It makes no doubt that Le Brassus-based watchmaker Audemars Piguet was and still is one of the best representatives of the art of haute horlogerie. Certainly, the design and style of the watches have evolved over the year to become more contemporary, but one thing can’t be denied, it’s the ability of the brand to manufacture some of the finest movements. Keep in mind that Audemars Piguet is one of the rare watchmakers capable of crafting a grande complication wristwatch. But the latest creation of the brand when it comes to traditional, hand-crafted movements is entirely dedicated to the music of time. Combining two distinctive features, that of the Supersonnerie concept and the Grande Sonnerie (somehow a speciality of Audemars Piguet), the brand has recently released the Code 11.59 by Audemars Piguet Grande Sonnerie Carillon Supersonnerie, and today, in one of our in-depth movies (which you can see on top of this article), we bring you inside the manufacture to see how exactly they’ve done it, together with Michael Friedman, Head of Complications at Audemars Piguet.
What is a Grande Sonnerie?
While most of you might be familiar with the minute repeater, the grande sonnerie is a concept of its own, a rare complication that is, without a doubt, amongst the most complex ones to develop and manufacture. If the minute repeater is the prince of chiming watches, then the grande sonnerie is king.
The idea of chiming watches (a generic term to indicate watches that sound the time, instead of only visually displaying the time) comes back to a very simple issue, the lack of light at night. Before the advent of artificial light, most people relied on church bells or striking clocks to tell the time in the dark. According to historical records, the first clock to strike the quarter-hour on-demand appeared in England, circa 1675. The more sophisticated minute repeater was produced around 1710 in Friedberg, Germany. By activating a pusher or a slider on the case of a portable minute repeater clock, privileged folk could hear the time as the hammers struck gongs to sound the hours, quarters and minutes.
But, as you’ve understood, the minute repeater is a complication “on-demand” that needs to be manually activated by its user, by the mean of a trigger or a pusher – which provides energy to the mechanism and activates a series of gears that will “read the time” and later transform this into a sound indication of the time – the movement will thus chime the time. The sonnerie watch, or clock watch, is a so-called “au passage” complication, meaning that is both displaying the time and striking the time (the sound part of the movement) automatically, without any interaction of the user. With the sonnerie watch or the clock, you’re able to hear the passage of time at the full hour and at the quarter-hour (for a grande sonnerie) and at the full hour only (for a petite sonnerie). What makes it even more complex is that we’re talking about an entirely automated “passing” complication and not one that requires to be triggered.
What makes the grande sonnerie such a challenge to produce and why so few watchmakers have managed to create one is mostly a matter of the number of components it requires, and the ultra-complex coordination it implies between all these small, delicate components to accommodate all the calculations required for the movement to “read the time” indicated by the hands and translate it into a “mechanical music.” There are indeed two aspects to the movement of a chiming watch. First, a series of racks and gears are reading the time that is indicated by the hands. Then, the movement “translate” it into the motion of the hammers that will strike the time on the gongs.
But that’s not all. Indeed, not only a grande sonnerie watch is capable of striking the time “au passage” but it is also often combined with a minute repeater, which can indicate the time “à la demande” too. It thus means that a grande sonnerie watch has two layers, one for the repeater and one for the sonnerie mechanism.
Just for you to understand, a minute repeater is an intricate mechanism that is programmed for 720 different musical sequences. A grande sonnerie adds to that the capacity, with a passing mechanism, to strike the number of hours (at every full hour), and every quarter-hour it repeats the hour and strikes the quarter(s). It thus has to make 96 sequences over 24 hours, for a total of 912 hammer strikes. And because the complication is entirely automated, it also requires its own energy storage – a crucial point for a grande sonnerie watch. Important to note, most grande sonnerie watches include a mode selector, so the mechanism can be switched between grande sonnerie, petite sonnerie or silence.
The Grande Sonnerie at Audemars Piguet
The grande sonnerie is certainly one of the signature complications of Audemars Piguet, as the manufacturer is certainly one of the most prolific makers of this mechanism. It begins right at the foundation of the company in the late 19th century (in 1875 to be precise), as there are pieces of evidence in the archives of grande sonnerie pocket watches by the early 1880s.
