In the annals of complicated watchmaking, there are no complications more forbiddingly intricate than chiming complications. Chiming complications require a more complete mastery of watchmaking than any other complication, and their mechanisms don’t just boast a high parts count – they also require a thorough grasp of some of the most counterintuitive mechanical relationships between the various parts to be found in high-end watchmaking. The late Donald de Carle, in his book Complicated Watches And Their Repair (first published in 1956), generally sticks with the detached attitude of a professional writing for other professionals, but he allows himself to adopt an almost Yoda-like tone when discussing the repair of chiming watches, saying among other things that no other complications more demand a “calm, cool, and collected” state of mind than those with hammers and gongs. He also sternly insists that no one should begin to work on a chiming watch unless they are capable of being handed a box of disassembled parts and assembling a perfectly functional watch from start to finish without needing to consult an instruction manual. (This seems like an almost impossibly high standard, but a look at the chiming works of any striking watch will instantly convince you of his point – you don’t want to start working on one without knowing exactly what you are doing.)
Of course, the complexity of a chiming watch is only the beginning; working on chiming watches demands not only a fine eye and steady hand, but also a good ear – the watchmaker is responsible for ensuring that the striking train chimes at a pleasing tempo (what that means can often vary from client to client) and ensuring that the temper of the gongs, as well as the manner in which they are attached to the movement (or, as increasingly the case today, to the case itself or even the crystal), is done in such a way as to produce the desired sound. The gongs must, of course, sound the right notes, very accurately and without discord, and even the casemaker’s art is involved, as how you work the metal can have a dramatic effect on the final result.
If all this is true of all chiming complications, it is especially true of the grande sonnerie. Grande sonneries are seldom encountered in any form – in my whole life as a watch lover, I have had a chance to see a mere handful in person; far fewer than the number of repeaters I have seen, and the rarity of grande sonneries makes tourbillons look a dime-a-dozen. A grande sonnerie is sometimes also called a “clock-watch” because, like a clock, they are capable of not only chiming on-demand, like a repeater, but also en passant, or “in passing,” ringing the hours and quarter hours with no need for activation by the wearer. Because of the energy required by the complication, there is a separate mainspring barrel just for the striking train and, almost invariably, there is a means by which to activate, or deactivate, the hour and quarter strikes. A power-reserve indication for the striking train is often found as well. A grande et petite sonnerie can be set to chime the hours and quarters (grande sonnerie) just the hours (petite sonnerie) or set to not chime at all.
The AP 11.59 Grande Sonnerie Carillon Supersonnerie is the latest in a long line of wristwatch grande sonnerie watches from Audemars Piguet – which is a remarkable thing to be able to say about any watch brand. The company’s first grande sonnerie watches were a set of five pocket watches, made by Philippe Dufour, which were completed between 1982 and 1988. Dufour would go on to make the first grande sonnerie wristwatch ever produced, in 1992.
Grande et petite sonnerie wristwatches were first made by AP in 1995, when 73 watches, ref. 25750BA, were made; these were also quarter repeaters. The first grande et petite sonnerie minute repeating watch movements followed in 1996 – these were the caliber 2890 (grande et petite sonnerie, carillon, minute repeater) and caliber 2891 (grande et petite sonnerie, carillon, and minute repeater, with power reserve for the striking train and for the going train). The latter caliber was used in the Grande et Petite Sonnerie Repetition Minutes Carillon, Reserve de Sonnerie et Dynamographe, referred to waggishly by Timezone.com’s Carlos Perez as “the watch with the longest name in the world.” That watch was part of the Jules Audemars range of watches, which is now a shadow of its former self, although a grande et petite sonnerie with power reserve for the strike is still a part of the collection. The CODE 11.59 Grande Sonnerie Carillon Supersonnerie should, I suppose, really be called the Audemars Piguet CODE 11.59 Grande et Petite Sonnerie Carillon Supersonnerie, as it does indeed have both grand and small strike capabilities.
The CODE 11.59 Grande Sonnerie is the latest chiming watch from Audemars Piguet to benefit from the Supersonnerie technology the company has been gradually incorporating into its chiming watches since the first AP Concept Supersonnerie debuted in 2016. (The original concept watch was shown in 2014.) The current lineup of Supersonnerie watches includes the Concept Supersonnerie, and the CODE 11.59 Minute Repeater Supersonnerie, which won the Men’s Complication prize at the 2019 GPHG, as well as the Royal Oak Minute Repeater Supersonnerie. AP has also released a Supersonnerie repeater in the Jules Audemars line, in 2017. The CODE 11.59 Grande Sonnerie represents the first time that the Supersonnerie technical solutions have been combined with a grande et petite sonnerie, repetition minutes (grand and small strike, with minute repeater) complication.
