This incredibly intricate set of wristwatches was able to set reminders for wearers a half-century before smartwatches existed
In 2018, Jaeger-LeCoultre released the Polaris Memovox, a modern version of an alarm watch it first began making in 1958. The new watch features a movement with a fully mechanical (as in, there’s no battery or electronics) alarm function that can be used to alert its wearer in a decidedly old-school, analogue manner.
Long before the smartphone push notification became an integral part of our hectic business and leisure lives, people relied on simpler types of portable reminders. One of these was the so-called alarm watch, a wristwatch that could be set to audibly buzz at a predetermined hour—on a bedside nightstand to awaken its wearer from slumber in the morning, or on the wrist to remind him or her of an appointment during the day.
The Polaris Memovox features a crown-operated alarm function with a separate spring barrel in addition to the main one that drives the watch’s timekeeping. The user twists the crown to wind the spring barrel and to set the alarm, in quarter-hour intervals.
The first Jaeger-LeCoultre Memovox (“voice of memory") from 1958 contained the first self-winding alarm movement ever made, the Caliber 815. The watch garnered acclaim for its practicality; it was designed to ring more loudly while placed on a surface, like a nightstand, and more discreetly while worn on the wrist. Its tone was less tinny than the chimes of some earlier alarm watches, calling to mind an old-fashioned telephone ring; Jaeger-LeCoultre achieved this more mellifluous sound with the use of a gong that ran along the inside of the caseback. The Polaris model, debuting in 1965, was the next generation: a diver’s watch with a mechanical alarm that could be perceived underwater, thus reminding its wearer that it was time to resurface.
The pioneer of the alarm feature was Vulcain, which released the aptly named Cricket in 1947. Inside the case, a tiny hammer struck a thick metal membrane, creating a cricketlike sound that was then amplified by a pierced double caseback that served as a resonance chamber. The unwinding of the alarm’s spring in its own dedicated barrel enabled the sound to persist for a full 20 seconds, while the holes in the caseback prevented the sound from being muffled.
The Cricket acquired the prestigious nickname “President’s Watch", after a group of White House news photographers gifted one to President Harry S. Truman when he left office in 1953. The Cricket subsequently found its way to other presidential wrists over the years, including those of Eisenhower, Johnson, and Nixon. While Vulcain continues to produce a wide range of complications today, the Cricket, now outfitted with the modern Caliber V-10, remains its most famous and essential collection, and Vulcain Crickets are still traditionally offered as gifts to US heads of state to this day; no word on whether the current president uses his as a reminder that it’s time to start tweeting in the morning.
Perhaps the most noteworthy modern example of the genre comes from Germany’s Glashütte Original, whose Senator Diary is not so much a wearable alarm as an audible appointment calendar: It’s the only mechanical watch whose alarm can be set more than 30 days in advance. Using a combination of crowns and pushers, the wearer can select a predetermined date on a 1-to-31-scale subdial and a predetermined hour and quarter-hour on a disk in an aperture at 6 o’clock, then set and wind the alarm for this date and time with a simple push and turn.
Unlike most wristwatch alarms, which need to operate within the current 24-hour period, this one enables its user to schedule an audible reminder for an upcoming event—a birthday, for example. The movement, in-house Caliber 100-13, is made up of no fewer than 600 pieces, including 340 in the complex alarm/appointment module alone, and its separate alarm barrel will not only provide up to a full minute of ringing but will remain set even if the energy in the watch’s main movement has run down. Good luck getting your iPhone alarm to do that.
While the mechanical alarm remains a very niche complication, several very prestigious watch maisons currently offer their own distinctive takes: Blancpain’s Villeret Réveil GMT combines an alarm with a second-time-zone display and enables the user to wind both the mainspring barrel and the alarm barrel simultaneously with a single crown. The Klepcys Réveil, from indie brand Cyrus, allows for five-minute increments in its alarm setting and chimes with a resonant, jangling cadence more akin to that of a minute repeater than an alarm watch. And Breguet’s Marine Alarme Musicale 5547, which debuted at Baselworld 2018 as part of an expanded Marine collection, displays the alarm’s set or non-set status with a nautically inspired ship’s-bell icon in an aperture at 12 o’clock on the maritime-blue, wave-patterned dial. BloombergPursuits