Jaquet Droz: Bringing the Bird Back to Life
Last year, in our March issue, we introduced Jaquet Droz’s latest restoration project, a collaboration between the Association Automates & Merveilles, museums, artisans and Jaquet Droz aimed at bringing a pendulum clock with a singing bird back to “life.”
Pierre Jaquet-Droz (1721 – 1790) was a leading watchmaker in the Neuchâtel region, and in his workshops created some of the most amazing timepieces and automata ever seen. Even Qianlong, the fifth emperor of the Qing Dynasty of China, admired and collected Jaquet Droz’s works of art. Among the workshops’ specialties were singing birds, something the modern brand has reintroduced with great success.
The brand has also been very active in supporting the restoration of Jaquet Droz clocks and automatons. “We see it as our duty to take care of our heritage, our history,” insists Christian Lattmann, CEO, Jaquet Droz. “This history is the basis on which we build the future. At the same time, we think we also have a duty to support the heritage of the region, and our ties to the Musée d’Horlogerie du Locle already go back a number of years.
“Likewise, it’s important that our customers realize that pieces created by Jaquet-Droz can be found in several museums, both here in the canton of Neuchâtel as well as internationally — the Forbidden City in Beijing being a notable example. The preservation of these collections bears witness to the genius of the Jaquet-Droz family, whose creativity and expertise are kept alive in our contemporary pieces… some of which may one day be a part of museum collections.”
Magical Mystery Tour
When I first saw the clock at the Château des Monts, all the parts of the singing bird pendulum clock were meticulously laid out on the table.
This time, when I walked into the same room, the singing bird clock was completely restored and assembled.
Made sometime in the 18th century, this impressive clock combines an eight-day power reserve mechanical clock that chimes the time and comes complete with a singing bird. The bird’s head turns, the beak opens, the tail feathers move, the wings open and the body turns while singing six different musical tunes. The bellows that power the bird, producing the melodies, are connected to the mechanical movement and power reserve by an intricate system of wires.
Unfortunately, even though the restoration is complete, to safeguard the clock, it is not operating. They did make it operational for the video you can see in the museum, but in order to safeguard the mechanism and the chains, the clock is blocked while on display.
To restore this clock, everything had to be taken apart — the wooden case was assigned to a cabinet maker in the region, the bronze work was all disassembled and restored separately. The movement was restored in the International Museum of Watchmaking in La Chaux-de-Fonds (MIH), where it was completely taken apart, parts cleaned and restored and other parts fabricated to fit. The movement contains a system of four, four-link chains, like miniature bicycle chains, and these very strong chains, unique to Jaquet Droz, had to be completely examined, remade and reassembled.
Back in March of last year, when we first reported on the project, the historians behind the restoration told us that the clock held many questions — more than it had answers. Markings on the movement (which showed it was an original movement from Jaquet-Droz himself) differed from markings left on the inside of the wooden cabinet and the bronze decorations. Throughout the year-long restoration process, the team behind the project was able to decipher that the movement, cabinet, and some of the bronze work were all made in different workshops, some even decades apart. In all likelihood (because historians can only assume details about a clock that doesn’t have much in the way of paperwork), the movement sat in Jaquet-Droz’s workshop, waiting for a willing (and worthy) craftsman to make the cabinet to house it.
In fantastic condition, the clock is a spectacular addition to the museum’s collection.
What’s Next for Jaquet Droz
Given the numbers of special Jaquet Droz pieces out there in the world, there is no limit to the restoration projects that the brand can undertake.
“We are preparing a restoration project on an exceptional piece from our very own collection,” Lattmann details. “It is still too early to reveal everything, but it is also an exceptional piece that bears witness once again to the ‘Art of Astonishment’ and to the expert craftsmanship in fine decoration as mastered by Jaquet-Droz.
“Our recurring them is ‘Some watches tell time. Some tell a story,’” Lattmann continues. “Our new creations conceal a bit of our history, which proves that we’ve never stopped investing in new developments, particularly for automaton pieces such as the Tropical Bird Repeater, for example. These new creations will perhaps become a part of museum collections around the world someday.”
You can bet on that.