Unlike most minute repeaters, the Chopard L.U.C Full Strike shuns conventional steel gongs in favour of a patented monobloc sapphire gong. Minute repeaters have changed little since they were first introduced in the 18th century, however, this ultra-refined creation from Chopard is packed with innovation and represents a new era in chiming watches. Mark McArthur-Christie examines this sonorous tour de force.
The first examples of minute repeaters appeared in the 18th century, however, one can only presume Chopard’s watchmakers are masochists. Perhaps they spend their winter weekends swimming across Lake Geneva with lead armbands or running up the Alps with rucksacks full of bricks. Why else – why on Earth – would they decide to make a 533-part minute repeater that integrates its gongs and its sapphire crystal, then set about making the whole watch as unbreakable as possible? That’s like owning Wedgwood and offering to host the Bullingdon Club’s Christmas party.
Chopard Co-President Karl-Friedrich Scheufele launched his first minute repeater using crystal for both gong and resonator in 2016, winning the ‘Best in Show’ award at the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève the following year. It’s hard to explain just how nuts this whole sapphire gong system is; the gongs and the crystal are one, a seamless piece of sapphire. There’s no welding, no joins, no screws and no glue (which would louse up the resonance of the sapphire in any case). The whole thing has to be precision-cut from a single piece of sapphire – oh, and you need to put the minute track onto the underside once you’re done. At this point you may be asking the question ‘why?’ – why set out to do something this difficult when the established way of making minute repeaters has been fine since the early 1700s? Apart from the sheer determination of Haute Horlogerie practitioners to keep trying things that are daftly difficult, it also allows Chopard to make their cases of whatever material they like.
Traditional minute repeaters use the watch case as a resonator; the chimes’ amplifier, if you like. Have a look at a National Steel Guitar and you’ll see the same principle in action. This is fine when you’re using resonant metals, but start eyeing up that bit of platinum as case material and things don’t work out so well. Platinum is a gorgeous metal but only marginally more resonant than porridge; not ideal for the acoustics of a repeater. But with the sapphire crystal gong system, Chopard L.U.C Full Strike could, quite cheerfully, make a case from cardboard and the chimes would sound out just as well. Actually, that’s not quite true – it’s more that the sapphire system compensates for the natural softness and lack of resonance of platinum. You still get a gorgeous case but you can hear your minute repeater’s chime too. So what does this crystalline chime sound like? Well, for a start, the sound of sapphire chiming is quite different from a metal gong. Find yourself a silver knife and a crystal glass, give it a tap and you’ll get the idea. But see what I mean about being masochists? The gongs themselves (a C# and an F, since you asked) are fractions of a millimetre thin and the hammers are, er, stainless steel. Nip round the back of the atelier and there’s a pile of broken sapphire crystals and a watchmaker cradling a bottle of gin and weeping.
But a chime, no matter how crystal clear and pleasing, is no use without a hammer, or in this case, two and their underlying mechanism. If you look at the face of the watch you can see the hammers at 10 o’clock. Like the rest of the movement, they’re highly finished (mirror polished with anglage, in this case). But look at the mechanism that operates them. In fact, go one better; don’t just look at the pictures but download the patent too. It’s US Patent US7773463B2 and while it’s not bedtime reading, its 8 pages give you some idea of the complexity of the chiming mechanism. In fact, it’s all about snails – no, really. To control the mechanism you need snails – three of them. The minute snail has four arms with fourteen teeth on each. The quarter snail has three teeth with the hour snail coming in with twelve teeth that move by one step each and every hour. Each one of these components is smaller than your little fingernail. They connect with levers and sensing arms that actuate the chimes. Clever isn’t the half of it. And Chopard has thoughtfully cut away the dial so you can see all this magic going on every time you push the crown (none of your case-mounted actuation levers here, thank you) to sound the gongs. While we’re talking about the crown, it’s worth mentioning the way the watch is wound and how it gets power to that chiming mechanism. Wind the crown one way and you wind the watch’s main barrel. So far, so standard. Wind it the other way and you put power into a separate barrel for the chiming mechanism. This barrel stores sufficient energy for you to enjoy 12 complete and even soundings of the longest set of chimes; the 32 you’d hear if you pressed the crown at 12:59. Clever again. But cleverer still is the detent built into the striking mechanism that means, if you’ve been a bit over enthusiastic and chimed enough to run down the barrel’s power, it won’t work unless it can complete a full chime. Perhaps cleverest of all, though, is the way the strikes operate. The watch has no silent pause between hours and quarters or quarters and minutes while it waits for the mechanism to catch up, it simply chimes smoothly through. At the same time, Chopard L.U.C Full Strike has thoughtfully protected the internals of the movement from the ham-fisted (that’s all of us at some point, let’s face it). The one thing you really don’t want to do is try to re-start a striking mechanism once it’s already running. To duplicate the effect (and the resulting cost), try engaging reverse in your Ferrari 250 GTO when you’re doing 70mph. The L.U.C Calibre 08.01-L rather cleverly disengages the crown’s strikework pusher when the mechanism is chiming. Push it all you like – your watch and wallet are both safe. Enough technical cleverness (is there really ever enough though?) – what about the finishing on that movement? We’ve already looked at the mirror-finished hammers, so it’s worth turning to the rest of the plot.
Take a look through the partially openworked dial. That mainplate – as well as the bridges – are machined from nickel silver and then finished with Côtes de Genève. Remember the weeping watchmaker with their bottle of gin? In that pile of discarded sapphire crystals are plenty of mainplates and bridges. Nickel silver is beautiful stuff and extremely corrosion-resistant but an absolute pig to work with. Get the finishing wrong and you have to start again; you simply can’t polish out your mistakes. Chopard has used it here without any protective coatings (the metal is resistant enough to be fine), but that also means assembling the watch isn’t without its hazards. One slip of your screwdriver and that’s another bridge tossed into the pile out back. The dial on the Full Strike has an openworked solid gold half-disc as the dial base. The outer-ring is snailed and then galvanised before the rhodium plated Roman numerals get fitted. The last part of the process is applying the white and black transfers, tracing the contours of the power reserves, the small seconds counter and the railway minutes track.
Despite having more Haute Horlogerie packed in than an entire Genevan bar on a Friday night, the Full Strike measures just over 42mm in diameter and just under 12mm thick. Bear in mind the importance of that prominent crystal as a resonator and you can see just how neat a piece of watch engineering this is.
As someone who loves watches, people (those poor souls who are still unbelievers) will often ask you ‘What’s the point? Why bother with something that costs as much as a car when your ‘phone will tell you the time?’ It’s watches like the Chopard L.U.C Full Strike that provide the answer.