Patek Philippe Makes Noise With a New Product Category

The new ref. 6301P from Patek Philippe is a watch that came as a bit of a surprise to me. If anyone had asked me, in an unguarded moment, if Patek Philippe had ever made a grande et petite sonnerie, repetition minutes wristwatch before, I would probably have said “yes” without thinking about it.

Of course, the company has certainly put the complication in a wristwatch before. Most notably, there is one in the Grandmaster Chime supercomplication – an incredibly complicated watch, released by Patek in 2014, which is a sort of museum of striking complications, but which also presented quite a number of innovations to the vocabulary of striking watches. 

The Grandmaster Chime has two dials, 1,580 components, 20 different complications (including a date repeater), and from which, in its original version, le client should not expect change from their 2.5 million Swiss. It has been, ever since its introduction,slowly paying dividends in less complicated timepieces from Patek Philippe in somewhat the way that innovations in F1 cars eventually trickle down into production models (although the analogy is inexact, inasmuch as the watches the innovations trickle down into are not exactly proletariat daily drivers themselves).

One beneficiary of some of that inventiveness is the watch which Patek Philippe has announced today. This is the ref. 6301, Grande Et Petite Sonnerie – the first wristwatch, in fact, from Patek Philippe which is a stand-alone grand and small-strike timepiece, with minute repeater.

The grande et petite sonnerie is an extremely rare complication in wristwatches, but it’s also a rare complication, period, thanks to its tremendous and nearly intractable complexity. The challenges involved in shrinking the strike train for such a complication down into a size small enough for a wristwatch are sufficiently difficult (to say nothing of expensive for the eventual client, which may have as much to do with its late appearance in horological history as its complexity) that it did not debut until 1992, for which we have to thank Philippe Dufour. Since then, few companies have attempted to make them and, as with the repeater, the grande et petite sonnerie has resisted industrialization; they simply require too much hand-work and adjustment to be produced on anything even remotely resembling an industrial scale and seem likely to do so for the foreseeable future. 

The grande et petite sonnerie is, in watchmaking, usually combined with a minute repeater complication as well (hey, in for a dime, in for a lot of dollars). The grande et petite sonnerie chimes en passant, or in passing – in full-strike mode, in other words, it will chime the hours on the hour, as well as the quarter hours. In small strike (petite sonnerie) mode, it will strike only the hours, and wristwatch repeaters generally also have a “silent” mode, in which the passing strikes do not sound at all.

The minute repeater complication, by contrast, strikes “on-demand” chiming the hours, quarter hours past the hour, and the minutes past the most recent quarter-hour, whenever a slide or button in the case is pressed. Back in 2013, HODINKEE had a chance to record on video what was, at the time, the entire collection of repeaters in Patek’s portfolio at an event in New York, and it remains (to me anyway) one of the most engrossing pieces of content we’ve ever produced.

Cosmetically, the new 6301P is a bit of a return to form for Patek; the company has been experimenting quite a bit in recent years with design (well, for Patek, anyway), but the 6301P has little in the way of extraneous ornamentation – unlike the floridly engraved original version of the Grandmaster Chime, for instance, which to be honest I didn’t mind in the least given the equally florid complexity of the watch. But then again, to say that I’m not a client for that sort of watch is to say nothing at all (never say never, though). The amount of detail on the platinum case is restricted, more or less, to essentials – there is a button in the crown for the repeater, and a slide in the case-band for selecting the strike mode. 

There is a slight recess in the case edge flowing uninterrupted from the lugs, and across the case edge itself, which gives a bit of depth to the proceedings and helps visually lighten what might otherwise seem a rather massive design – as does the concave bezel profile. If the design seems familiar to avid Patek enthusiasts, there’s a reason – it’s quite reminiscent of the 5370P split-seconds chronograph, with which the 6301P shares the platinum case, grand feu black enamel dial, Breguet-style Arabic numerals, chemin-de-fer minute track – as well as the concave bezel and recessed, brush-polished case flanks (you can’t help but think that the 5370P and 6301P would make quite a fine two-watch collection). 

At 44.8mm x 12mm, this is a somewhat large diameter but not excessively thick wristwatch, especially given its complexity. The movement itself is the new Patek caliber GS 36-750 PS IRM, which is itself 37mm x 7.5mm – but there is quite a lot going on in those tight quarters, about which more in a minute.

The case has one other little detail, which is a diamond set in between the lugs, as is customary nowadays for all Patek platinum-cased watches. I think normally we would find it at 6:00, but of course, that position is taken up with the function slide. The dial is quite a lovely thing – black grand feu enamel over a gold base, with long, delicate, tapering leaf hands – which, surprisingly, have lume on them.

This took me very much by surprise – after all, the whole point of chiming complications, historically, was to allow the owner to find out the time after dark (it is easy to forget in this post-incandescent day and age that before electric lights, after dark was pretty damned dark).

This is the kind of decision making that might at first elicit howls of outrage from traditionalists – lume on a chiming watch, what the hell? – but at the same time, it makes an odd sort of sense, if you think about it. After all, one might not necessarily want to have to rely only on the chiming system to tell the time in the dark, or the strike train might have run down, or you might want to know the time without activating the repeater when it’s, you know, in between 12:15 and 12:30, or something.

In short, it is always nice to have options and, as the lume application is almost unnoticeable in any case (certainly during the hours of daylight), it is hardly an impediment to enjoying the aesthetics of the watch. Why not have all the modern conveniences?

