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The art of Cartier in a clock
History & Masterpieces

The art of Cartier in a clock

Wednesday, 12 December 2012
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Anaïs Georges du Clos
Freelance journalist

“Nothing great has been accomplished in this world without passion.”

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

“All thoughts are permitted; writing demands reflection.”

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4 min read

Clockmaking is an art which Cartier has developed since the end of the nineteenth century. While the magnetic clocks of the 1920s were characteristically sober in style, the Eden clock, one of the brand’s latest creations, returns to a precious and refined aesthetic.

Cartier is one of the few watchmakers to have conserved a life-size visual of each of its creations since 1907. Its clocks are inventoried in The Cartier Collection: Timepieces, a catalogue raisonné of the company’s production since the end of the nineteenth century. The magnetic clock which the firm presented at the Biennale des Antiquaires in Paris in September this year epitomises the sober refinement of Cartier’s style. At the confluence of the precious timepieces of the early twentieth century, the ingenious mystery clocks that came later, and the simplicity of those marked by the Crisis of 1929, doubtless it would have won the approval of Louis Cartier.

Clocks, a must in any sophisticated household of the day, would give free rein to Louis Cartier's imagination.
Louis Cartier, inventor of a style

In the early 1900s, with Pierre Cartier bound for New York and his brother, Jacques, headed for London, Louis Cartier, the eldest of the founder’s three grandsons, took the helm of the Paris boutique, established 13 Rue de la Paix since 1899. A man of taste and a discerning collector, he preferred the intimacy of museums and the company of antique dealers to the hustle and bustle of his office. An enigmatic character, while Louis was a man of his time he didn’t share his contemporaries’ enthusiasm in all things. He defined a style that sank its roots in Modernism, characterised by pure, geometric forms and minimalist designs, and his own love of Indian miniatures, Far Eastern art and Louis XVI furniture. He surrounded himself with talented individuals such as Jeanne Toussaint, the iconic head of fine jewellery, appointed in 1933, and instigator of the “Panther” motif. She transposed Louis Cartier’s inspiration into collections whose hallmarks of aesthetic refinement, harmonious proportions and fine craftsmanship are unchanged to this day. Clocks, a must in any sophisticated household of the day, would give free rein to Louis Cartier’s imagination.

Clockmaking, a tradition at Cartier

Although table clocks are a tradition at Cartier which can be traced back to the late 1800s, this particular style of clock truly came to the fore in the early twentieth century. The first pieces, made in 1904, took the form of small urns or vases in a French eighteenth-century style. Their shimmering guilloché enamel recalls Fabergé’s jewelled eggs. Little by little, their design evolved into the pared-down, geometric style which Louis Cartier by far preferred over the prevailing Art Nouveau. In 1912, the brilliant clockmaker Maurice Coüet, the head of the Cartier workshop, took inspiration from the work of the celebrated French illusionist and conjurer Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin to imagine the Model A – the very first “mystery” clock, so-called because its hands give the illusion of rotating in mid-air. In 1928 Coüet invented the magnetic clock that would remain part of Cartier’s production until 1930. Reserved for the company’s American clientele, two in particular found their way into the Cartier Collection. One remains in the company’s possession. The second, presented and sold at the Biennale des Antiquaires in 2010, inspired Cartier’s designers for the Eden clock which was shown at the same Biennale in 2012.

Magnetic table clock. Cartier New York, 1928 © Cartier
Eden, the epitome of Cartier

The principle behind the magnetic clock is both simple and ingenious. The hand – an orchid blossom for the Eden clock, a turtle for the 1928 model – floats on a transparent, water-like surface. It incorporates a magnet which is driven by a second magnet, coupled to the mechanism which is concealed inside the base. In both clocks, the movement is a classic construction with barrel, gears, escapement and balance. Unlike Louis Cartier, who worked with specialist suppliers from outside Cartier, the movement for the Eden magnetic clock was developed and made in-house.

Both clocks feature a silver ring bearing hollowed and enamelled black Roman numerals, a characteristic of Cartier timepieces. The simplicity, imposed by the economic context of the day, of the Tortue clock’s Swiss marble base and silver stand contrasts with the refined jewellery aesthetic of the Eden clock.

Beyond the difficulty of sculpting, polishing and assembling the rock crystal and jade, Cartier’s experts faced the challenge set by the sheer depth of the piece, particularly when positioning the floater that holds the orchid blossom. Naturally, attention to detail leaves nothing to be desired. The winder is covered by an onyx button; the magnets are elegantly concealed inside the jade marquetry of the base and the orchid’s precious rubellite petals. Simply divine!

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