Lest we forget, the word “carillon” is also in the name of the watch – the term was originally used (and is still used) to describe a set of church bells. In watches and wristwatches, it’s generally understood to refer to a chiming watch that chimes on more than two gongs – in the case of the CODE 11.59 Grande Sonnerie, the quarter strike rings on three gongs (high, middle, and low notes), while the hour strike is a low note, and the minute strike, a high note (as is customary in minute repeaters). All this is via a new movement, which is the caliber 2956. This is the successor to the calibers 2890 and 2891 and, indeed, from the back, you might easily take it for one of its predecessors as the layout of the bridges, position of the jewels, and position and orientation of the gongs are identical. However, the gongs are no longer attached to the movement plate in the caliber 2956 – instead, as with other Supersonnerie watches, they are affixed to a resonating membrane, from which sound propagates through small apertures in the caseback. Despite its complexity, caliber 2956 is a remarkably compact movement – 489 parts are in a space just 29.9mm in diameter and only 5.88mm thick, running in 53 jewels (the same as the 2890) at 21,600 vph.
The movement, as is customary for grande et petite sonnerie calibers, has a selector that allows the wearer to choose either grand strike (automatic hour and quarter strikes), small strike (hour strike only), or silent mode, in which no chiming takes place. As is traditional in chiming watches, the repeating and sonnerie works are under the dial, but a quick glance will certainly serve to confirm de Carle’s point about the necessity for being calm, cool, and collected when working on one!
The dials for each of the five watches in this very limited series are made in the atelier of Anita Porchet, who is perhaps the single most widely known enamelist working in Switzerland today. She’s a master of virtually every aspect of enameling, including the extremely demanding and unforgiving art of enamel miniature painting, but she is also well known for her paillonné enamel work, which to this day relatively few enamelists practice. Paillonné gets its name from the small, decorative gold or silver paillons, or spangles, which are cut one at a time from metal foil, and the production of which is something of a lost art. As a result, Porchet often uses antique paillons in her work, and those used for the dials of the CODE 11.59 Grande Sonnerie Supersonnerie are all, according to AP, at least a century old. Producing any enamel dial is a somewhat laborious process (although it can be scaled up for larger series production, generally this cannot be done with more artisanal and labor-intensive techniques like paillonné, which involves too many necessarily manual, and necessarily high-skill, techniques). The first step in making a paillonné enamel dial is the creation of a background layer of colored enamel, which begins with the preparation of the enamel itself. Enamel is essentially pigmented glass, and the first step is to grind the raw enamel into a very fine powder, using a mortar and pestle. The enamel is then mixed with a carrying agent like water or oil and applied to the dial with a very fine brush (the brushes used in enamel work sometimes consist of just a single hair). In order to achieve the desired depth and richness of color, several layers are gradually applied. Each layer is fired individually in an enamelist’s oven, at a temperature of 800ºC, before the next layer of enamel is applied. A great deal of care and attention is necessary every step of the way as anything from drafts to dust can contaminate the enamel, or cause it to bubble or crack during the application and firing processes, and as enthusiasts of this sort of work know, that means discarding the work-in-progress and starting over again.
This is, of course, the sort of watchmaking which, on every level, has almost nothing to do with watchmaking as most of us generally know it and experience it, and it represents luxury in the most traditional sense of the word: It costs whatever it costs, and it takes as long as it takes. I am probably never going to see one of these in person, which feels a bit of a shame. I have been following Porchet’s work for many years, and I’d love to see this one, and between the movement, dial, and case finishing, it is almost sure to be breathtaking. The only downside I can see to adapting this movement to a Supersonnerie case is that there’s no display back, nor could there have been one – Supersonnerie means that both the resonating membrane and actual caseback block the view. The upside, though, is greater volume and richer sound, and in a grande et petite sonnerie watch, the quality of the auditory experience trumps the visual razzle-dazzle a view of the movement would afford. Given a choice between the three dials, I think I would probably want the one with golden circles, which looks very much like the reflection of raindrops falling into the depths of a moonlit pond on a summer night – a most, you could say, resonant image, to go along with one of horology’s rarest, most demanding to make, and most aristocratic complications.