In the hands of skilled craftsmen, intangible, invisible time becomes vivid, joyful storytelling.
Thousands of tiny, metallic parts encased in a small mechanical space create the ticking of time’s passing. A craftsman’s ingenuity and skills are revealed in their sophisticated structures. To challenge the art, watchsmiths instill life in the machine, creating watches enhanced with automata or animated figurines.
Clocks in medieval European church towers were the earliest, amazing their audiences. In over 100 years of development, they have been reduced in size, and increased in complexity, to grace pockets and wrists.
An 1829 clock in China’s National Museum is a magician’s stage. Seven internal sets of gears help him raise and lower two bowls to show his audience there’s nothing under them. A bird simultaneously jumps out of a third box in the middle of the table and disappears. As the magician continues to lift and lower the bowls, variously styled and colored balls materialize in them. At last, the bird appears again, below one of the bowls.
At her 60th birthday, China’s Qing Dynasty Empress Dowager Cixi (1835 – 1908), received a tiny, mechanized scribe writing Chinese characters with a brush, “May you attain boundless longevity.” James Cox’s 18th century Peacock Clock, a prominent exhibit at Saint Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum in Russia, features a peacock, cockerel and owl. To music, the peacock’s tail flares, the cockerel crows, and the owl blinks its eyes.
Pierre Jaquet Droz, late 18th century founder of the Swiss brand Jaquet Droz, built three world-renowned automata with his sons Henri-Louis and Jean-Frédéric Leschot: the Writer, the Draughtsman, and the Musician. The writer writes custom text up to 40 letters with a goose feather; the draughtsman can draw four different images; the musician plays a genuine, custom-built organ, pressing the keys with her fingers.
Modern watches are limited in size. Two automata systems are possible. One directly connects to the escapement’s end with accessories on the dial, which enable simple repetitive movements, such as blinking eyes or waving hands. The other is seen in minute repeaters. The doll connects to the hour/minute hammer. When the hammer hits, the doll moves. The greater the doll’s articulation and the more anchor points it has to the hammer, the more complex its movement can be.
The creation of each automata involves herculean effort, persistence and wisdom. A rare sight in our modern, digital existence, they entice anyone who sees them to marvel at the union of mechanical and artistic beauty.