Flights of Fancy

Jaquet Droz’s Tropical Bird Repeater is mechanical watchmaking at its most evocative

The key to good storytelling, according to Stephen King, is “teleportation”. The ability to invite and immerse the reader into another world, he says, is one of the most precious gifts a storyteller can have. King ought to know. He chalked up almost US$350 million in book sales at last count.  

Now, we don’t like making tenuous links, but it really is kind of the same with watches. A good watch isn’t necessarily the most expensive, famous or complicated. It is one that gives you an out-of-body experience. Take away the logos, price tags, and marketing spin, a good watch, really, is one that makes you feel something beyond yourself.

Even then, some watches go further. Like King, the best watches tell stories that take you deep within their universe. They teleport. Until one becomes not just a mere appreciator, but an active participant in a horological adventure.

When it comes to spinning a good yarn, Jaquet Droz is peerless. After all, the brand has honed its knack for telling stories for the past 280 years. It started from the time its eponymous founder would haul life-sized automatons (watch-speak for mechanical robots) that could sketch, write or play a harpsichord on travelling exhibitions. Those automatons served to evoke an otherworldly future populated by mad inventors and mechanical beings that was somehow present. More shrewdly, they demonstrated Droz’s genius and enticed wealthy royals to buy his timepieces.

More than two centuries on, it is still pretty much the same – only that the automatons are now way more complex, and have been miniaturised to an insane degree that they can actually fit inside a wristwatch.

Bird Song

As a benchmark, the new Tropical Bird Repeater is a glorious example of how far Jaquet Droz has come since the days of travelling automatons.  At the same time, the watch is inextricably tied to its past, and to all the grand handcrafted traditions and ingenuity of haute horlogerie.

 At its heart, the Tropical Bird Repeater is a chiming watch. Activate a slider on the left of the case, and the minute repeater movement sounds out the time. The hours, quarters and passing minutes are translated into precise and pristine tinkles that recall the toasting of champagne flutes.

Watchmakers will tell you that minute repeater is one of the hardest movements to construct. It demands a wealth of experience, technical dexterity, and micro-engineering to craft. This is so that each chime is pitch-perfectly clear, and works in precise tandem with the rest of the watch’s time-telling components. Astoundingly, despite its arduous conception, the minute repeater mechanism in the Tropical Bird Repeater tells only half the watch’s story.

As it was centuries ago, Jaquet Droz's automatons help unlock its creative future.

Oftentimes, other brands try to add a bit of livery to the minute repeater’s aural allure by repositioning its gongs and hammers on the dial side to show how the mechanism works. Jaquet Droz goes much further with Tropical Bird Repeater. By activating the chiming function of the Tropical Bird Repeater, the user not only triggers the minute repeater, but also an epic theatrical performance, set in a sultry equatorial forest where a family of lively exotic birds reside.

The automaton performance is described by the folks at Jaquet Droz as “Gauguin-like” and “an invitation to faraway places”. They are not far off the mark. On the left, a waterfall cascades while a trio of dragonflies flutters alongside, their Super-LumiNova-coated wings offering a mystical glow in the dark. Next to them, vermillion birds of paradise beckon a hand-carved, hand-engraved hummingbird, whose wings beat up to 40 times a second— faster than the human eye can even observe, and a one-of-a-kind animation in watchmaking history. To the right, a toucan peeks out from amidst palm fronds and opens its beak, as a peacock unfurls its plume of feathers at five o’clock. In total, seven different animations exceeding 12 seconds make up four different scenes in a single dial.

Even at rest, the Tropical Bird Repeater enthrals. Actually, this is when one fully appreciates the handiwork of Jaquet Droz’s artisans – the intricate hand-engraving, and miniature sculpting and painting of each component that endow the scene its realism and flamboyance. The work that goes into this is no small feat - it takes three artisans an entire month to put one dial together. Given high-end horology’s penchant for bestowing accolades for highly technical watches, often at the expense of ostracising a wider audience, the Tropical Bird Repeater bridges the spectrums of mechanical complexity and mass appreciation with a push of its slider.

For the connoisseur, there is no doubt that this wristwatch ranks among one of the most innovative and technically accomplished timepieces of modern history. Yet, the watch just as fascinating to the untrained eye. The gushing waterfall, the playful birds, the chimes that tell the time – the Tropical Bird Repeater holds its audience spellbound the way a magician does. You may not understand what goes on – or need to, for that matter – but you will surely know that you’ve been captivated by the mystery and excitement of it all.

Christian Lattmann

Jaquet Droz CEO

"We knew we had to outdo ourselves with this watch. The making of this watch is the latest chapter in our work with automatons, and it must be far better than the last."