The latest complication from Ralph Lauren is a minute repeater, which seems at first glance like a risky undertaking bordering on foolhardy. After all, there are to this day quite a lot of vocal objections to the idea of Ralph Lauren doing a watch collection at all, much less one that includes such an elevated complication. At the same time though, I’ve always felt that if you are going to accept the idea of Ralph Lauren as a maker of luxury watches at all, you have to give the idea its head, so to speak, which means the question is not, does Ralph Lauren have a right to make a minute repeater, so much as it is, has Ralph Lauren made an interesting minute repeater?
The Ralph Lauren minute repeater is a 42mm x 10.10mm watch – in other words, on the flat side as both watches and minute repeaters go. For comparison, the F. P. Journe Répétition Souveraine, which is considered a thin repeater, is 8.65mm thick; Vacheron Constantin’s Patrimony Contemporaine Ultra-Thin Calibre 1731 is 8.09mm thick; the world’s thinnest repeater, the Bulgari Octo Finissimo Minute Repeater is 40mm x 6.85mm, which is a record that seems unlikely to be broken any time soon. Bear in mind as well that these are all designed as extra-flat/ultra-thin watches; the new Audemars Piguet Jules Audemars Minute Repeater is 43mm x 13.15mm, so point to Ralph Lauren for making a slim, elegant repeating watch. (This isn’t such a surprise, either; one of Lauren’s favorite watches from his own collections is the 867 square model in guilloché white gold, which is only 27.5 mm square and 5.75 mm thick – basically, the Cartier Tank that Cartier itself isn’t making).
Design-wise, this might be one of the most classically oriented repeaters out there. Generally speaking, you don’t get this sort of guilloché work on the cases or dials of most modern repeaters, which – at least in the models from AP, Vacheron and Patek – tend to skew very austere. The Ralph Lauren Minute Repeater really puts Lauren’s affection for the elegance of the Deco era on display, which is a fascinating thing – on the one hand with Lauren you have an absolutely irresistible attraction to the general atmosphere of the great outdoors, and for American Western design in particular (after all, this is the guy who put Western-inspired clothes on the map, and injected them into the general design language of modern clothing design, back in the 1970s and ’80s). On the other hand, you have the Ralph Lauren who finds the Art Deco era an endless source of quotable quotes, so to speak – an American for whom elegance is not only European, but aspirationally European. The latter is very much where the 867 collection of watches comes from and it’s definitely where the RL Minute Repeater is coming from.
All the context aside, and leaving aside for the moment the extent to which the RL Minute Repeater is a refracting lens for the disparate inspirations and motivations Lauren has imbibed over the decades, it’s as traditional a repeater, and watch, as I’ve ever seen – so much so that it’s almost reactionary.
The case, dial and hands are done to an impressive standard and the minute hand in particular is very finely done, tapering to almost nothing before the triangle-tipped circle at the end. Two criticisms: I would have left out "minute repeater" (in a watch this oriented towards early 20th century aesthetics, and minimalist elegance, the words seem to detract from the effect and the sans-serif typeface seems too modern) and, I think I’d have tried to find someplace else for "Ralph Lauren." Printing directly onto a guilloché surface can be tricky; it works in the 27mm square 867 model, I think, because where the letters are placed, the guilloché is so fine the letters give a visual impression of flatness; here there is just enough depth in the engine-turning that the letters take on a subtle but distracting ripple effect. Perhaps a flattened area onto which the logo is printed would help (a la the solution to this issue used by Audemars Piguet in the Royal Oak). Other than those quibbles, this is an impressively elegant and rather subtle repeater.
The movement is rather interesting. Obviously Ralph Lauren is not a manufacture (nor has it ever claimed to be one) and the movements in Ralph Lauren watches are supplied, at the higher end, by the Richemont Group, including IWC, Jaeger LeCoultre, and Piaget. Entry level price points are covered by Sellita calibers (totally appropriate to the price) but occasionally Ralph Lauren works with other suppliers as well. Most notably, in 2013, the movement for the Safari Tourbillon (a micro-rotor caliber) was supplied by La Fabrique du Temps, in Meyrin (just outside Geneva, and the location of a number of brand’s manufacturing centers). La Fabrique du Temps became La Fabrique du Temps Louis Vuitton in 2012, by the way, when Louis Vuitton acquired it.
