Building a minute repeater is tricky business, one that very few watchmakers can manage. The minute repeater is a complication that chimes the time on demand – usually the hours, quarter hours and minutes – by activating a slide or a pusher. This most noble of complications is highly coveted by watch collectors today for its mechanical complexity and poetic function. Minute repeaters have come a long way since its first appearance in the mid-18th century, and the is testimony to that.
Jaeger-LeCoultre is not nicknamed the ‘watchmaker’s watchmaker’ for naught, as the Le Sentier-based maison remains the undisputed master of innovation. To realise the Master Grande Tradition Minute Repeater (and the Master Minute Repeater before it), Jaeger-LeCoultre devised a truly innovative movement that not only improved on sonics but also practicality. This review will focus on the titanium variant of the 2011-debuted Master Grande Tradition Minute Repeater (Ref. Q501T450), limited to 100 pieces, and what makes it so interesting.
The case, dial, hands
The Master Grande Tradition Minute Repeater comes in an oversized case, measuring 44 mm in diameter and 15.6 mm in thickness. The case is well-finished – the flanks of the case and lugs are brushed while the bezel and the top of the lugs are mirror-polished. The contrasting finishes, as well as the polished bevels on the edges of the lugs give the case plenty of character.
The watch uses an openworked dial architecture to good effect. The dial and the movement are almost indistinguishable from one another, as large swathes of the dial consist of the Calibre 947. On the bottom left and right side of the dial are the power reserve and torque indicators, respectively. The watch boasts a whopping 15-day power reserve, a boon for collectors who routinely rotate watches from a large collection. The torque indicator is an interesting inclusion in any watch, let alone a minute repeater. This uncommon complication simply tells the user how much torque the mainspring barrels are producing; should the torque fall too low towards the end of the watch’s immense power reserve, the watch simply requires a top up of power to resume optimal timekeeping.
The two-tone colour scheme of the watch front, with the skeletonised 18K rose gold hands and dart indices against the ruthenium-coated openworked dial, is well-executed – it is not only aesthetically pleasing, but also serves to improve legibility.
Inside this larger-than-life chiming watch sits its engine, the manually wound, in-house manufactured Calibre 947. The 413-part, 43-jewelled Calibre 947 features twin mainspring barrels and a free sprung balance that beats at a traditional 21,600 semi-oscillations per hour. There isn’t much of the Calibre 947 to see from the back as the movement is very ‘front-loaded’. However, this is not to say the back isn’t deserving of admiration as it is beautifully finished and decorated.
With Jaeger-LeCoultre, there are multiple levels of movement finishing; this enables the manufacturer to reach out to clients who want more features in their timepiece without having to pay for the premium of haute horlogerie finishing. This is in contrast to manufacturers like Patek Philippe and A. Lange & Sohne where there is only one standard of finishing. No compromises were made in the Master Grande Tradition Minute Repeater however, as the highest level of finishing offered by Jaeger-LeCoultre can be found on the Calibre 947. The large three-quarter plate and bridges at the case back are ruthenium-coated maillechort. Instead of the more typical Côtes de Genève, the plate and bridges are decorated with Côtes de Soleil emanating from the balance wheel. The edges of every plate and bridge are expertly bevelled and polished while the heat-blued screws add a dash of colour to an otherwise grey expanse.
On the dial-side, the key parts of the striking mechanism – the repeater spring barrel (the minute repeater function does not feed off of the mainspring barrels), the governor, the hammers, and the gongs, among others – can be seen very clearly. Note that the repeater spring barrel is skeletonised with three ‘JL’ logos on it – a nice touch. As one would expect, the finishing in front is equally good, with grained surfaces, and polished bevels and screw heads.
The crystal gong
To seal, or not to seal? That is the question. Water resistance in a minute repeater is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it protects ones expensively built minute repeater from water damage. On the other, the watch has to be sealed, and this hinders the escape of sound. A quick scan through the catalogue of the leading makers of minute repeaters, Patek Philippe, will reveal that none of its minute repeater watches are water resistant, giving us an inkling of how detrimental sealing a minute repeater watch might be to sound quality.
The Master Grande Tradition Minute Repeater is water resistant up to 50 metres (not just a token 30 metres); this would normally have sounded the death knell of lesser minute repeater watches. However, being the master innovator that it is, Jaeger-LeCoultre came up with an ingenious solution to overcome this issue: the crystal gong (Note: not to be mistaken for the crystal gong in the Chopard LUC Full Strike Minute Repeater where the actual gongs are made of sapphire crystal).
With the proprietary crystal gong innovation, the front sapphire crystal is used as a resonance device to magnify the intensity of sound produced by the striking of the gongs. To achieve this, the gong heel is placed against the front sapphire crystal where the plaque with musical notes is; the crystal resonates when the gongs are struck thus amplifying the sounds produced. Using the front crystal also reduces the muffle caused by having the watch on your wrist. With this seemingly ‘simple’ solution, one of the loudest, clearest and most water resistant minute repeater wristwatches was born.