Most importantly, when mechanical watchmaking came back at the end of the 20th century, the grande sonnerie was somehow reintroduced, and that was possible thanks to Audemars Piguet and Philippe Dufour. In the 1980s, Philippe Dufour was commissioned by Audemars Piguet to produce five Grande Sonnerie movements, thus reviving interest in the complication, yet back in the days still in pocket watch form. In 1992, Mr Dufour presented his vision of a grande sonnerie wristwatch, a first for the industry, and the movement of this wristwatch also included a minute repeater.
In 1994, Audemars Piguet presented a quarter repeating grande & petite sonnerie wristwatch (the references 25750BA and 25847BA, with calibre 2868, that are illustrated here) and in 1996, just a year after another legendary watchmaker (Gerald Genta, with the help of Pierre-Michel Golay) presented its grande sonnerie wristwatch, Audemars Piguet came with its own vision of a grande sonnerie wristwatch, within the Jules Audemars collection – the grande et petite sonnerie minute repeating watches (including the reference 25936 you can see here).
These watches were powered by calibre 2890 and calibre 2891, both almost identical with the difference that the latter had an additional power reserve for the striking train and for the gear train. And something important to note is that these watches were equipped with a carillon complication… Meaning that it chimes the time on more than 2 gongs, what’s usually the norm – here, it has 3 hammers and 3 gongs.
Even today, the grande sonnerie wristwatch remains exceptional and only a dozen of watchmakers have been capable or are still producing such timepieces – Patek Philippe with the Grandmaster Chime, the 6300 and the 6301P, Greubel Forsey and Vacheron Constantin (with the same base movement), Bvlgari with the Octo Roma Grande Sonnerie (based on a Genta movement), Credor with a Spring Drive movement, F.P. Journe with the recently-discontinued Sonnerie Souveraine, Jaeger-LeCoultre with the Hybris Mechanica Grande Sonnerie, Franck Muller with Aeternitas Mega 4, A. Lange & Söhne with the Grand Complication or Ulysse Nardin with the Imperial Blue.
Enters Code 11.59 by Audemars Piguet Grande Sonnerie Carillon Supersonnerie
The Grande Sonnerie is a rare complication, even by AP’s standards, but one that has never been forgotten. What needs to be reminded, however, is that Audemars Piguet has recently been working on improving (and I mean, drastically) the concept of chiming watches. Multiple years of researches have resulted in the Supersonnerie Royal Oak Concept. And today, with this very special version of Code 11.59, the Le Brasses-based brand combines both technologies into a single masterpiece of chiming extravaganza.
The Supersonnerie was first presented within the Royal Oak Concept case, in a watch that was back then named the RD1 Acoustic Research. A watch that summarized 8 years of research and development, all devoted to improving the volume, pitch, tones and harmony of sound of a minute repeater. It redefined the idea of how a chiming watch sounded. A joint creation between Audemars Piguet and EPFL (Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne), the idea was to create a minute repeater of superior acoustic intensity, and it came with three new pioneering chiming sound developments that have become technological achievements, patented innovations.
Behind the Supersonnerie concept are several bright ideas. First is the overall construction of the watch, which has been imagined as a musical instrument, and to be more precise, like an acoustic guitar. It means that the gongs behave like the strings, the hammers like the player’s finger and the internal soundboard, a new element of the case, visible when turning the watch over, acts as the body of the instrument and helps to amplify the sound. But there’s more than this amplifying construction of the case. For instance, AP has worked on a new method for pre-preparing the steel used to create the gong structure, to achieve a unique sound – by looking at the material cross-section, length and rigidity of the gongs. This helps to improve the clarity and musicality of the chimes.
Another important improvement with Supersonnerie comes from the construction of the chiming elements. In a traditional chiming watch, the gongs are fixed to the movement’s mainplate. In the Supersonnerie watches, the coiled gongs are attached to a new device, a material spread beneath the movement that acts as a soundboard. Now, the gongs transmit vibrations directly to the soundboard and not to the mainplate, thus improving the sound quality, the tone and the amplification of the sound.
