The fascination of an inanimate object that suddenly moves by complex, hidden means exerts a spell, appealing to the child in us all. We may know it is a matter of wheels and gears, but we suspend disbelief to enjoy the magic. Witness the faces of visitors to the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg on days when the Peacock Clock, created in the 1770s, is set going. Or those at Corpus Christi College in Cambridge watching John Taylor’s 2008 sculptural clock with its “time-eating” metal grasshopper escapement. Imagine the joy of such a thing in miniature on your wrist.
Watches with automata have, in fact, existed for centuries, originally commissioned by collectors from individual craftsmen to show a diverting mechanical feature – anything from a singing bird to engraved gold erotica. Traditionally, they have been a male preserve, but that is no longer the case. “Women’s watches used to be made for looks and what ticked inside was considered unimportant, but this has changed dramatically in the past decade,” says designer Richard Mille. Nicolas Bos, CEO of Van Cleef & Arpels, whose women’s jewellery watches often feature butterflies or ballerinas, agrees. “We felt it was time this masculine industry addressed what women really want,” he says. “Beautiful jewellery watches are still-lifes; I wanted to use a movement’s intrinsic mobility to bring a story to life, to have the same mysterious magic as antique automata. It could be done electronically but that has no emotion. Our clients are fascinated by craftwork – they love to see our workshops and we thought they would feel the same about these watches.”
As sales of women’s luxury mechanical watches have increased by 15 per cent in five years, brands are creating more complex designs aimed at eliciting wonder and emotion. The trend started in 2006 when Bos, then creative director at Van Cleef & Arpels, introduced its Poetic Complications range with the Lady Arpels Centenaire, a watch that tells a romantic story through a highly crafted dial and a custom-built movement. Bos turned to watchmaker Jean-Marc Wiederrecht, who has a surprisingly poetic approach for someone whose working life revolves around micro-mathematical precision. For this first model Bos wanted to mark the seasons with a watch that would revolve slowly over the year. “This needed a very complex movement that risked being too big and heavy, but Jean-Marc perfected it,” he says. The dial’s almost imperceptible motion is highlighted by a miniature painting in polychrome enamel to represent the changing seasons.
Other “stories” include the bestselling Pont des Amoureux (£104,100), featuring a couple meeting on a bridge and connecting for a kiss at the stroke of midnight, courtesy of Wiederrecht’s specially designed retrograde movement. He has since gone on to other projects but the brand’s newest model, Ronde des Papillons (£106,700), puts even greater emphasis on effects created by the movement. Three layers of stylised mother-of-pearl clouds sit on a soft-blue dial and through them weave three brilliant enamelled butterflies, each marking different parts of the hour, while a deep-blue swallow indicates the hour itself with its wingtip. Press a button and the butterflies take flight to complete their full course in the space of 13 seconds – normal timing will then resume with total accuracy. The watch is not a limited edition, though each is numbered and is long in the making, meaning only a few are available. The cost factor often makes automata self-limiting, and therefore rare.
A simpler but not dissimilar movement to that in Ronde des Papillons, also designed by Wiederrecht, powers Hermès’ Arceau Le Temps Suspendu, on which a button can be pushed to disengage the hands; it’s a “secret moment” causing time – on your watch at least – to stand still. Press it again and the hands will return to the correct time. The story is the movement rather than decoration and so the beauty is in the watch’s simplicity, whether in steel (£13,200) or rose gold with diamonds (£27,100).
Wiederrecht’s latest projects are with revived brand Fabergé, which seeks inspiration in the Russian jeweller’s original work. Last year it introduced the Lady Compliquée Peacock in white mother-of-pearl – based on a 1908 Fabergé Easter egg – with a unique movement: a peacock’s tail feathers unfurl one by one, to different degrees, to indicate the minutes, and the hours are read off a rotating outer disc. New versions are gemset with rubies (£72,656), emeralds or black sapphires and have mother-of-pearl or onyx dials. They are, says timepieces director Aurélie Picaud, “a true collaboration – we explain our concept and inspiration to Jean-Marc and his team brainstorms the movement with new innovations”. The new Lady Levity (from £17,150) is based on a Fabergé rock-crystal desk clock that featured a man-in-the-moon motif. The central decoration can be personalised with a secret image that is printed in platinum, finished with mother-of-pearl and then set under a domed sapphire crystal to create a ghostly image that is visible only at certain angles.
