.

There are some minute repeaters that have been built in order to maximise chime volume, but very often there’s a trade-off in terms of volume and euphony. Which leads us to the next issue — chime quality. One thing that you hear a lot is that certain metals are preferred for minute repeater construction, because they impart a better tone. Minute repeaters in rose gold give the best-sounding chime, so they say, while platinum minute repeaters tend to sound sharp and cold in comparison. Yellow gold can sound as good as rose gold, though less powerful, white gold is unpredictable, and then you have the non-noble metals such as titanium, which is supposed to boost chime volume. Those are more or less the commonly accepted ideas about minute repeater materials.

And to be fair, these ideas are in fact rooted in the material science and the study of acoustics. Makers of musical instruments generally recognise if you’re looking for a material suitable for acoustic transmission, you want essentially three things. You want a high elasticity modulus, meaning the material is very stiff. You want something with low density, meaning it’s light. And you want low damping, which means that the material retains, rather than dissipates, the vibrational energy imparted to it. If you put all these values for all the common minute repeater materials into a table for side-by-side comparison, you’ll see that the results correlate with the conventional perception of what materials sound better than others.

(Yes, I created such a table. No, I’m not publishing it here. Either trust my research, or do your own homework. I’ll give you one tip though; the properties of gold differ vastly according to the type of alloy and level of purity. Don’t input the values of pure gold, your table won’t make any sense.)

So, now that we have this fundamental and science-based understanding of the acoustic properties of different minute repeater materials, where do we go from here? I’ll tell you: nowhere. You can’t really do all that much with this information. Yes, the material can make a big difference in the volume and tonal quality of the chime. But so can a whole bunch of other things. The construction of the movement makes a difference, the positioning of the hammer and the gongs makes a difference, the mechanical interference caused by the other movement components makes a difference, the acoustic interference caused by the sound of the other movement components makes a difference, the fit of the movement within the case makes a difference, thousands of tiny little variables can make a difference.

In other words, trying to predict the chime quality of a minute repeater based only on the case material is like trying to predict the lifespan of a human being based only on his or her diet. There is some solid science behind it, but there are just too many factors involved. There’s no real point. And given that experiencing a minute repeater is, ipso facto, a personal and subjective encounter, what use do we have for value judgements; what use are words such as “better” or “worse”?

Some people like the sound of platinum minute repeaters. Others like titanium ones, or carbon-fibre ones, or yellow-gold ones (me). There isn’t one that’s better or worse than the others. Let’s all go have a drink at the bar. Negronis, anyone?

Next week: Dive watches.

* Kidding, obviously. I love Negronis.