On the wrist
With the case measurements of the Master Grande Tradition Minute Repeater, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it is cumbersome and overbearing on the wrist. But thanks to the judicious use of titanium as the case material, the watch wears much lighter than it looks. In fact, it is one of the most comfortable watches I’ve ever worn on my wrist. I usually prefer watches with a bit of heft like the A. Lange & Sohne Zeitwerk Striking Time in white gold as it gives the impression of ‘quality luxury’. While the Master Grande Tradition Minute Repeater cannot match the Zeitwerk Striking Time in heft, it still is heavier than most titanium watches, partly due to its 413-part movement.
Titanium also happens to be a desirable case material for a minute repeater. It being less dense compared to gold or platinum aids in the transmission of sound and thus improves the volume and clarity of the chimes, albeit at the slight expense of sound richness. Of course, while case material does contribute to the character of the sound, it is but one of many factors including hammer and gong manufacture, hammer strike adjustment and gong tuning, among others. The use of a large case in the Master Grande Tradition Minute Repeater contributes to overall sound quality too as it affords the chimes more interior case space to resonate.
The whole experience of actuating the repeater slide and then listening to the chimes is very rewarding. I like the use of the more traditional slide on the watch; however, it is worth mentioning that the slide action is very long and firm – it takes quite a bit of effort and after consecutive uses, one will likely end up with a sore finger. The latest iteration of the Master Grande Tradition Minute Repeater, released in 2015, utilises a pusher (well-disguised as a slide) system rather than a slide. I recall once (embarrassingly) trying to slide the ‘slide’ for a good 10 seconds in a boutique, forgetting that the watch uses a pusher system… the salesperson wasn’t amused, but I digress. While the pusher system is safer (no risk of half-activating the mechanism) and easier to use, it is simply not as gratifying as the slide system found in the 2011 Master Grande Tradition Minute Repeater. The manufacturer, in my opinion, also made the right call of openworking the dial and front-loading the movement because it is a whole lot of fun watching the striking mechanism at work, in particular the rotation of the governor and the hammer-strikes on the gongs!
By all standards, the sound quality of the chiming is commendable. It is loud – and I mean very loud – and clear. I have activated the minute repeater on a busy street or in a noisy bar a number of times and have always been able to make out each individual strike. Musicality, in my opinion, is decent but not great – it is no Patek Philippe, but given its superiority in loudness and water resistance, I don’t think anyone will lose any sleep over it. One minor gripe I do have with the minute repeater function of this watch though is the silent quarters – the striking system has not been designed to go directly from hours/quarters to minutes when there are less than three quarters to chime. For reference, minute repeaters like the newly announced Chopard LUC Full Strike Minute Repeater or the Jaeger-LeCoultre Hybris Mechanica 11 are designed to omit this undesirable pause.
Another weakness of this watch is dial legibility, or lack thereof. While the rose gold hands are intended to contrast against the mostly grey dial, the hands appear dark at certain angles or in the absence of incident light due to its polished finish. That and the tendency of the skeletonised hands to blend into the horological salad that is the Calibre 947 make telling time difficult. Without any lume on the dial, time telling becomes even more of a struggle at night or under low light. Of course, the beauty in all this chaos is that the watch is a minute repeater, so if you can’t see the time, just listen to it.
The ergonomics of the watch is also worth discussing. In spite of its sheer size, the watch actually wears a bit smaller thanks to short and wonderfully curved lugs. It wraps around the wrist very snuggly and you feel as if you are one with the watch (given its lightness, it does feel like part of your limb). With the thickness of the case, this is not a timepiece that you can hope to slide under a tight dress cuff – then again, a watch like this should never be hidden under your sleeves, now should it? That said, the watch will easily pass under a blazer or a sports jacket should you prefer to remain incognito.
The Master Grande Tradition Minute Repeater normally comes with a black alligator leather strap (with calf leather lining and semi-conforming spring bars); however, I felt that it made the watch look a bit dull given the amount of greyscale already going on. To inject a little excitement, I swapped the original strap for a black Amvox strap with contrasting orange stitching to match the two-tone theme (grey and rose gold) of the dial. It may be an atypical look, but it is a look that has (thankfully) received praise from many, including the former CEO of the brand, Mr. Jerome Lambert, whom I had the pleasure of meeting last year. The watch also comes with a first generation, titanium double deployant buckle. When fastened, it cuts a low profile and looks like regular pin buckle.
Overall, with its technology, complications, finishing and sound quality, the 2011 Master Grande Tradition Minute Repeater represents good value at its last known retail price of around US$169,000. This is a minute repeater fit for a connoisseur who appreciates Jaeger-LeCoultre’s inventiveness while at the same time, craves for dial design that is as loud as its chiming mechanism. And thanks to its 50 m water resistance, this is a sonnerie watch you could actually wear daily (should you wish) without fear of repercussions from hand-washing or being caught out in a rainstorm. Tradition, innovation, and value – the Master Grande Tradition Minute Repeater has it all as it embodies the ethos of Jaeger-LeCoultre and what it stands for.