The History of the Repeater Wristwatch

The delights of the repeater wristwatch may never have seen the light of day if history had followed a course of logic, rather than followed the fascination of a mechanical marvel that is the repeating watch movement. The repeating watch was invented to fulfill a need at the time.

The need to be able to tell the time in the middle of the night when all around was darkness. However, at the end of the 1800s, when the new invention of "electricity" was soon to creep into the lives of everyday folk, the need for such an elaborate timepiece was reduced significantly.

It was really only because of mans' fascination and increasing awareness of mechanics, and especially the study of horology, that the repeating watch continued to be perfected throughout the early part of the 19th Century. Famous names associated with the creation are Breguet, Thomas Thompion and Daniel Quare. Breguet was to have an impact later on with improvements to the repeating mechanism that made it a precise instrument, while Quare and Thompion are attributed with the first invention of a repeater around 1685.

Thompion and Quare were head-to-head in a battle to prove that each had created the repeater movement first and it was only when King James II made the final decision that the matter was finalized. It was judged that Quare had the more practical solution and so his patent was accepted in 1687. Quare's first repeater was the quarter hour mechanism which he continued to improve as best he could throughout his lifetime but it would be others who improved the repeater significantly .

The repeater movement was improved by reducing the overall size of the mechanism and also reducing the intervals that the watch was capable of striking. 1695 saw Quare's original quarter hour movement reduced to 7-1/2 minutes. 1710 saw the introduction of a 5-minute repeater by Samuel Watson and some forty years later in England, Thomas Mudge created a minute repeater.

Repeater Watch MovementMudge's minute repeater was considered an incredible achievement, and it was, but it and all other repeaters still suffered from a major setback - mis-striking. It was not uncommon for a watch to miss-strike, resulting in confusion over what time it actually was. Enter Abraham Breguet.

Breguet invented something termed an "all-or-nothing" mechanism which stopped any mis-striking of the repeater movement. The device worked by preventing the repeater from initiating a full strike cycle unless the lever is pressed completely down. This was a significant invention as it made repeaters considerably more accurate and eliminated any incorrect strikes being given.

The invention of the all-or-nothing piece gave added impetus for great watch makers to continue to build smaller and smaller watches, until eventually a watch was made that could be worn on the wrist - the repeater wristwatch.

The repeater wristwatch was first made around 1892 but never really became that popular. The cost was well beyond most ordinary folk and so repeaters were often left unsold for many years. Many watch makers forgot all about the repeater wristwatch unless they received a specific order for one, in which case they were paid before the watch was delivered. Only quality manufacturers took on the task of building such watches and many bare the names of great watch makers like Piguet, Patek Philippe and Vacheron & Constantin.

Around the early 1930s the Driva Repeater was manufactured on a scale not before seen in repeater wristwatch production. Even this attempt failed however, with only 1500 rolling off the production line before production ceased. It appeared that even when a manufacturer made the repeater wristwatch affordable, nobody wanted it. Oh, with the benefit of hindsight!

Today the collector can pick up one of the most popular of all repeater wristwatches, the 5-minute repeating watch by Kelek. I have seen good examples available for around $5000 to $8000, a remarkable price given that these are still highly complex mechanisms. The movement is from Dubois Depraz.

Today there is an abundance of repeater wristwatches available from the likes of Patek, Piguet and Blancpain to name a few. Maybe these aren't the most affordable of brands but there are also Seiko watches for only a few hundred dollars.

Angelus made the Tinkler, which was a quarter repeating watch but again it failed to make a real impression with buyers.

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