Finally, Audemars Piguet has been working on an important mechanical element of a chiming watch, the striking regulator – a device also named governor and that sets the pace of the striking sequence of hours, quarters and minutes. It has been entirely redesigned to be more flexible and thus becomes a shock absorber so that unwanted shock noises are eliminated. This helps to reduce drastically parasite noises that would degrade the quality of the chimes heard by the wearer of the watch. If you combine these elements, the sound becomes clearer, richer, brighter and louder too, thanks to the amplifying construction.
With this new Code 11.59 by Audemars Piguet Grande Sonnerie Carillon Supersonnerie, the brand is for the first time implementing the Supersonnerie concept into a Grande Sonnerie watch. The watch is based on a movement known as the Calibre 2956, an evolution of the Calibre 2890 and 2891 that have been developed by AP during the 1990s. And if its hand-wound architecture has been slightly updated for 2020, the foundations remain identical. This engine is composed of 489 components, entirely assembled and decorated by hand by a dedicated team of 3 watchmakers, capable of producing 1 to 2 watches a year.
Besides the Grande Sonnerie function explained above, the Code 11.59 by Audemars Piguet Grande Sonnerie Carillon Supersonnerie is also equipped with an additional crown that allows selecting two other modes, Petite Sonnerie and Silent – if you want the watch to be quiet at night or during a meeting, or if you want to save some energy in the striking barrel. Of course, as most sonnerie watches, the Code 11.59 Grande Sonnerie Carillon also incorporates a minute repeater. It is actuated by a pusher at 10 o’clock on demand.
There’s an important word to be highlighted in the name of this watch, and it’s Carillon. Contrary to most minute repeaters and grande sonnerie watches that are equipped with 2 hammers and 2 coiled gongs, the Grande Sonnerie Carillon Supersonnerie comes with a so-called carillon architecture with a set of 3 gongs and 3 hammers, capable of producing a far more musical chime on 3 notes (high, middle, low), something that is adding dramatically to the complexity of the movement. As you can hear in our video, the richness and complexity of the chime are simply spectacular.
But the Code 11.59 by Audemars Piguet Grande Sonnerie Carillon Supersonnerie isn’t only a sum of technical solutions and mechanical savoir-faire. It also is a watch that is paying tribute to traditional craftsmanship, with dials executed by Swiss artisan enameller, Anita Porchet. Born in 1961, Anita Porchet is one of Switzerland’s most recognised and respected enamellers. Her work has been seen on some of the most exclusive and rarest commissioned watches.
For Code 11.59 by Audemars Piguet Grande Sonnerie Carillon Supersonnerie, Anita has created a trilogy of “Grand Feu” paillonné enamel dials handcrafted with ancestral savoir-faire and tools. Each dial, with a blue enamel base, is unique. A thin layer of glass sand mixed with water is applied by hand on the gold dial before being heated at more than 800°C in a dedicated oven. The procedure is repeated multiple times to achieve transparency, depth and light.
To match the contemporary nature of Code 11.59 by Audemars Piguet, Anita has created three unique patterns with the paillonné technique using antique handcrafted gold spangles (“paillons” in French), at least a century old. Each spangle was meticulously cut and curved into thin gold shapes with antique tools and techniques. The enameller has carefully incorporated each spangle by hand onto the dial’s enamelled plate before fusion in the oven. The dial is then covered with a thin layer of transparent enamel for a mirror-polish finish. To maintain the purity of the artistic work, no indexes, numerals or complications have been added to the dial – except for the hour and minute hands. In addition to this handcrafted trilogy of dials, Anita Porchet’s atelier is also at the disposal of clients to craft a personalised enamel dial of their choice for the two remaining watches.
As you can see, Code 11.59 by Audemars Piguet Grande Sonnerie Carillon Supersonnerie is a true demonstration of savoir-faire, combining traditional technique with innovation, something that few can achieve, but Audemars Piguet truly is one of these rare watchmakers.
For more details, please visit www.audemarspiguet.com.
This post first appeared on Monochrome Watches - An online magazine dedicated to fine watches.