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The ultimate feat of watchmaking: The Grande Sonnerie complication

All you need to know about horology's most demanding creation.

Think of the complications that represent the pinnacle of fine watchmaking, and fan favourites such as the perpetual calendar and minute repeater come to mind. They’re complex enough to inspire awe, yet not so confounding that the best in the business can’t churn out numerous variations every year. But one complication easily surpasses them all, yet rarely gets the spotlight. Few brag about making grande sonneries – because few can.

A grande sonnerie – French for grand strike – chimes the hours and quarter hours as it passes. (A petite sonnerie will chime only the quarters.) That’s four strikes an hour, 24 hours a day — an impressive display of power when you consider that a minute repeater need only activate its hammers and gongs when the wearer wants it to. Making a grande sonnerie is basically squeezing a grandfather’s clock into a case no larger than a canape, and it’s a feat so arduous that the first grand strike wristwatch was invented as recently as 1992 by none other than Philippe Dufour, one of the greatest watchmakers of our time.

Grande Sonnerie

DESIGN OF A DECADE Taking 11 years to create, the Greubel Forsey Grande Sonnerie comprises 935 parts.

There have been relatively few grande sonnerie watches since, and those in existence are made only by the biggest names in horology. But this year alone has already seen two new additions to this rarefied club: one by Greubel Forsey and the other by Vacheron Constantin. The former’s Grande Sonnerie is not just astonishingly svelte for this complication (it’s comparable in size to the brand’s famous tourbillon timepieces) – it also has a power reserve of 20 hours even in grande sonnerie mode, and is water-resistant to 30m. It took them 11 years to make. Also more than a decade in the making is Vacheron Constantin’s first-ever grande sonnerie, the Les Cabinotiers Symphonia Grande Sonnerie 1860.

According to Greubel Forsey co-founder Stephen Forsey, a good grande sonnerie must include security functions to protect against accidental manipulations (such as adjusting the time while the watch is chiming), be comfortable on the wrist as they are known to be rather hefty, have a solid power reserve so the owner can fully enjoy the chiming and, obviously, ring loud and clear. It’s quite a list to check off , but this, in short, is what luxury sounds like.

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SOUND BITES

The key differences between a sonnerie and a repeater.

SONNERIE

REPEATER

Chimes automatically Chimes on demand
Usually needs its own energy source Can draw its energy from the mainspring
Needs to run a full 12-hour cycle for performance-testing Can be tested immediately
Almost always includes a minute repeater More commonly featured alone or with other complications like perpetual calendars, chronographs and tourbillons
Chimes the hours and quarter hours Capable of chiming the hours, quarter hours and minutes

SOUND HOUND

The list of notable grande sonneries extends beyond those listed below, but not by a whole lot. These are the ones to keep at the forefront of your mind.

Grande Sonnerie

01: F.P. JOURNE SONNERIE SOUVERAINE

The genius of Francois-Paul Journe is rarely, if ever, contested, and one need only look at his Sonnerie Souveraine to see why. He singlehandedly developed the watch in six years and racked up 10 patented features along the way – some dedicated to making it foolproof enough for an eight-year-old to operate without issue, others for the striking mechanism. Like most sonnerie watches, this one also includes a minute repeater.

02: JAEGER-LECOULTRE HYBRIS MECHANICA À GRANDE SONNERIE

A whopping 1,472 parts went into the making of this Grande Sonnerie watch, which also includes a minute repeater, flying tourbillon and perpetual calendar. The repeater is also capable of playing the entire Carillon de Westminster melody – the longest tune any watch has been able to play. Watchmaker and developer David Candaux completed the design in 2009.

03: THE VACHERON CONSTANTIN LES CABINOTIERS SYMPHONIA GRANDE SONNERIE 1860

  • Vacheron Constantin Les Cabinotiers Symphonia Grande Sonnerie 1860
    Vacheron Constantin Les Cabinotiers Symphonia Grande Sonnerie 1860

You would expect a manufacture with as long a history in making ultra-complicated watches as Vacheron Constantin to have made its first grande sonnerie sooner, but here it finally is. The entire watch took a single watchmaker 500 hours to assemble. A switch on the bezel lets you choose among the Grande Sonnerie, Petit Sonnerie and Silent mode, while a button in the crown activates a minute repeater.

