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The MHL celebrates its half-century with the Sandoz...
History & Masterpieces

The MHL celebrates its half-century with the Sandoz collection

Friday, 19 September 2008
By Eric Othenin-Girard
Eric Othenin-Girard

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6 min read

What, a former curator wondered, would be a fitting way for a horological museum to commemorate its half-century? With a celebration of course, but what else? By inviting friends and visitors to rediscover the renowned Sandoz collection, several outstanding pieces of which are part of the MHL’s (Musée d’Horlogerie du Locle) own collection.

Captured for eternity in oils, the former residents of the magnificent Château des Monts, home of the Musée d’Horlogerie du Locle, keep a watchful eye on the museum’s new curator Cécile Aguillaume. Not that they dampen her enthusiasm or her good spirits; behind their austere exterior she assures us, they are perfectly well-behaved.

And so it is a relaxed curator who lifts the veil on celebrations to mark the fiftieth anniversary of “her” museum. The first pieces in its collections, she reminds us, were gathered in 1849, just a year after the peaceful revolution that made Neuchâtel a republic of the Swiss Confederation. In 1858, the mechanically-driven objects in the collection were bought by the Industrial School, to be placed at students’ disposal. The timepieces – then a rarity – were later transferred to the Le Locle Watchmaking School when it was founded in 1868. When major renovation work began at the school in 1938, an inventory of the collection was made and objects stored away in crates. It was only in 1951 that a small group of enthusiasts got it into their heads to reform the museum. An excellent idea, but where? The “happy end” came in 1954 when the Town of Le Locle bought Château des Monts as the perfect setting for the new museum. Five years later and the Musée d’Horlogerie du Locle officially opened its doors.

A three-tier exhibition

This is indeed a milestone worth celebrating in 2009. The main attraction will be the presentation of the famous Sandoz collection, last shown to the public in 1976, appropriately at Château des Monts. This is a truly exceptional collection in that it contains both automata and timepieces of particularly outstanding technical interest, a fact that will certainly capture the attention of the men and women in the branch who spend their days inventing new ways to measure time. A visit to the exhibition will reveal that their predecessors, some of whose names we have long forgotten, came up with their own pioneering solutions.

Son of Edouard-Constant Sandoz, founder of a company that would go on to become one of the giants of the world pharmaceutical industry, Maurice Yves Sandoz was a man of many faces. A captain of industry of course, he also turned his hand to writing novels and poems. Most of all he was an enlightened collector of machines to measure the passing of time. Over the years, he built up one of the most remarkable private collections to be seen today. The exhibition, which will reveal the different facets of Maurice Yves Sandoz’s personality, will be structured around three main themes:

  • “Games and Music” will display the different automata in a main showcase while smaller showcases set into a wall will present watches with automata.
  • “Nature and Romanticism” will be devoted to singing birds while a giant-sized image of a picturesque park will evoke the romantic atmosphere of the nineteenth century. Clocks will also be displayed under this theme.
  • “Jewels and Society” will give visitors a chance to admire some superb pieces, all remarkable for the way precious metals have been worked.
Chronometry competition

So that visitors might marvel at the automata in motion, the exhibition’s organisers have come up with an exceptional idea. The automata, for obvious reasons, cannot be taken out of their showcase and made to function. However, the museum has found an ingenious solution, thanks to which these objects can be brought to life: three-dimensional films of the automata “at work” will be shown on large-format screens throughout the exhibition rooms. The exhibition will begin in May 2009 and continue until at least late October.

And that’s not all. The museum is also staging an international chronometry competition with the aim of reviving interest in chronometry as part of contemporary watchmaking and adapting its specific expertise to the modern-day control techniques to which entries will be submitted. This international competition is organised in collaboration with the Contrôle Officiel Suisse des Chronomètres (COSC), the Besançon Observatory and the Haute École ARC Ingénierie in Le Locle, with the support of the Société Suisse de Chronométrie and in partnership with the French-language watch forum, Forumamontres. Results will be announced in 2009.

  1. The Old Woman, early 19th century.
    A fine example of repoussé copper. The old woman’s gestures are rendered with incredible realism; one can almost feel her aches and pains.
  2. Fountain with chimes, mid-19th century.
    Twisted strands of glass inside the structure are set in motion to imitate a waterfall. The chimes that accompany them play four melodies on eight bells with 15 hammers.
  3. Singing-bird mirror, early-19th century, Rochat Brothers.
    This object is unusual for the singing bird, hidden inside the gold rose at the top of the mirror. The mirror is edged with a garland of flowers in three golds. Enamel miniatures depict Oriental landscapes, with a view of the port at Constantinople, as well as central Switzerland.
  4. Gold snuff box with automata
    This snuffbox, made to resemble a book with enamelled covers, serves many purposes. Three of the spine’s four sections open, one to reveal a watch, another a drawer for beauty spots and a third for a phial of perfume. Inside is an automate depicting the temple of the sun.
  5. Caged-bird clock. Ascribed to Henry-Louis Jaquet-Droz.
    Solid gold with enamel and filigree decorations. In addition to the singing bird, this piece also includes a musical box and a watch.
  6. Louis XV Neuchâtel clock. 170 centimetres tall.
    Paintings under marbled varnish, chased and gilded bronze. Automated organ. The organ has 13 pipes and the roll is perforated to play eight melodies. Signatures: Jaquet-Droz à la Chaux-de-Fonds on the top plate, Thuilliers à Genève on the dial plate, G. Langin on the barrel springs for the pipes.
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