Last year I was staying at a particularly grand country house – a castle actually, alas not an every-weekend occurrence – where I found myself captivated by an extremely whimsical longcase clock. I would have said that it was late 17th century, and below the dial boasted a diorama depicting a fleet of vessels rocking back and forth, with some sort of divine figure making an appearance from behind the clouds. I imagined it was either in honour of a great naval triumph or alternatively one of those complex allegorical scenes that delighted artists in Stuart England.
This baroque and unexpected visual treat made me wish that I saw more of this sort of creative panache in contemporary horology. Then, a few months later, I set eyes on Melchior (SFr 35,000, about £30,000, pictured), a gleaming robot that looks like it has stepped out of the science-fiction films I watched as a child. The difference is that Melchior is a clock: two discs – one displaying hours, the other minutes – rotate in the middle of his torso. But perhaps it is more accurate to describe Melchior as a decorative object, a sculpture that happens to tell the time.
Melchior was made by MB&F – and brand eponym Max Büsser explains that the name came from a family tradition of first names that alternated between Balthazar and Melchior for generations, but which fell into desuetude with his father.
Büsser’s clocks and watches are among the most far-out creations in the horological world today, and in 2011 he opened a gallery, the MB&F MAD Gallery, which he describes as a “captivating universe of kinetic art where horological machines and mechanical-art devices reign supreme”. The first exhibition space, in Geneva’s old town, was followed by one in Taipei in 2014, and another is set to open in Dubai. This crossroad of culture and clockwork is fascinating. Until a few years ago, the dominant interest was mechanical, but now the pendulum of taste has swung back towards viewing timepieces as objects of beauty as well.
Enamelling, for example, once almost extinct, has returned to popularity. But for the enamel artist, the limited “canvas” offered by a watch dial only a couple of centimetres across must be a frustration. In part to maintain and develop these craft skills, Patek Philippe continued to make its celebrated dome clocks (example pictured, price on request), even when there was not the demand. “We don’t count on the market, we count more on our own craftspeople, and if we cannot sell the clocks, I keep them,” says Patek Philippe president Thierry Stern. “At one point we had over 80 dome clocks in stock” – no small number, given one might take an artist up to a year to complete. “Today, however, it’s almost impossible to find one,” continues Stern, neatly illustrating the recent surge in popularity of this kind of work.
In the context of renewed interested in artistic techniques, it is easy to see why these dome clocks have found favour. Relatively speaking, they present huge amounts of space on which to develop a theme and which, because of their curved and rounded form, present unique and inspiring challenges for the artisans. And chez Patek, enamelling on clocks is frequently mixed with other techniques such as engraving and wood marquetry to heighten the visual effect.
Marquetry is a métier d’art almost as rich and varied as enamelling. Recently, Cartier has introduced such recondite disciplines as marquetry of flower petals, and has now used straw marquetry to dazzling effect in a limited series of 18 palladium and silver table clocks with iridescent blue dials of subtle colour gradations from cornflower to cobalt.
Cartier has long had a reputation as a clockmaker – its heritage during the art deco years is particularly rich with desk and table clocks, while its rare and famous mystery clocks, made in small numbers during the early 20th century, are among the most miraculous of its creations – but its renewed focus on creative clockmaking saw the launch of the Etourdissant collection last July. This featured a mystery clock (price on request, pictured) in white gold, amethyst, agate, turquoise, onyx, baguette-cut diamonds and brilliant‑cut diamonds, with an eight-day movement – even if it did not tell the time, it would make a handsome abstract sculpture.
“For the past three years we have had a new eye on hardstones,” says Cartier’s director of image, style and heritage Pierre Rainero, “the poetry that comes from them and what makes each exceptional.” Of the decision to mix hardstones and precious gemstones on clocks, “We feel it is the right time,” he says. “We also have to imagine the context in which they will come to be placed, taking into consideration transparency, the mix of colours and the architecture of today. And we go beyond the idea of art deco to optical art.”
Of course, Cartier was not the only maker of beautiful clocks during the art deco years; together Verger Frères and Vacheron Constantin made some of the most attractive decorative clocks of the time. Last year, after a considerable hiatus, Vacheron Constantin returned to clockmaking (table clock pictured, price on request). “We restarted as part of our 260th anniversary celebrations,” says Vacheron’s head of heritage Julien Marchenoir. “Inspiration came from the maison’s art deco clocks, and specifically one presented at the Swiss national exhibition in 1939. It features guillochage, enamel and hardstones – and a substantial mechanical element: inside is an open-work calibre with 30 days’ power reserve and a constant-force escapement.
“We had to source the required size of rock crystal from different places around the world, but even then we had to be ready for some surprises – as when you cut it, sometimes it explodes.”
Indeed, rising interest in artistic clocks has been good news for crystal houses; Lalique has created an exceptional series of clocks with Parmigiani. The Fleurier-based watch brand had originally asked Lalique to make the walls of its 15-day clock, but when the brands later collaborated to restore a 1920s Lalique clock (pictured) with a movement set in a decorated glass roundel, Parmigiani’s product development director Florin Niculesco responded with a more ambitious idea – to collaborate on a reinterpretation of this classic piece. “We found the original mould and then tried to find the right movement – assembling around a dozen,” says Niculesco. The resulting Day and Night clock (price on request) is an object that marries classic art deco design to an exquisite movement.
Another classic from the art deco period is Jaeger-LeCoultre’s Atmos clock (£81,000, pictured), a marvel of engineering that derives its power from tiny variations in temperature and barometric pressure. Wonderful though it is, it had become a trifle dusty, but all that changed in 2008 when it was reimagined in a three-way collaboration between Jaeger‑LeCoultre, Baccarat and era-defining designer Marc Newson.
“One of the major challenges was that Marc just wanted to use one single piece of crystal, which was difficult both in terms of technical development and production,” recalls Jaeger’s Stéphane Belmont. The result was a clock that seemed suspended in a cuboid crystal globe. It was such a success that a second edition of a larger clock was made, this time in blue – even though it meant leaving a huge amount of unused crystal. “When you colour the crystal, you contaminate the whole production with pigment,” says Belmont. “We had to buy the lot.”
Jaeger also worked with Hermès-owned crystal-maker Saint-Louis on a faceted hand-blown crystal globe to house the Atmos, which launched in 2013: the Boule. Hermès also makes the pendulette Boule, an eight-day mechanical movement housed in a crystal sphere that magnifies the time.
“Clocks even more than watches are decorative objects,” says Guillaume de Seynes, the member of the Hermès family now overseeing its watchmaking business. “I have a Boule clock on my desk; I wind it every morning and look at it throughout the day – it is a wonderful piece of art and savoir faire.” And, looking into this mesmerising crystal ball, it is possible to see not just the time, but also a bright future for the art clock.