The ultimate feat of watchmaking: The Grande Sonnerie complication

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

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.

Taking 11 years to create, the Greubel Forsey Grande Sonnerie comprises 935 parts.

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.

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.

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