Jaquet Droz: Maestro of Mechanical Artistry

Surveying Jaquet Droz’s splendiferous creations, one is struck by the immutable beauty of the Grande Seconde’s enamel dial, and the artistry with which its automaton watches mimic life. While these creations rest on opposite ends of the scale in terms of mechanical complexity, they are nevertheless of one soul, the signature fruit of the Age of Reason from 18th century Europe.

Distinct from the Renaissance that heralded an intellectual reawakening in Europe by standing on the shoulders of classical Greece, the Age of Reason was a flowering of new thought looking forward: in myriad endeavours ranging across art, philosophy, science, the winter of old rules and assumptions were hauled from their altars and examined in the spring light of reason, with bold new conceptions framed, and the boundaries of knowledge rolled back on the mistrals of rationalism and empiricism.

Pierre Jaquet-Droz: Craftsman, Engineer, Watchmaker

It was during this era of the Enlightenment that Pierre Jaquet-Droz lived and perfected his watchmaking craft, scaling new heights of complexity and ornamentation with his clocks, pocket watches, and mechanical singing birds, which were sold to the ends of the Old World: throughout Europe including Russia, and Asia spanning India, Japan and China.

Born in 1721 in the heartland of Swiss watchmaking La Chaux-de-Fonds, Pierre Jaquet-Droz started early in his trade, taught watchmaking by relatives from his youth. He enrolled at the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Basel where he studied mathematics, physics and theology. Later he set up his first watchmaking workshop and was applying himself fully in his craft, producing mechanical movements of unmatched complexity, augmented with music and automata.

Such genius cannot long remain in obscurity; as the world had never seen creations like Jaquet-Droz’s, it was then incumbent upon Jaquet-Droz to bring his fantastical creations conceived in the heart of the Swiss Jura mountains to the urban centres of the world.

In 1758, Pierre set off for the court of Spain. The journey by carriage took 49 days and it was several months before Pierre managed to secure an audience with King Ferdinand VI. After Pierre reassured frightened courtiers that his automatons did not operate by magic but were driven by cogs and springs, the Spanish court was so impressed it bought up all the timepieces he brought with him, for 2,000 gold coins.

In latter years, Pierre would travel extensively to showcase his clocks and automatons in the principal courts of Europe, in London, Holland, Flanders, Russia, demonstrating his creations to a growing, international community of admirers.

Pierre Jaquet-Droz became one on the first watch brand imported into the Forbidden City in Beijing. The Emperor himself collected many Jaquet-Droz pieces.

The Height of Mechanical Wizardry: Mimicking Life

The significant bounty that Pierre earned from Spain allowed him to establish himself back at La Chaux-Fonds. Here, Pierre was aided in his growing business by his son Henri-Louis, and his neighbour’s son Jean-Frederic Leschot.

As the business thrived, Pierre, Henri-Louis and Leschot began to develop ever more complex movements and automata. From 1967, they developed a trio of highly sophisticated, life-like android automatons: The Writer, The Draftsman and The Musician. These were presented in Paris in 1775 before King Louis XVI and his queen Marie-Antoinette and are today housed at the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire (art and history museum) in Neuchâtel, Switzerland.

The Writer

Made primarily by Pierre Jaquet-Droz, The Writer was completed in 1772 and is composed of some some 6,000 moving parts, making it the most complex of the three androids that have now come to be known as the Jaquet Droz Automata. Under the direction of a large configurable wheel at this base of its spine, The Writer can be programmed to write any text of 40 characters spread over four lines. Yet it is no mere printer: The Writer dips its quill into the inkwell at intervals, taking care to shake off excess ink before committing pen to paper, writing in a neat script, all the while eyeing its work across the page.

The Draftsman

Looking very similar to The Writer, this was produced mainly by Henri-Louis and Leschot and required some 2,000 components. In place of lettering with a quill, The Draftsman draws with a pencil: a portrait of King Louis XV of France, a dog with an inscription, Cupid in a chariot pulled by a butterfly, and a portrait of the ill-fated royal couple Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette. Its cams can be changed to produce other drawings, and it also featured a small bellows in its articulated head that allows the Draftsman to occasionally raise its head to examine its work, and blow the dust off the paper while completing its drawing.

The Musician

Modelled after a seated young girl playing organ flutes, The Musician is composed of 2,500 to drive the instrument, as well as the life-like movements of the girl which plays five tunes, apparently composed by Henri-Louis. The Musician moves its fingers, nods, scans the keys from left to right, just as a human girl would, and finishes her/its piece with a curtsey!

Jaquet Droz Today: Extending the Legacy

It is a given that the top Swiss watchmaking companies test their mettle by melding engineering ingenuity with artisan craft. Jaquet Droz is no exception, continuing Pierre Jaquet-Droz’s penchant for high complications in its collections that span simple three-hand watches to minute repeaters, and showing mastery over a broad spread of decorative arts including sculpting, miniature painting, skeletonisation, grand feu enamelling, and working with myriad minerals.

Ye in addition to this, the brand is also drawing a direct line of inspiration to Pierre Jaquet-Droz in spirit and in deed by creating automaton timepieces of stunning complexity and life-like detail. This is a perfect canvas for expressing Jaquet Droz’s watchmaking creativity and the range of artisan crafts that it has assembled within its maison, as it takes an engineer’s precision to set automatons in motion, but the eye of an artist to bring these creations convincingly to life.

The Signing Machine

It has ditched the outer form of the The Writer and The Draftsman for a much more portable form factor but the inspiration of the earlier automatons are plainly evident here. Instead of writing letters in sequence or drawing pictures, the Signing Machine fuses the two skills by replicating the fluid, natural script of its owner’s personal signature, mechanically, courtesy of custom hand-built cams. Requiring four years’ development and 585 parts, the Signing Machine has the power reserve (displayed) to execute two signings before it needs to be wound via a lever on its side.

The Bird Repeater

Various skills are employed here in animating a classical scene of familial felicity that tugs at the heart. The pair of birds and their fledglings, sculpted and painted by hand, are native to Jaquet-Droz’s birthplace, which is beautifully presented in subtle strokes, laden with detail. No less than eight animations bring the entire scene to life, in a minute repeater wristwatch that engages like no other.

The Charming Bird

A mechanical singing bird that leapt out of a Hans Christian Andersen tale is realised here in miniature, in an iteration that is breathtakingly contemporary and thus wholly consistent with the forward-looking zeitgeist of the Enlightenment. In place of a gilded cage, the mechanical singing bird is perched in its crystal hemisphere, flitting and fluttering as it delivers is song, to the rhythm of a visual orchestra of moving pistons, gears, bellows and springs. In the Charming Bird, past and future has been drawn together into a single composition that sparkles with intelligence and artfulness as no other.

Grande Seconde, Petite Heure Minute

Even as automatons define the company most distinctly, the simpler timepieces in Jaquet Droz’s collections offer no less, albeit on the subtler band of perception. Even without the adornment of vivid painting or clever animation, the poetry remains, in the elegance of the dial composition, and the execution of the finishing. In the Grande Seconde, the intersecting circles in their perfect relative proportions intimate infinity and eternity while lending clarity, space and harmony to the dial. The Petite Heure Minute in like degree has time apportioned appropriately, while leaving room for context that lends time meaning and beauty.

It’s been three centuries from the Age of Reason but the ideals of that enlightened era remain as fresh, vital and relevant today. And it is through these values of reason, balance, and methodical pursuit of perfection that every Jaquet Droz timepiece is fashioned, loved and understood.

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