Review: MeisterSinger Bell Hora

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The German brand MeisterSinger occupies a strange niche in the current horological landscape. They have become known as a maker of single hand watches, which in the wide world of time telling formats, remains infrequently utilized. The reason for this, I think, is the necessary lack of focus on precision time telling. Think about alternative dial layouts and I think you’ll start to see what I mean. Regulators, digital watches, retrograde displays, and the like leave a simple three hand format behind and move toward something that you can at least make an argument is better at gauging the precise time than a standard display. But a one handed watch has no illusions that it’ll be the choice of those of us who are constantly refreshing time.gov to ascertain if our COSC chronometers are indeed still within proper spec. These watches demand a more relaxed approach to time telling, and in the current moment, where precision, legibility, and accuracy are buzzwords across the watch community, one handed watches simply don’t generate much attention. 

It’s too bad, because at least when it comes to MeisterSinger, there are some interesting things happening in one handed watch design that should excite watch nerds who are interested in historical watchmaking. One handed watches themselves are very much an artifact of another era, and indeed draw on one of the earliest time telling devices as inspiration: the sundial. This type of minimal timekeeping was extended to 18th century clockmaking, and for a long time clocks with a single hand were quite common. Minute hands made their way into clocks by the end of the 18th century, and the advent of the railroad eventually made them essential, and led to miniaturization, standardized timekeeping, the need for regional time zones, and many other things we simply take for granted today. But if you can somehow imagine the life you’d lead in the pre-industrial age, can you really think of a reason you’d need to know the time down to the minute? It’s almost certain that having a vague idea of the hour would be enough, and wearing a MeisterSinger for a few weeks (my first extended experience with a one handed watch, ever) made me realize that even today, precision might be a bit overrated. 

But the one handedness of it all is really only the beginning of the story with this particular watch, MeisterSinger’s new Bell Hora. This watch takes the brand’s existing jump hour module and modifies it such that at the passing of each hour the watch releases a single, and quite enjoyable, chime. The complication, known as the sonnerie au passage is very old fashioned, and in the recent past has been executed in watches made by Breguet, Audemars Piguet, and others, but often in the service of other even more complex chiming mechanisms. The Bell Hora’s brief is quite simple and distinct from a true repeater watch in that the chime emanates in the same manner at a regular interval. 

I was genuinely taken with the unique experience of wearing the Bell Hora and simply having it around for a few weeks. Unlike most watches, this one makes an impression just sitting on a desk, regularly reminding you of its presence in a particularly charming way. While the watch is far from perfect, and I have some nitpicks with respect to the design of the case, I was surprised by how taken I was with this watch and its many eccentricities. There’s a lot of deep watch nerd stuff happening here that’s definitely worth exploring. Let’s get into it. 

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$4195

Review: MeisterSinger Bell Hora

Case
Stainless steel
Movement
MS Bell
Dial
Blue
Lume
None
Lens
Sapphire
Strap
Leather
Water Resistance
5 bar
Dimensions
43 x 49.5mm
Thickness
13mm
Lug Width
20mm
Crown
Push/pull
Warranty
Yes
Price
$4195

Sonneries, Repeaters, and a Clever Module 

The sonnerie au passage is only one example of a family of complications that is among the most exotic in all of watchmaking. Chiming watches have a long history dating back hundreds of years, and are considered by many to be among the most difficult complications to fashion, requiring hundreds of components and precise engineering to achieve not only on-demand chiming to call out the exact time, but a pleasing sound. Repeater watches come in many different flavors, with chimes that call out the time in different ways, with chimes of different tones and varying intervals. There are repeating watches that chime the minutes at five minute and ten minute intervals, for example, which necessitate different gearings and for gongs to be constructed such that they sound distinct from one another, so the user can easily identify chimes for hours, ten minute intervals, and single minute intervals as the chiming is set in motion. In practice, it’s all very intuitive once you understand what each chiming sound represents. At least, it seems intuitive. I can’t personally claim a ton of hands-on experience with repeating watches, being a humble member of the watch media, and not a member of any particular royal family. 

