Stunningly sculptural tabletop timepieces

Leading watchmakers give way to flights of delightful fancy. Video courtesy of Van Cleef & Arpels

Van Cleef & Arpels automaton process | Video: Van Cleef & Arpel

When it comes to waterlilies, Monet seems to own the freehold of this piece of artistic real estate. But I don’t recall seeing a Monet that shows a fairy on a waterlily. For that one has to turn to the latest creation by Van Cleef & Arpels (price on request), a work that’s neither a piece of jewellery nor a watch but combines the disciplines of jeweller and watchmaker to create an object larger than any watch or jewel, a tabletop sculpture.

Droplets of crystal “dew” sparkle like liquid diamond on the veined enamel expanse of the lily pad. At its centre is the flower, its petals of palest pinkish peach closed. Next to that is the fairy that Monet never painted, a graceful white-gold figure with wings of plique-à-jour enamel and a dress that seems to have been dip-dyed in perfectly graded diamonds and sapphires. The lily sits on top of a veneered wooden base on which a ladybird of cabochon rubies makes its way along a scale marked with the hours of the day to give the time. As a combination of the skills of ébéniste, enameller, lapidary, jeweller, goldsmith, silversmith, sculptor and clockmaker, it would be impressive enough, but this is merely a starting point for the telling of a wordless fairy tale.

Van Cleef & Arpels yellow, white and rose gold, silver, enamel and wood Fée Ondine automaton with diamonds, sapphires, rubies, aquamarines and opals, price on request
Van Cleef & Arpels yellow, white and rose gold, silver, enamel and wood Fée Ondine automaton with diamonds, sapphires, rubies, aquamarines and opals, price on request | Image: Icone Production

For if you press a discreet lever, the lily pad undulates as though touched by an invisible ripple. The movement seems to wake the flower, which opens petal by petal as tinkling music fills the air, and a butterfly of opal and diamonds flutters out. The fairy stirs, raises her head, lazily flaps her lacy wings and, moving her body with the lithe grace of a ballerina, extends her arm to point to the butterfly, which floats back to its bower in the flower. The flower closes, the fairy lowers her arm and returns to rest as the last note of the music hangs in the air.

This mechanical tableau vivant lasts about two minutes, but it is a decade since Nicolas Bos, then creative director and now president and CEO of Van Cleef & Arpels, first had the idea of creating a tabletop automaton that expressed the brand’s style, motifs and stories. For several years the company has been making what it calls Poetic Complications, watches that tell stories – typical is Lady Arpels Pont des Amoureux, which depicts two lovers meeting on a bridge for a kiss at midnight. Watches featuring movement for decorative effect have become sought-after in recent years – think Richard Mille’s blooming flower, Bulgari’s Commedia dell’Arte and the Jaquemarts of Ulysse Nardin. But there are limits to what you can put inside a watch. “I wanted to depict a whole scenario with a fairy that comes to life with a series of movements – with the movement of the butterfly and the flower,” says Bos. “We can’t really do it in the space of a watch. And even if we could, it wouldn’t be visible enough.”

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The making of mechanical automata is like a game of multidimensional chess in which a change in one part of the mechanism can have unforeseen consequences in another. So finely balanced and coordinated is the maze of cogs, wheels, wires, levers, rods and cams moving the figures that an extra gram of weight here or change in movement there will have far-reaching effects on the power of the mechanism, the coordination and speed of the figures’ movements, and the manner of their embellishment with stones, precious metals and techniques such as enamelling. Van Cleef & Arpels has a history of creating extraordinary watches and jewellery, but this project was of an unprecedented scale and complexity, and involved – for the first time – the services of leading automata maker François Junod, who lives in the Swiss mountain village of Sainte-Croix.

Automata have obsessed mankind for thousands of years. In ancient Greece, they were built as toys or tools, and as scientific knowledge increased it was believed makers of automata would eventually create artificial life. From the 16th century, the royal courts of Europe were fascinated, and makers collaborated with artists, musicians, jewellers and goldsmiths to create ever more fabulous, extravagant and beautiful objects. The Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II was fond of wheeled galleons that “sailed” down his dining table, playing music, striking the time and finishing with a salvo of miniature cannons.

