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The art of the clock (I)
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The art of the clock (I)

Thursday, 29 November 2018
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Marie Le Berre
Freelance writer and journalist

“How does time turn the corners on square clocks ?”

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Spread the word of watchmaking and introduce as many people as possible to an all too little-known sector.

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6 min read

In this early 21st century, table clocks are an invaluable showcase for the imagination and expertise of Fine Watch brands. First in this two-part series are Patek Philippe and Cartier.

In a world that thrives on electronics, table clocks can seem strangely out of place, a throwback to another era, when in reality we are drawn to them precisely because of their mechanical cogs and gears. Not just timepieces, they are kinetic sculptures, and for many brands the measuring of time by mechanical means becomes all the more eloquent in the company of the métiers d’art. Do we need reminding that the one piece which held every visitor to the 2017 Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie enthralled was the Automate Fée Ondine by Van Cleef & Arpels, a magnificent automaton clock. In a similar vein, Harry Winston’s Precious Signature, unveiled this year, is rightly described by the brand as “an automaton and desk clock that redefines the very essence of a luxury accessory”. Bringing it to life is a mechanism by Jaquet Droz, a renowned maker of automata, that will put pen to paper for you.

Precious Signature © Harry Winston
Precious Signature © Harry Winston

Even names such as Louis Vuitton and Panerai have tried their hand. Better-known for its combat dive watches, Panerai has also added clocks to its catalogue, including one as a tribute to Galileo. And so it is that watchmakers and artists from all horizons continue to pool their expertise and win over an audience of fans more numerous than we might imagine. Some brands make only occasional forays into clockmaking while for others, clocks are as much a part of their identity as watches. We take a closer look.

Patek Philippe played a pioneering role in safeguarding endangered métiers d'art.
Patek Philippe, a precursor

An ardent defender of watchmaking’s métiers d’art (crafts such as engraving and enamelling), Patek Philippe was among the first to take action to protect these dying arts, in the mid-twentieth century, when Henri Stern began to assemble a remarkable collection which since 2001 has been on display at the Patek Philippe Museum in Geneva. At the same time, the Manufacture has made it a point of honour to maintain production of timepieces that give pride of place to these crafts – at the risk there should be no buyer for certain pieces which can wait years as part of inventory or, for some, find a home at the brand’s museum. As a company that played a pioneering role in safeguarding these endangered techniques, renewed interest in, and appreciation of, these rare handcrafts (to borrow Patek’s own term) has given it all the more reason to continue in this direction. Hence the regular collections feature painstakingly decorated pieces, in addition to which each year the Manufacture produces a special Rare Handcrafts collection; a beautifully appointed range of some forty one-of-a-kind wristwatches, pocket watches and dome table clocks.

Cubist Fantasy dome table clock in cloisonné enamelling © Patek Philippe
Cubist Fantasy dome table clock in cloisonné enamelling © Patek Philippe

As the company observes, the generous proportions of these dome clocks, which first appeared in the early 1950s, make them the perfect canvas to preserve and further evolve these artisanal skills. Contemporary dome clocks are fitted with mechanical movements with electric winding, no larger than a pocket-watch calibre (the brand ceased production of the patented photoelectric cell that once powered the clocks in the 1990s). Dials are relatively small, leaving an expanse of space for the sumptuous decors that cover the characteristic rounded forms.

Of the (exceptionally) 55 pieces in the 2018 Rare Handcrafts collection, 18 are dome table clocks. As is customary, most are decorated with cloisonné enamel patterns whose myriad colours are outlined by thin gold wires. Some are further embellished with gold or silver spangles, powder or leaf, or with hand-engraved appliques. Others employ techniques that have almost completely disappeared, such as grisaille enamel (applications of “blanc de Limoges” white enamel on a dark ground) or raised (relief) enamel, sometimes referred to as Fauré enamel after its inventor. This year’s themes take inspiration from nature (birds, flowers, an African sunset, the planets), the arts (Persian porcelain or Art Deco butterflies) and cultures from across the world (Indian women and Arabic calligraphy).

Cartier's Mystery clocks first rose to fame for the mechanism inside.
Mysterious Cartier

Certain clocks first rose to fame for the mechanism inside. Cartier’s Mystery clocks are of that ilk. One of the brand’s most prestigious objets d’art, their secret lies with a movement invented by Maurice Couët, a watchmaker who from 1911 supplied clocks exclusively to Cartier. Couët’s first Mystery clock saw daylight the following year. This wasn’t an entirely new creation – similar clocks had come before it, starting with those which Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin presented to the public in 1839 — but it did introduce a significant development by creating the illusion of hour and minute hands that float in space, seemingly unconnected to the movement. In reality, both hands are fixed to transparent discs with a toothed rim which are made to rotate by a mechanism concealed in the frame of the case. Building on this same principle, in 1920 Couët came up with a single central axle as an alternative to the original lateral double-axle system. Cartier used this new construction to imagine different forms for its Mystery clocks and to multiply aesthetic possibilities.

Portique Mystery Clock © Cartier
Portique Mystery Clock © Cartier

Various types of Mystery clock can be distinguished. The simplest, in design, is also the first: the Model A from 1912. Art Deco before Art Deco had even been invented, it has a transparent, rectangular body with discreet embellishments that sits on a base in hard stone or sometimes gold. More sophisticated designs followed in the 1920s: the Portico model is styled as an Oriental portico or gate with a gong-like dial suspended between its pillars. Contemporary to the Portico design are a series of figurative Mystery clocks which incorporate an elaborately carved animal or human figure.

Clocks entered Cartier’s repertoire in the early twentieth century, never to leave; the Parisian firm continues to manufacture a handful of pieces each year. Naturally, they include Mystery clocks, whose production peaked between 1912 and 1930 when close to a hundred were made. Mystery clocks are also at the origin of the Cartier Collection; the first of its creations which Cartier reacquired at auction, in 1973, was a Portico clock. These remarkable timepieces now go on show all over the world; 19 of them were presented in a rare exhibition at this year’s Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie. Since 2013, Cartier has given a new dimension to this “mysterious” legacy by transposing the floating hands principle to watches.

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