Repeaters begin to chime when the wearer actuates a slider, usually found on the side of the watch’s case. The Bell Hora’s chime, however, is not activated by the user, and thus actually has more in common with grande and petite sonnerie watches, which effectively chime the hour and quarter hour (in a grande sonnerie) and the hour and quarter hours that have passed since the last hour strike (in a petite sonnerie) as they go by without user intervention. A sonnerie of any kind is obviously far more complex in that it’s giving you a specific time through a chime every fifteen minutes, but the automatic nature of it all links up with the sonnerie au passage in an obvious way. 

Because the Bell Hora isn’t required to tell you precisely what time it is through its chime, the mechanics of it are far more rudimentary than a repeater or more complex sonnerie that must translate the current time to an audible sound, either at an interval or on demand, while always retaining and generating enough power to properly do so. The implementation of the sonnerie au passage in the Bell Hora is quite ingenious, and I know of no other watch that does it in quite the same way (if you do, please let us know in the comments). 

MeisterSinger’s chiming module is located directly under the dial. Image credit: MeisterSinger

What MeisterSinger has done here is a relatively simple conversion, applying the fundamental architecture of their jump hour module to the sonnerie au passage. Both work in similar ways. A jump hour, like any other calendar complication that works with a quick snap at the moment of change, requires power to build before the “jump” occurs. In MeisterSinger’s jump hour watches (and in the Bell Hora) the module for the complication is connected to the movement’s minute wheel, drawing its power over the course of a full hour. In a jump hour watch, when the time comes, that power is released all at once, creating an instantaneous switch from one hour to the next, read through an aperture on the dial. For the Bell Hora, that power is transferred to a simple gong, struck once.

The audible chime that you’ll hear every hour as you wear the Bell Hora is quick, not overly resonant, but definitely noticeable in real world situations. If you’re outdoors at the top of the hour, you might not hear it if you find yourself in the middle of a busy city street, with noises from passing cars, construction, and the beat of life happening around you. But I can report that I did hear the chime (quite easily) inside a moderately busy coffee shop during my testing, as did a friend sitting across the table from me. When we hear about exotic, high end chiming watches, a great deal of focus is placed on how loud and clear the best ones sound – they seem to defy logic in that a sound so strong and precise could come from such a small package. I don’t want to raise expectations too high with the Bell Hora: the sound of its chime is not going to be comparable to the best repeaters from the most storied luxury brands. It’s subtle, and not overpowering, but it’s definitely a chime and not simply a rattling vibration, which is what you might be expecting if your only experience with watches that make noise is a simple alarm watch.  

The Dial 

Like other MeisterSinger watches, the dial is defined by a 12 hour scale, with hash marks of varying lengths between the hours dividing each in half, then into quarters, and finally into five minute intervals. Because the movement hacks, the Bell Hora can in fact be set to the exact time quite easily every five minutes, although in practice, unless your vision is comparable to that of a comic book superhero, when you actually check the time it’ll register as approximate. For me, and my not-so-great eyesight, this meant understanding the time in roughly 15 minute increments. My thought process when reading the time would essentially be to intuitively evaluate how close to a given quarter hour I was. While certainly not as precise as a to-the-minute reading, I was surprised by how little I missed being able to tell the exact time throughout the day. It honestly had no real bearing on my ability to keep on schedule with respect to meetings and appointments, catch a movie, or anything else that requires one to know the time. 

Each hashmark represents a five minute interval

Now, I’ll admit that I didn’t subject myself to a time-free environment for the purposes of this test. I sit at a computer most of the day like many of you, and the exact time is constantly displayed right in the corner of my screen. And I have a cell phone that loudly announces the time whenever a notification flashes, and indeed whenever I pick the thing up. So I was never completely lost without a watch that easily reads the minutes, and I came to enjoy this particular presentation of the time. There’s something visually striking and enjoyable about a single hand giving you most of the information you need, and seeing it gradually move around the dial throughout the course of the day. It won’t be for everyone (obviously) and I’m not sure it’s a time telling method I’d invest in personally, but I grew fond of it in the context of the Bell Hora. 