Miki Eleta gilded brass, bronze, chrome steel and glass BY 21Dez12ME automaton with rubies and lapis lazuli, about £195,000. The clock has world time, moonphase and calendar functions
Miki Eleta gilded brass, bronze, chrome steel and glass BY 21Dez12ME automaton with rubies and lapis lazuli, about £195,000. The clock has world time, moonphase and calendar functions

The golden age of automata was the 18th and early 19th centuries, when such masters as Jacques de Vaucanson made a mechanical statue of a faun that played the flute and, most famously, a duck that flapped its wings, moved its head, pecked at grain and even, it was said, excreted. More popular were the ornate “birdcage clocks” with mechanical occupants that merely sang, and the decorated boxes from which sprang tiny chirruping birds. We owe the survival of many of these to early-20th-century collectors such as Maurice Sandoz. Indeed, it was as a restorer of the clocks and automata collected by Sandoz that the watchmaker Michel Parmigiani began his career.

Where the world of Van Cleef & Arpels is an enchanted realm of fairies, Parmigiani’s is of the animal kingdom, and at the end of last year it launched an ambitious automaton (price on request) of a mare and foal in white gold cantering around the top of a clock. “It is partly because of my fascination with animal sculpture by Edouard-Marcel Sandoz [brother of Maurice Sandoz] that I decided to make horological objets d’art,” says Parmigiani. “Automata are marvellous and magical – large, fabulous playthings that are close to watchmaking, created using the same tools, principles and machines. And fascinating on a technical level.” Challenging too, with 2,200 components and three mechanisms (automaton, clock and system for triggering the automaton). Parmigiani also collaborated with François Junod. “The fact that the people with the skills needed to make these objects live and work just 10 minutes from my home is fantastic,” he says, talking of the region as if it were the appellation contrôlée of craftsmanship.

A full view of the Miki Eleta BY 21Dez12ME automaton
A full view of the Miki Eleta BY 21Dez12ME automaton

In the 18th century, the Swiss, with their highly developed culture of watchmaking, proved themselves creators of beautiful automata. The most famous was Pierre Jaquet-Droz, who achieved worldwide renown for his work, especially a trio of mechanical figures called the Musician, the Draughtsman and the Writer: doll-like automata that, as their names suggest, played music, drew and wrote. Jaquet Droz was revived as a watch brand in 2000 by the Swatch Group. In 2015 it won the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie with a masterpiece, the Charming Bird, a wristwatch that incorporated a singing bird. As a piece of horological entertainment it was one of the best and most amusing that I have seen in a long time – in effect a miniaturisation of the birdcage clocks of 200 years ago. “Today our clients expect a real automaton that they can wear on the wrist,” says CEO Christian Lattmann. “Jaquet Droz is doing what it did in the past – astonishing people, surprising them and telling a story. In 2018, which is our 280th anniversary, you will see something very surprising.”

Among the mechanical pyrotechnics we can expect from Jaquet Droz in its anniversary year is the launch of its signing machine, which uses the principles of clockwork to replicate the owner’s signature on a piece of paper placed underneath it. I first saw it in prototype a couple of years ago, and while it clearly referenced Jaquet Droz’s history, it looked sleek and contemporary, the size of a device that readers might remember as the Sony Walkman. But there are what Lattmann describes as “timing problems” and, as with other automata, the final adjustments to bring it to perfection cannot be hurried.

Parmigiani Fleurier white gold and crystal Hippologia automaton with diamonds, price on request
Parmigiani Fleurier white gold and crystal Hippologia automaton with diamonds, price on request

There are signs that the automaton is appealing to younger independent makers, as well as established maisons. MAD Gallery in Geneva, for example, recently showed the catchily named BY 21Dez12ME (about £195,000), a world time, moonphase, calendar clock in the shape of a flying saucer made by sculptor and self-taught clockmaker Miki Eleta. In gilded brass, bronze, chrome steel, glass, lapis lazuli and ruby, it is a substantial piece weighing 5kg and, like a small art installation, has aliens that can be arranged around it.

The MAD Gallery was set up by Maximilian Büsser, of watch brand MB&F, which has made timepieces that look like spiders and robots, as well as Star Wars-style music boxes. “I didn’t think people wanted a robot giving time; I didn’t think people wanted a spider giving time; I didn’t think people wanted a Tie fighter giving music. I just create cool stuff I would love to have.” And an automaton is the next bit of “cool stuff” that Büsser would like to have. “For years I have been seeing things like mechanical caterpillars at auction that have always blown my mind, and now we are going to do our first automaton,” he says, although he won’t say more than that it is from the animal kingdom. It was supposed to have been shown at the start of the year, “but unfortunately we’ve got a few technical issues. It’s going to come out in May.” 

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It seems that in a land famed for its punctuality, you can count on automata arriving late. 

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