Talkers & Repeaters: Functional and Stylish Watches for the Visually Impaired
Innovative complications and cool designs make these timepieces a gift to the senses.
With the recent introduction of record-setting minute repeaters from Bulgari and Patek Philippe, there has been a lot of discussion of how charming this chiming complication is. But for the visually impaired, these timepieces are tool watches.
As a group, the visually impaired are not a monolith. Vision loss exists on a spectrum from the profoundly blind to the partially sighted. And everybody has different time-telling needs that are not adequately served by your typical analog or smartwatches.
Fortunately, the needs of the visually impaired led to a wider discussion of watches that use sound, vibration, and touch to help wearers read the time (and look good doing it).
Here are a few outstanding examples.
A repeater is a complication in a mechanical watch or clock that chimes the hours and often minutes at the press of a button. They were originally designed to help people tell the time in the dark, which in the days before electric light was most of the day. They also found a large audience who were visually impaired.
Historically, Patek Philippe has been a leader of innovation for this complication, and the brand is still pushing the technological envelope with the “Advanced Research” Fortissimo Ref. 5750P.
Released last December, this minute repeater introduces a novel module that amplifies the volume of the repeater’s time strike while simultaneously preserving the richness of its tone. This module features an ultra-thin oscillating sapphire wafer rather than the traditional vibrating membrane to keep the mechanism from becoming too bulky.
Though it seems insignificant, that is an important advancement. It means the watch can project sound approximately six times further than traditional minute repeaters – a veritable sonic boom if you check the time in a loud or crowded place.
Many watches marketed for the blind and visually impaired rely on sound. But some people in this group may also have hearing challenges. That is where tactile timepieces come in.
Tactile watches are nothing new. In fact, the first à tact (French for “touch”) watch was made in 1799 by Abraham-Louis Breguet and commissioned by Napoleon for his wife, Josephine. A jewel-encrusted pocket watch, Empress Josephine simply needed to touch an arrow-shaped pointer to assess the time.
Famous American author, disability rights advocate, political activist, and lecturer Helen Keller, who lost her sight and hearing as an infant, also had a Swiss-made à tact pocket watch. Keller’s watch, given to her by retired diplomat John Hitz, is currently on display at the Smithsonian.
However, Keller’s watch is more complicated. As described by the Smithsonian’s website: “This uncommon watch has a case studded around the edge with pins that correspond to the hours on the watch dial. A revolving hand stops at a point between the pins that corresponds to the hour and approximate minute. With the hand and pins as locators, it was possible to feel the approximate time in the dark.”
Those are historical examples. One favorite modern-day à tact watch is the Bradley by Eone. This futuristic time teller has a three-dimensional dial with raised markers and balls instead of hands to indicate the hours and minutes.
Influenced by the topographic surfaces of brutalist architecture, the design aesthetic of the Bradley is also very striking. And, of course, it is very touch-friendly, as well, with its case made of stainless steel while the face is ceramic to ensure that no matter how often it comes in contact with fingertips, it will stay clean.
Dot Dot Dot
In 1821, Louis Braille invented a writing system to help the visually impaired read. This system quickly moved beyond books to things like watches. And now technology has advanced enough to use tiny raised cells to create the first fully Braille smartwatch.
Called the Dot Watch and developed by a South Korean start-up, this smartwatch runs on the world's smallest Braille cell technology. Moreover, the Dot Watch can sync with iPhone or Android smartphones via Bluetooth. So, not only does it tell the time, but any text message you receive on your phone will also be instantly translated to Braille and forwarded to the Dot Watch.
On the minimalist face of the watch is a Braille display that has four tiny cells. Underneath that are two touch sensors that allow users to scroll through and read each notification. And on the right side of the timepiece, three buttons that control the functions. Charged via a USB charger that comes with the device, the Dot Watch also includes a stopwatch, timer, and vibrating alarm for individuals who are deaf and blind.
The Dot Watch also looks amazing. With its super simple dial and case and mesh strap, its silhouette feels good to the touch. Plus, because people wear watches in all sorts of environments, it also comes with protective ProSkins covers to protect the dial from dirt and dust.
The smooth, sleek surfaces of the Apple Watch are the opposite of a tactile timepiece. But thanks to Apple’s Voiceover software, you can turn your device into a talking watch. And although it’s not specifically marketed to folks with vision loss, the Apple Watch also allows users the ability to customize contrast, zoom, grayscale, and font size.
However, for occasions when a talking watch would be a distraction, such as in the middle of a board meeting, the Apple Watch also offers an option known as Taptic Time. When this feature is activated, vibrations, known as haptics, tap out a series of buzzes to discreetly indicate the time.
If you want a watch that feels ultra-luxe as well, we recommend the Apple Watch Hermès with its elegant case shape and series of quick-release straps that you can swap out to suit your activities.
What’s the Buzz?
Sometimes, for example, in the middle of a tough workout, you need a vibrating watch with a more powerful buzz. And that’s where the G-SHOCK GD350 comes in. Designed for use on clandestine night missions, this watch is also a good option for those with low vision.
The GD350 has all the stylistic and technological signatures of a G-SHOCK, including a rugged resin construction and a shock-absorbing core. But it also offers functions that make it easier to operate by the visually impaired. For example, for maximum legibility, it has a large face, a high luminance LED display, and an Auto Light feature that illuminates the dial whenever the watch is tilted towards the face.
Plus, the countdown timer employs a large, easily identifiable button for easy operation. At the end of a countdown, alerts are issued by either a vibration or a tone plus LED flash operation. Finally, the caseback design ensures that you will feel those good vibes.