There are currently two versions of the Bell Hora available from MeisterSinger. In addition to the “Blue Sunburst” seen here, you can choose one in a somewhat unfortunately named “Natural Ivory” color. The blue, in my opinion, is very well done, and the “sunburst” aspect really comes alive in natural light. In most indoor situations, it reads as a straightforward blue in a dark tone. Numerals are nicely printed in a high contrast white, with all 24 hours represented in what amounts to a spiral shape. Small sectors have been etched into the dial for visual interest and to aid in recognizing the time at a glance. MeisterSinger refers to this as a “fine line index,” and while I can imagine it aiding in quick recognition of the time, it’s very subtle on this blue dial and barely perceptible in many lighting conditions I found myself in. Dial text is appropriately minimal, with the brand’s wordmark and logo near the 12:00 position, and “Bell Hora” in an ornate script at 6:00, along with an image of a bell. I could do without the “Bell Hora” text, but I think the bell is a nice touch, and highlights this watch’s unique feature in a fun way. 

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On a watch like this, the single hand naturally takes a prominent position of importance in the dial layout, and MeisterSinger’s all purpose pointer is long, thin, and in the same bright white as the dial text. Considering the importance, both symbolically and literally, of a single hand on any MeisterSinger watch, it’s a little surprising that the design of the hand is so subdued. It’s just a simple, very long, very pointy, triangular design, with a modest counterweight at the rear. It’s certainly easy to pick out (there’s no competition) but without any lume, this watch is not advised if you regularly find yourself needing to know the time within a five minute increment in a low light scenario. 

The Case 

The Bell Hora measures 43mm in diameter and is 13mm thick with a lug to lug measurement that spans about 49.5mm. This is a large watch, and I found its wrist presence to be exacerbated slightly by the nature of the dial, which is quite expansive and abutted by a sharply angled polished bezel. In spite of the somewhat long lug to lug measurement, the case is actually fairly forgiving thanks to lugs that angle downward to hug the wrist, rather than stretching straight out into oblivion. The end result is a watch that feels (and looks) chunky on my 7.5 inch wrist, but is not actually uncomfortable to wear. 

The 43mm case has some real heft, but wears well for its size

Finishing is straightforward, with what could best be described as a satin finish along the case band with contrasting high polish over the tops of the lugs and the aforementioned fixed bezel. MeisterSinger is a German watchmaker, and the case has some of the same feelings of heft and robustness that is common to other German brands. While the one handed nature of the watch coupled with a dial that eres toward the refined would have most thinking “dress watch,” the case is certainly more on the sporty side in terms of its profile and feel on the wrist and in hand. 

It’s worth mentioning here that case dimensions are often tough to get exactly right with chiming watches, as the case’s volume contributes greatly to the sound that emanates from inside of it. The base movement here is a Sellita SW200, which you can certainly find in watches with more slender measurements, but one has to assume that the chiming module combined with a need to make the sound meaningfully audible has resulted in a case that’s, for lack of a better term, blown up a bit in size. If that is indeed the situation with the Bell Hora, I think it’s a fair trade – I wouldn’t want to see (or hear) a watch with smaller dimensions if it meant a clunkier operation or compromised chime. MeisterSinger has done a nice job of making this 43mm design as wearable as possible, though it will inevitably be too big for some. 

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The other quirk of the Bell Hora’s case is the small button located at the 2:00 position. Pulling out on this button effectively stops the watch from chiming on the hour, so if you find yourself working in a quiet room or simply don’t want to be disturbed by an hourly chime, you have the ability to keep them at bay. When fully extended, this small pusher reveals a black tube that’s meant to signify that the sonnerie au passage has been deactivated. This is a nice feature, though it’s frankly difficult to imagine a scenario where you’d want to use it, given how unobtrusive the chime is in a real world scenario. 