These pieces are a kind of animated jewel, says Wiederrecht. “Precious materials and the skills of making the automata give them legacy value, which a quartz movement suppresses because of its short life expectancy.” He finds women are increasingly intrigued by such mechanisms. “Aesthetics are important but women also appreciate the beauty of mechanical movements done to the highest standards,” he says. Add the gem-setting expertise of a high-end jewellery house and it’s a winning combination.
Cartier’s love of panthers now extends to a poetic creation – the Panthères et Colibri (£177,000), which features a white gold and diamond panther and a golden hummingbird: press the crown and an engraved gold panther cub appears from behind its parent, chases the bird in a trajectory and the distance flown indicates the remaining power reserve. Boucheron’s sapphire Khepri à Secret (price on request) transforms from scarab-beetle bracelet to watch with the mechanical lift of carved mother-of‑pearl wings. Chaumet’s Hortensia Astres d’Or (£130,560) features a formal dance of enamelled, diamond and pink sapphire hydrangea flowers indicating the time, while the winged beauties of Graff’s diamond Disco Butterfly (price on request) turn and dance on a bed of gems, with options including emeralds or Paraíba tourmalines.
Though a watch’s tourbillon function is to increase timekeeping accuracy, the movement itself is fascinating to observe and brands are adding beautiful details to draw attention to its intricacy. To create the delicate, white-gold rotating camellia on the Première Flying Tourbillon Openwork, Chanel called on top independent watchmaker Renaud et Papi and the model has proved so successful that new versions are launched each year. The latest edition (£243,000) of eight adds blackened gold openwork housed in a beige gold case and trimmed with chic baguette diamonds.
Bulgari enjoys an unrivalled combination of Swiss watchmaking and Italian jewel craft and increasingly employs these skills to create surprising women’s watches. Its Berries models frame the tourbillon with textured gold and coloured stones, creating a veritable layer cake – the hands glide below the jewels, in a tiny space above the tourbillon. For the newest version, the Berries Bi-Retrograde Tourbillon (£118,000), director of watch design Fabrizio Buonamassa wanted the tourbillon uncluttered by the hands. “The hour hand would take several hours to pass, which is not so elegant,” he says. Instead it has a mechanism so that when the hour hand reaches six, it flies back up to 12 and then down to another figure six on the lefthand side of the tourbillon, before continuing as normal; the slender minute hand passes through quickly, scarcely affecting the view. He has also redesigned the oval-faced Serpenti for its first round version (£142,000). The openwork tourbillon, its bridges modelled on serpent coils, draws the eye, yet the surprise is the flexible, tactile tail of trapezoid diamonds.
Watch-only houses are also producing highly inventive movements. Jaquet Droz is a revived name with a history of automata, and it returns to them with the new Lady 8 Flower (£118,200). The flower, with white-gold petals in a sapphire glass bubble above a pavé or mother-of-pearl dial, opens on demand. Jaeger-LeCoultre’s Rendez-Vous Moon (£42,300) displays a large mother‑of-pearl moon to mirror the real sky, with northern-hemisphere constellations on a guilloché dial, so the moon may be invisible or completely fill the space, depending on the phase. Christophe Claret’s groundbreaking Marguerite (£59,500), with lacquered petals that disappear at random, has the option of revealing a bespoke personal message, swapped with the hour numbers at the touch of a button. Most spectacular perhaps is Richard Mille’s Tourbillon Fleur (from £808,500), with its enamelled-gold magnolia that opens regularly or on demand. “I wanted to revive the concept of mechanical creations that delight the eye by mimicking nature,” he says. “It was a major challenge; each petal has a separate mechanism and has to be perfectly coordinated. Add the flying tourbillon and it’s mind-bogglingly complex. It’s highly technical yet totally feminine – a real piece of poetry.”