International publications and exhibitions have often proclaimed that horology is the daughter of astronomy. The admiring glances that we cast at the monumental clocks adorning squares and palaces – complete with their rotating constellations and zodiac signs accompanying the passing hours – are inspired by a longstanding human passion for celebrating the measurement of time.
I deliberately speak of celebration, in that the beauty of these clocks is of course not purely aesthetic or formal. On the contrary, they served for long centuries as a means of conveying information essential to all those for whom the seasons, stars and moon phases determined the fertility of their fields, the best tide for setting out on journeys, the choice of the appropriate moment to launch a major operation. Precious traces of this fascinatingly evocative need have remained, including on wristwatches. Whether in the realm of technical and precious Fine Watchmaking or in respect to more modest horological complications intended for a less demanding audience, moon phases remain one of the most popular and widespread indications.
Moon phases, which govern tides as well as our moods – moments of sadness or madness, wisdom or melancholy – have morphed into a purely decorative feature.
While the eye delights in observing these exquisitely enamelled or diamond-set moons silently performing their orbit on watch dials, the human mind and reason cannot help wondering what is the purpose of the cyclical information provided by moon phases. People no longer resort to observing the moon in order to make their decisions, be they great or small. Nobody these days keeps close track of moon phases with the expert eye of a sailor charting his course, a farmer preparing to sow his fields, or an astronomer examining the movement of the stars. Few could tell us whether the moon is currently in its first or third quarter on any given night. Our satellite waxes and wanes on countless wrists, lending its unique glow to dials displaying varying degrees of nobility and refinement, yet without any real purpose other than to lend an essentially aesthetic touch.
Although there are electronic applications that enable us to adjust our watch according to the actual current moon phase, few wearers bother to check whether the moon quarters appearing on their watch dial do indeed correspond to those sparkling in the sky. Moon phases, which govern tides as well as our moods – moments of sadness or madness, wisdom or melancholy – have morphed into a purely decorative feature. While the path of Earth’s satellite is indeed a splendid decoration, it no longer evokes a sense of eager anticipation, bright hope or eloquent poetry. All that remains are the amused yet distracted glances of the owner checking the position of the hands and taking a brief look at the ever-advancing seconds. Little notice is taken of the cyclical and mysterious path of the night star. In a nutshell, it has become a decoration bereft of any real function. And when an element loses its deeper meaning, it becomes merely ordinary. It is sad to think that the moon has become a commonplace and trivial feature!
However, as mentioned earlier, given that moon phases appear on virtually all “complicated” watches, I would love to launch a movement dedicated to rediscovering their value – not only as a beautiful moving symbol that daily modifies the dial, but as an evocation of the cyclical and benevolent time of the seasons. The truly greater scheme of things that views each moment within the longer and more humane range of a gaze reaching well beyond existing limits.
In the medieval body of literature known as the Matter of France (or Caroloingian cycle), the paladin Astolfo rides on the back of the Hippogriff to the moon in order to find Orlando’s lost wits. We too, by observing the precious celestial movements depicted on our wrist, should learn how to become wiser, more poetic, and perhaps also more romantic.