The Movement

As mentioned above, the movement in the Bell Hora is essentially a Sellita SW200 with a module built on top of it to give it hourly chiming capabilities (this watch’s architectural sibling, the hour jumping Salthora, used an ETA 2824 caliber when it was introduced in 2014). MeisterSinger has dubbed the movement the MS Bell, and you  can expect it to run for 38 hours on a full wind. It’s visible through the sapphire caseback, but aside from a rotor with the MeisterSinger brand name running across it, there’s nothing to write home about when it comes to the finishing. I am not an expert on acoustics, so I have to wonder what kinds of differences might be heard in the chime depending on the material used on the caseback. Of course, many very high end repeaters reveal their gongs through transparent casebacks, so the difference might be minimal (or, sapphire might make for a better, clearer sound). 

The Wearing Experience

It’s hard to think of a watch for which the wearing experience is so tied to the complication. I don’t know that everyone will be as charmed by the chiming aspect of the Bell Hora as I was, but I found the watch to have a presence that’s almost calming. As with any watch, as you’re going about your day, you tend to forget about it as you focus on other things, and then every sixty minutes the chime rings out and you’re reminded, temporarily, that there’s something unique on your wrist. I came to enjoy that feeling, even if the watch itself, because of the case size and more formal feel to the dial, isn’t really in my wheelhouse. 

The Bell Hora I was able to sample came mounted on a brown calf leather strap with crocodile grain. This is my least favorite kind of strap – there’s something disingenuous about making calf leather look like something completely different, and as most of these straps tend to be, it felt somewhat stiff and not of an extraordinarily high quality. This watch would dress down quite nicely on a suede strap with some texture to it, which would be how I’d choose to wear it if I ever found one of these in my collection. MeisterSinger also offers this watch on a mesh bracelet, which looks great in the photos provided on their website, but hasn’t been handled by me personally. 

Conclusions 

I wasn’t expecting to like this watch nearly as much as I did given the many variables working against it in my own mind before even strapping it to my wrist. It’s too big, I thought, and the single hand is unappealing. I wasn’t even drawn to the blue dial based on early photos I had seen before the watch arrived. But the strangeness of it all, and the way this watch uses modern ingenuity to reach some very old school notes, eventually won me over. 

A question I’m asking myself as my time with the Bell Hora winds down is whether or not it has to be one handed for it to really work. Would the watch be as charming if it had a “normal” two or three hand layout? Surely the module could be made to work in a watch with an additional hand. But I’m honestly not sure if it would hold the same appeal were it not for the single hand. There’s something ancient and mysterious about a one handed watch viewed through the eyes of a modern watch enthusiast, and a chiming complication helps to magnify it. 

This watch also benefits from an easy way to enjoy it passively. I’m accustomed to removing my watch when I’m sitting at my desk and working (an old habit to preserve bracelets, and I just find it more comfortable when typing on a keyboard), and having my attention drawn to the Bell Hora as each hour passes was a pleasure. I also found that placed on different surfaces and at different angles, the watch had resonant qualities that varied considerably. This is an admittedly nerdy and niche way to enjoy and evaluate a watch, but seems to be part of the fun of experiencing a watch that chimes. 

I don’t know that I’d want to own this iteration of the Bell Hora (the dimensions would be tough for me to accommodate on a day to day basis) but if MeisterSinger elects to iterate on this idea, it’s conceivable that they’d come up with something that’s weirdly appealing to my own somewhat peculiar taste. The Bell Hora is very much a curiosity, and I think if your collection has room for a watch of that stripe, it’s very much worth considering. MeisterSinger

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Zach is a native of New Hampshire, and he has been interested in watches since the age of 13, when he walked into Macy’s and bought a gaudy, quartz, two-tone Citizen chronograph with his hard earned Bar Mitzvah money. It was lost in a move years ago, but he continues to hunt for a similar piece on eBay. Zach loves a wide variety of watches, but leans toward classic designs and proportions that have stood the test of time. He is currently obsessed with Grand Seiko.
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