Five Hundred Years of Clocks and Watches in One Collection
Renaissance table clocks, the Frères Rochat’s singing bird box, quality, rarity and prestigious provenances are the key words for this abundant collection.
“This is the first time I’ve ever seen a collection that sums up the history of time so well,” says Geoffroy Ader, who appraised the 80 or so timepieces that will be dispersed in Neuilly on Wednesday, September 28. “Both eclectic and didactic, it spans several centuries and shows all the specificities of clockmaking and watchmaking.”
Mr. B. passionately collected a wide range of timepieces from the 1950s to the 1970s, which his family kept. Now they are being unveiled for the first time in 60 years. Sales receipts and annotated catalogs suggest that this connoisseur was a regular at the galleries of the leading Parisian antique dealers and the Hôtel Drouot, the nerve center of postwar international auctions. There he acquired many typically French montres oignon, or onion watches (translator’s note: a type of watch popular in the late 17th and early 18th with a bulbous shape and a chased case usually made of brass) and participated in the sales of still-remembered collections, such as that of Jubinal de Saint-Albin in 1960 and Bloch-Pimentel in 1961 (Étienne Ader, auctioneer).
Pieces from Historic Collections
During these sales, Mr. B acquired three watches that are returning to the auction block today: a lavishly decorated mid-17th-century Swiss astronomical work made for the Ottoman market (€15,000/25,000, see photo), an early 18th-century silver pendulum model made by Paul Lullin (€2,000/3,000) and an anonymous piece from the late Age of Enlightenment period concealing a whimsical enamel of a violinist playing to animals (€1,000/1,500).
The highlight of the eclectic collection is an early 19th-century box-watch attributed to Frères Rochat with the hallmark of the workshops of Jean-Georges Remond, who were active in Switzerland (€70,000/100,000, see photo). It was in the Berry-Hill Collection before entering that of King Farouk and was sold at the Koubbeh Palace in Cairo, Egypt in 1954 (Sotheby’s). “This is just the second time in 25 years that I’ve found an item that was in the catalog of that sale,” says Mr. Ader. Such an event would not have gone unnoticed by Mr. B., who undoubtedly started his collection in the 1950s. It cannot be certified, but he probably bought the beautiful object at the auction. Enameled pieces like this were usually made for the Far East market: Chinese emperors liked automata. The charming singing bird and the quality of the enamel painted on the lid concealing the bird, depicting “the warrior’s return”, attest to the level of excellence the Geneva craftsmen achieved and the unparalleled diversity of colors for the time. Enamel was first produced in Limoges in the Middle Ages and Blois was the center of production under French King François I, but the revocation of the Edict of Nantes forced the Huguenot enamellers to flee, notably to Switzerland, today considered the world center of enameled watches.
Like this automaton watch, each piece in the collection traces the history of watchmaking. Mr. B. meticulously chose timepieces that represent stylistic and technical periods emblematic of time measurement. This is reflected in the catalog, which classifies the pieces chronologically and thematically and provides the discerning eye with details about the subtle mechanisms of these timepieces, which are often likened to objets d’art.
Democratizing the Watch
The collection offers a watchmaking course that is coupled with a lesson in history, which influenced the evolution of watches as much as scientific progress had. It includes pieces made in Germany, France, Switzerland and England, plus three models manufactured for the Ottoman market. The adventure began five hundred years ago. Belfry clocks showed the time, but the elite wanted their own instruments for personal use. In the richest regions, such as Augsburg, which specialized in mechanisms thanks to its locksmithing tradition, miniaturization led to the first private timepieces, which only the extremely wealthy could afford. One example is a tower-shaped table clock made for Guillaume Bailly, a high-ranking official in the court of Charles IX, who made him a knight in 1571. The gods and goddesses of antiquity were engraved on this Renaissance masterpiece signed by P. Plantard, who was probably related to Nicolas Plantard, the purveyor to Mary Stuart (€20,000/30,000, see photo).
Such clocks ushered in the second stage of miniaturization: the watch. “It’s a personal item that is worn,” says Mr. Ader. The term montre (translator’s note: French for watch) stems from the Latin monstrare, to show, because the idea was to flaunt your wealth.” A drum-shaped, mid-16th-century Augsburg model could be worn around the neck (€12,000/18,000). Equipped with a foliot escapement crown wheel, this watch was still primitive. Everything changed in 1675 when Christian Huygens invented the balance spring, “which democratized the watch,” says Mr. Ader. It became more precise, which led to the gradual appearance of the second hand in onion watches.
Decoration kept up with changing times. As society became more secular in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, liberties were taken with religious morality. Erotic scenes could be hidden behind a chaste enameled bouquet or the secret opening of a skeleton dial with very explicit Jacquemarts automata. The highly diverse collection illustrates the development of watchmaking through the centuries, taking us on a journey full of lessons.
IN SEVEN DATES
The appearance of the mainspring
The first pocket watch
François I is the first to create a status for clockmakers and watchmakers.
Christian Huygens invents the first watch with a resonator balance spring.
Two-hand watches become widespread.
George Graham invents the anchor escapement.
Abraham-Louis Breguet creates the first automatic winding watch.