The RL888 caliber appears to be a version of a minute repeater movement made by La Fabrique du Temps – the general layout is identical to that of the repeater works in Louis Vuitton’s Escale Minute Repeater Worldtime (caliber LV235) although the bridgework and aesthetics are both rather different.
The aesthetics and finish of the caliber RL888 (which, like the LV235, has a 100 hour power reserve and beats at 21,600 vph) were obviously deliberate decisions to bring the appearance of the movement in line with the overall aesthetics of the watch. Again, the layout is bordering on anachrononistic. The use of finger bridges for the center, third, and fourth wheels is something characteristic of a lot of Swiss production from the mid-to late 19th century, giving you an old-fashioned view through the back that’s a good match for the old-fashioned look of the watch overall.
The skeletonized escape wheel (which is also found in caliber LV235) is a touch of modern technology (it looks like a LIGA-fabricated metal part, not silicon) although intriguingly enough, RL888 uses a lateral lever configuration rather than the virtually ubiquitous inline lever escapement – lateral levers nowadays are found almost nowhere else than nowadays than in tourbillons, although you can find them fairly frequently in 19th century pocket watches.
This isn’t a unique piece but it is going to be made only to order, so at least for now the watch you see here is the only one of its kind. It’s going to stay a pretty rare bird, as this is obviously not a large series product! Pricing is $206,000. Now for anyone who thinks a Ralph Lauren luxury watch of any kind is prima facie absurd, this watch is not likely to convince them otherwise. However as small series repeaters go, the price (to the extent that price comparisons are even a relevant consideration for people in the market for six figure repeaters) is on the less aggressive side of the repeater spectrum (the simplest Patek repeater, the reference 5078G, is an application-only piece, priced at $350,000).
Of course the repeater is an auditory, as well as a visual, complication; here’s the Ralph Lauren Minute Repeater in action.
The volume is surprisingly good – white gold isn’t generally considered an optimum metal for repeaters although this is as much as anything else, a matter of taste. All other things being equal, you get a cooler sound than you would from rose gold (conventionally thought of as the most ideal material from a traditionalist standpoint) but that’s not necessarily bad; just different. And of course how the case and dial are actually made, as well as everything from how the gongs are tempered and tuned, to how they’re fixed to the movement plate, have a huge effect on the final sound as well; repeaters are complicated in more ways than one.
It’s worth noting also that this is a 30m water resistant watch, with the slide constructed in such a way as to help prevent water getting into the case. Traditionally, minute repeaters are in general about as water resistant as a sieve – gaskets have a tendency to deaden sound – so that’s a plus as well, and in terms of volume, certainly, the Ralph Lauren Minute Repeater doesn’t seem to have suffered from having some degree of water resistance.
This particular watch is really a prototype and you obviously can’t extrapolate from its performance to the sound of a delivered watch, but you can see (well, hear) that, right now, the higher of the two chimes need refinement – the hammer’s rest position sounds like it’s a little too close to the gong, which tends to muffle the chime prematurely (a watchmaker would say the depthing of the hammer needs adjustment and indeed, this is one of the essential steps in fine-tuning a repeater). I’d want it tweaked if I were taking delivery of this watch, but as prototype repeaters go, the overall impression was pretty positive.
As a Ralph Lauren high-end, haute de gamme luxury watch, this is no more or less challenging than any other high end Ralph Lauren watch; as I said before, if you found the idea absurd before, you’re not going to change your mind now (at least, I don’t think so). As a minute repeater, however, and taken on its own merits aesthetically, I think there’s a lot to like here – the Old World, and highly traditionalist execution of the movement and watch give an impression you don’t really get from any other repeater on the market.
The Ralph Lauren Minute Repeater is made to order, and if you’re interested you can enquire through the Ralph Lauren flagship boutique at 867 Madison Avenue in New York.