On to the movement. The caliber GS 36-750 PS IRM has a three-day power reserve for the going train, and a 24-hour power reserve in full strike mode. As is generally the case for a grand strike watch, there are separate mainspring barrels for the strike works and for the going train (the crown winds the mainspring for the going train in one direction and the mainspring for the strike mainspring; there are two mainspring barrels for each train, for a total of four).

The movement strikes on three gongs, tuned to a low, medium, and high note. In grand strike mode, the hours are struck on the lowest-pitched gong, while the quarters are struck as a triple strike – in grand strike mode, the number of hours are also struck before the quarters, for every quarter strike (because hey, who can remember that the last hour strike was 3 a.m. when it’s 3:45 in the morning?). In small strike mode, only the hours are struck.

In grand strike mode, by the way, you have a total of 1,056 strikes in a 24-hour period and, naturally, they must all be accurate. I vividly remember a visit to a factory where a grand strike watch was being evaluated and being shown the obvious – that to evaluate the function of a grand strike watch, you have to listen to every chime, every hour and every quarter, for a full 24-hour period, and if just one is off, off comes the caseback (I would imagine, with some swearing). 

The speed of the strike works is controlled by a centrifugal silent regulator, and it, as well as the gongs and hammers, is visible through the caseback. The actual striking works are on the dial side and therefore invisible. It is certainly understandable that one would want to see that mechanism as well, but there is so much going on that to do so would render the watch almost illegible, and in any case, I have always felt that while it’s nice to see behind the curtain a little bit, we could all do with a little more mystery in life. If you want even more mystery, Patek provides a solid platinum caseback as well.

There are some modern features to the movement – a silicon (Spiromax) balance spring – but by and large, what you see through the caseback is top-tier traditional Genevan movement finishing: rounded anglage, polished flanks, creamy Geneva stripes, black-polished steel, mirror-bright countersinks, the whole nine yards.

A couple of patents from the Grandmaster Chime have made their way into the caliber GS 36-750 PS IRM as well. One of them has to do with mechanically isolating the strike train from the going train – usually in a grand strike watch, they remain mechanically linked even in silent mode, but in the Grandmaster Chime, and now caliber GS 36-750 PS IRM, they are decoupled completely, reducing power consumption and contributing to the 72-hour power reserve. The other is a patent for a single switch for selecting all three strike modes.

One final very unusual feature is the seconds display.

For this movement, Patek Philippe has actually used an instant-jumping seconds mechanism, better known as a dead-beat seconds. (While I feel it’s a bit sensitive to avoid the term – many brands refer to the complication with a euphemism, including Rolex with the Tru-Beat – I also kind of get it; let’s face it, dead-beat is not a complimentary term in English.)

This is an interesting and unusual choice – a complication that is deceptively simple-looking but fairly complex to implement and which suits the discreet nature of the watch rather well. It makes me very much want to get my hands on one because, of course, what you want to see is the strike beginning at the exact moment the seconds hand jumps from 59 to 60 – I bet it does, but I would still love to see it all the same. 

The jumping seconds mechanism is driven off the movement fourth wheel, and has a couple of silicon components – used in this case for both its ability to function without lubrication, and for its low mass, both of which are important to this complication, as the action is very fast (and oiling the two components in question would produce drag). This particular mechanism for the jumping seconds has been seen before, also in 2014 – in the ref. 5275, an hour-striking watch with jumping hours, minutes and seconds.

According to Patek, integrating a seconds display into the caliber GS 36-750 PS IRM proved to be one of the greater technical challenges in designing the watch – the Grandmaster Chime, from which the strike works are derived, did not have a running seconds display and figuring out how to integrate one had to therefore be done somewhat from a blank sheet of paper.

Patek has announced this as “price on request,” but as their chiming complications sit at the top of their complications… well, I don’t even want to speculate (and there would be no point). It’s one of the most attractive new complications from Patek in some time – very refined design, restrained and elegant, with a number of features (including that jumping seconds) which elevate it even within the rarefied category of which it is a part.

It takes great confidence to debut a new chiming complication in platinum as well – usually not a watchmaker’s first choice for a chiming complication as its density and structure tend to deaden sound, but it is true that Patek has had considerable experience getting the most, acoustically speaking, out of this intractable material. For all its grandeur, it’s an almost reassuring thing to see, in a way – a clear expression of pride in Patek’s past, and of confidence in its future as both a traditionalist’s haven and a center of innovation as well.

The Patek Philippe ref. 6301P Grande et Petite Sonnerie, Répétition Minutes Avec Seconde Morte: Case, 950 platinum, 44.8 x 12mm; not water resistant, protected against moisture and dust, with sapphire front and back and optional solid platinum caseback. Movement, Caliber GS 36-750 PS IRM. Manually wound mechanical movement with 703 components. Grande and petite sonnerie, minute repeater on three gongs. Jumping seconds. Strikework mode indicator (petite sonnerie, grande sonnerie, silence). Power-reserve indicators for movement and strikework. 37mm x 7.5mm, 72-hour power reserve for the going train and 24-hour power reserve for the sonnerie in grand strike mode. Frequency, 25,200 vph, running in 95 jewels; Gyromax balance with Spiromax balance spring.

Not a limited edition but very limited production. Price on request from Patek Philippe, where you’ll also find a full video technical explanation of the watch.
 

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