The Singing Bird Cage Clock was a headline item for Antiquorum’s “Important Modern & Vintage Timepieces” auction last year, and is just one of many fascinating automaton creations by Swiss watchmaker Pierre Jaquet-Droz. Born in La Chaux-de-Fonds in 1721, Pierre was intrigued by clockmaking and devoted himself to the craft for almost a decade, absorbing all he could from his clockmaking relatives. He had a natural talent for it, and started to make superb grandfather clocks in that time, eventually selling several of them to members of the Spanish royalty. The money he got from them soon enabled him to focus on more creative pursuits.
As a young man of the Swiss Jura, nature would serve as his muse. And it was the changing bird songs through the seasons that would later stay with him throughout his entire watchmaking career. With Pierre’s horological expertise and the help of his son Henri-Louis and his adopted son Jean-Frederic Leschot, he invented the world’s first singing bird box – a rectangular box with an oval lid that concealed a bird automaton. When the slider was activated, a mechanical bird would pop out of the box and “perform”. At the end of its little song and dance, it’ll fall back into the box as the lid closed after it.
This ingenious mechanism was made possible by a miniature pipe organ for the bird’s chirping and a fusee-driven movement that rotates a number of cams that control everything from when the note is sounded and for how long, to making the bird (and sometimes its body parts) move. The fact that this could be achieved in 1785, without the help of computers or even batteries, is truly astounding.
Birds weren’t the only automatons he made of course. In fact, they weren’t even the most impressive ones. His most famous creations were the Musician, Draughtsman and Writer, now collectively known as the Jaquet Droz Automata. They were capable of playing an organ, drawing pictures and writing custom notes respectively, complete with head and eye movements to mimic human behaviour.
But Droz’s feathered friends were never far away. Trilling pocket watches in gold, enamel, pearls and rubies, as well as increasingly ornamented cages were being sold as far away as China. The brand peaked in 1788, enjoying fame and profit from its three production centres, located in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Geneva and London. Pierre’s wondrous machines were successful in an age that valued reason and science, but it was his touch of whimsy that made his products such a hit among those who could afford to appreciate them. Fellow craftsmen from Switzerland and around the world soon followed suit, creating their own versions of singing bird boxes and various automata.Sadly, Jaquet Droz’s heydays were short-lived thanks to a string of unpaid orders and the failure of their London office. In 1790, the company had to shut down.
Phoenix From The Ashes
Like everything mechanical, automatons were eventually set aside with the advent of the digital age. And like everything mechanical, such old world charms would not be forgotten for long. Jaquet Droz was revived in 2000 when the Swatch Group acquired the company. With the re-launch, Jaquet Droz’s focus shifted to wristwatches, also drawing attention to the brand’s numerous other talents, such as enamelling (particularly Grand Feu and Paillonne), engraving and sculpture.
While automata were still being made on occasion, such as the Magician and Charlie and the more recent Signing Machine released last year, Droz’s beloved bird motifs were ever present, whether they were realised in delicate paintings on enamel or sculpted in relief on watch dials. You’ll even find them on a pair of Jaquet Droz cufflinks.
But perhaps the most telling examples of the importance of these motifs are The Bird Repeater and The Charming Bird – two of the brand’s most complex masterpieces in recent years. The Bird Repeater, unveiled in 2012, is a stunning minute repeater automaton that vividly depicts two birds feeding its chicks amid a backdrop of a waterfall. When the chiming function is activated, the birds’ heads, wings and bodies move, the egg hatches, and the waterfall cascades (thanks to a rotating disc). All 508 parts needed to make the RMA88 movement fit inside an astoundingly compact 47 by 18mm case.
And just a year later, The Charming Bird was introduced and it took the homage a thousand steps further. For the first time since the brand’s revival, a completely three-dimensional, singing and spinning bird was made. And for the first time in the history of haute horlogerie, it was made inside a watch. Placed within the safety of a sapphire crystal dome, the bird is free to open its beak to chirp, flap its wings and dance at the push of a button. But unlike before, where the mechanisms were hidden behind ornate plates and boxes, the 610 movement is exposed for all to admire. And it’s no slouch on the timekeeping front either, beating at 21,600 vph with a 40-hour power reserve.
With its pared down aesthetics and the sombre, sophisticated feel that tends to permeate modern tickers, The Charming Bird is the perfect bridge between the Jaquet Droz of today and the one of yesteryear. Why else was it chosen to be the commemorative piece for the brand’s 275th anniversary? Jaquet Droz could have easily drawn from some of its more famous humanoid references to celebrate such a momentous event, but it chose the humble bird instead. Because while the most impressive automata shocked, awed and at times even frightened, the birds only ever met with joyous surprise, childlike laughter and a genuine wonderment that something so small could represent the magnitude of human brilliance.