Ringmaster: Patek Philippe CEO Thierry Stern Talks Minute Repeaters (Audio)

Patek Philippe CEO Thierry Stern(As seen in the October issue of WatchTime.)

You’ve seen the advertisement. It shows a man with a white glove on his right hand holding a watch up to his ear. The copy reads, “Of course, the acoustics of all minute repeaters have to be tested. In our family-owned watch company, the President does it.” The company in question is Patek Philippe. The man holding the watch is CEO Thierry Stern.

In June, Stern visited New York during a two-day exhibit of the company’s minute repeaters, 10 of them, representing nearly all the minute-repeater models the company makes. In an interview at Patek’s office the day the exhibit opened, WatchTime asked Stern about his job as the company’s official “ear.”

First of all, he says, the ad is accurate. He really does personally approve each and every repeater the company sells. If a repeater is completed while he’s away from the office, it must wait until he returns for his stamp of approval. “It was always like this,” he says. “My father [Philippe Stern] and even my grandfather [Henri Stern] did it.”

Thierry Stern
Patek Philippe CEO Henri Stern is the company’s official “ear.”

Click below to hear an excerpt from WatchTime’s interview with Stern, in which he discusses his process of evaluating minute repeaters.

It took him a decade or more to develop an ear fine enough for the job. “After 10 years I am able to say, yes, this is a good sound, or a weak sound, or you should change the diameter [of the gong]. Often I can tell what diameter the gong is [just by listening]. We have always said, the sound should be nice to hear, not too fast, not too slow. And today I know exactly when they are outside the borderline. It can be half a second … I can reject a watch sometimes in 20 seconds.” He rejects about 30 percent of the repeaters he listens to. (He won’t say how many of Patek’s estimated 50,000 watches are repeaters.)

Stern evaluates many parameters: the strength of the sound, which must be easy to hear but not strident; whether the difference in pitch between the high- and low-pitched gongs is pleasing to the ear (the gongs are tuned to the watchmaker’s taste, not to a reference pitch); whether the chimes occur at the correct pace, i.e., whether they’re evenly spaced and neither too fast nor too slow. (Patek Philippe’s minute repeaters never take more than 18 seconds to ring. That way, it is still the same time when the chimes stop as it was when they started, if you round to the nearest minute.) He checks whether the pauses between the series of chimes that tell the hours, quarters and minutes are the right length. There are many subtler characteristics he must assess: are the tones rich enough? Do they decay too quickly, or not quickly enough? In a self-winding movement, do the gongs cause the rotor to vibrate, creating distracting noise?

He does this all with no reference chime other than the one in his head. “There is no perfect sound I have recorded and can say, ‘Is it approaching this sound?’ No, it doesn’t work like that,” Stern says.

Patek Philippe Ref. 5208
Three Patek Philippe Minute Repeaters from the exhibit: Ref. 5208 with perpetual calendar and monopusher chronograph (above); Ref. 7000, a women’s watch with automatic movement (below); Ref. 5213, with perpetual calendar and officer’s case (bottom)

Patek Philippe Ref. 7000

Patek Philippe Ref. 5213

There are a few rules for achieving the best sound. In general, rose-gold cases are best, followed by yellow gold, white gold, platinum and, lastly, steel (the sound emitted by a steel case lacks warmth, Stern says). Sapphire backs are better than solid metal ones; thin cases trump thicker ones (ditto for dials); movements with few components are better because they muffle the sound less. “That’s why we say the more complications you have, the harder it is to get a perfect sound, because there is no space for air,” Stern says.

For the full story, check out the WatchTalk section of WatchTime’s September-October issue, on sale August 27!

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