04: PATEK PHILIPPE GRANDMASTER CHIME

There isn’t enough room to list all 20 complications in the world’s most complicated wristwatch, but rest assured it lives up to its name with a grande and petite sonnerie, minute repeater and even an alarm with time strike and date repeater, among others. The numerous displays had to be split up into two dials, and the Calibre 300 that made it all possible comprises 1,366 parts and holds six patents.

05: GREUBEL FORSEY GRANDE SONNERIE

  • Greubel Forsey Grande Sonnerie
    Greubel Forsey Grande Sonnerie

Aside from the inordinately long time it took to develop this timepiece, the other remarkable feature of the Greubel Forsey Grande Sonnerie is its size. With a diameter of 43.5mm and thickness of 16.13mm, it’s not much bigger than its less complicated brethren, such as the Tourbillon 24 Seconds Contemporain. It’s also surprisingly robust, being equipped with 11 security devices, such as disconnecting the time-setting when the watch is chiming and vice versa.

06: PHILIPPE DUFOUR GRANDE AND PETITE SONNERIE

This was where it all began. After developing a series of grande sonnerie pocket watch movements for Audemars Piguet, Dufour decided it was time to make his name known and started his eponymous brand. His first watch wound up being a scaled-down version of those grande sonnerie movements, and became the first ever grande (and petite) sonnerie wristwatch.

GRANDE SONNERIE: A TIMELINE

It took plenty of innovation and time before horology was ready to take on the grand strike wristwatch.

1400s The earliest examples of a striking mechanism found in pocket watches. However, these were unreliable, and often desynchronised from the hour and minute hand.

1600s Clockmaker Joseph Knibb creates “Roman striking”. A large bell would strike to represent five hours, and a small bell for one hour, thus chiming the hour of the day in no more than four strikes. It never really caught on.

1676 Reverend Edward Barlow invents the “rack and snail” striking mechanism for repeating clocks, which is still in use today.

1687 The patent for a repeating (pocket) watch was granted to English watchmaker Daniel Quare.

1750 Thomas Mudge invents the minute repeater. Abraham-Louis Breguet later refined it, replacing Mudge’s bells with gongs and placing them at the edge of the movement for better resonance.

1892 Watchmaker Louis Brandt unveils the first minute repeater in a wristwatch. The movement was manufactured by Audemars Piguet for Omega.

1992 Philippe Dufour creates the world’s first wristwatch with both a minute repeater, and grande/ petite sonnerie complications. He creates two more in 1999.

2005 F.P. Journe invents the Sonnerie Souveraine, the first minute repeater and grande/petite sonnerie with a single power source.

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5 QUESTIONS WITH STEPHEN FORSEY

The Greubel Forsey co-founder on the brand’s latest masterpiece.

Stephen Forsey - co-founder of Greubel Forsey

Why did the Greubel Forsey Grande Sonnerie take 11 years?

There were a considerable number of key stages that led to the formation of this mechanical puzzle comprising almost 1,000 separate components. Making the case water-resistant to 30m, while maintaining sound level and quality, was a project in itself. Making the striking gear train silent was also important enough to require its own sub-project. And three of those years in development were devoted solely to wrist tests.

Which was the trickiest part to get right?

It was combining all the different objectives we had given ourselves. This meant coordinating our scientists and engineers, technicians and watchmakers, because in such a timepiece, you know if you have succeeded only when you have a complete prototype.

Were you inspired by other grande sonnerie watches?

Some inspiration came from antique clock-watches (grande sonnerie pocket watches), and our combined experiences with striking and repeating watches. Similar to how we revolutionised the tourbillon with our inclined tourbillon inventions, we wanted a completely original striking watch, so a minute repeater would have answered only part of this question.

Was it your intention from the start to keep the watch at similar dimensions to your other complicated pieces?

Absolutely. It was a key objective for the Grande Sonnerie to fit exactly into the 43.5mm x 16.13mm asymmetric case. These comfortable case dimensions, coupled with the water resistance and security functions, would surely encourage the collector to wear it and enjoy the timepiece.

Is there anything you wish you’d done differently?

Quite honestly, while we are perfectionists and there is usually some detail or other (that bothers us), this Grande Sonnerie is so complete, l can’t think of anything more we could have done.