Jaquet Droz’s Mission to AstonishBy Joy Corthesy
Adjusting her protective goggles on her face, Heidi*, a petite blonde with eyes steadily focused on the task ahead, opens the oven door and delicately slides in a small metal grill carrying a tiny blue disc. That blue disc is the dial for one of Jaquet Droz’s Baselworld 2018 novelties, the Petite Heure Minute Smalta Clara — a watch with a “plique-à-jour” enamel dial, a technique that uses enamel with a special base to resemble stained glass windows from great cathedrals. She sets the timer on her phone for two minutes — it’s the third firing of the dial and of her going through this process.
She explains that the nature of enamel is delicate: the glass powder has to fill the metal frame of the dial (in this case, shaped to look like a tiger’s face), which then melt in the oven set at 700° Celsius, but has to stick properly to the metal frame. If there are any gaps between the enamel and the frame (which often happens due to how enamel contracts when cooling down), Heidi takes the dial once it’s cooled down and fixes it, adding more enamel and putting it back in the oven. The process naturally takes a few rounds, with Heidi making sure all the gaps are filled and the enamel remains the right consistency and color. It’s a long and detail-oriented process that can be influenced by the smallest of changes: “Anything can affect the result — the humidity in the air, the weather outside, or even my mood,” she explains. And Heidi (along with Jaquet Droz’s entire team of artisans at La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland) works in an extremely controlled environment. “You think about how many things can affect the outcome of the dial, and in the 18th century craftsmen used to do this type of work over fires and only had their instincts to rely on, it really is an art,” she continues.
The timer rings — two minutes have gone by, and Heidi opens the oven door to take the dial out. A wave of heat emanates from the oven as she steadily removes the grill carrying the dial. She sets it aside to cool — the dial that had gone into the oven opaque with powder now has beautifully translucent shades of blue, and my untrained eye can’t spot any gaps. The colors are vibrant, almost alive — it’s a stunning effect, and a technique that comes from centuries of tradition.
A word that’s frequently used by Jaquet Droz employees who speak French is “émerveillé” — roughly translating to “astonish” — which is something the brand always makes a point to do with their métiers d’art pieces. From their Automata collection to their unique Ateliers d’Art pieces, Jaquet Droz seeks to create pieces that take your breath away using traditional craftsmanship, just like Pierre Jaquet Droz did back in the 18th century.
Turning Tradition into Art
In the 18th century, watchmakers in the Jaquet Droz family pioneered delicate ornamental techniques that took their clocks to a new artistic level. Masters in grand feu enamel, they became known for working with techniques to embellish their pieces, including miniature painting, paillons enamel, and highly detailed miniature sculptures.
These became Jaquet Droz’s signature techniques, which Pierre Jaquet Droz applied to his grandfather clocks to distinguish them from anything else on the market. Along with his elaborate automaton movements, Pierre Jaquet Droz became known throughout Europe and the rest of the world for his sophisticated clocks, even becoming the first clockmaking brand to be imported into the Forbidden City in China for Emperor Qianlong, who was fascinated by mechanical watches and automatons, in the mid-1700s.
Jaquet Droz has, in its archives, a number of clocks, pocket watches, and antique bird cages that date from the 18th and 19th centuries — the brand has, after all, a rich history it can delve into for inspiration. During our visit to their atelier, a historian and clock restorer named Gregoire* kindly showed us a prized possession: a bird cage from 1775 with a music box movement, complete with two taxidermy birds. With the turn of a key, the birds came alive, moving and flapping their wings to the tune of chimes.
An incredibly elaborate movement, this piece is only one of many in the brand’s archives and shows how Jaquet Droz has been making sophisticated movements involving birds and music for a long time, which explains their stunning Automaton collection. Today, Jaquet Droz continues to find inspiration in these traditional techniques with a team of enamellers and engravers working together in their atelier to bring forward stunning pieces of art.
For such traditional work, the seven in-house craftsmen and -women behind Jaquet Droz’s breathtaking pieces are younger than expected — which is, in light of their amazing work, ultimately a good thing. There’s a youthful and dynamic energy to the atelier, which is reflected in the playfulness and vibrancy in Jaquet Droz’s pieces. And this type of work can really only be born when people work together in close quarters: “We all collaborate closely on all of these pieces. We can tell someone else if a certain part of the design doesn’t work, or how we can adjust it, and we can do that all day because of the size of our team, and we really understand each other’s work,” said Heidi.
At the time of our visit, four of the seven artisans were working on different parts of the Tropical Bird Repeater, one of Jaquet Droz’s outstanding 2018 novelties. One artisan was working on the engraving and detail work on the hummingbird’s feathers, another was painting the peacock feathers, and two were each engraving an 18-Karat red gold case with detailed sketches of the design next to their workstations. One of the engravers told me: “We’re all engraving the same design, but we all do it our own way. We each have our own tools that we sometimes make ourselves, and we interpret the same design differently. It’s very minute details — I would be able to recognize who worked on what case just by looking at the engraving.”
Looking through the microscope to see the engraving they were undertaking, it was clear that this type of work takes great passion with a large dose of patience. The engraver had almost completed one side of the case, which alone took two weeks of work, and was getting ready to start on the other side of the case. When we asked if it ever became difficult to constantly focus on such a small canvas, she smiled and shook her head: “We’re used to it, and we really love what we do.” Much like Heidi, they all seemed to possess a reverence for these traditional techniques and a genuine love for their work — something that would probably make the artisans from centuries ago proud.
Just as we were about to leave the Jaquet Droz headquarters, notebooks full of notes and a camera full of photos, we, by chance, ran into Jaquet Droz’s CEO, Christian Lattmann. He asked us how we liked our visit, and we were very effusive in our praise. He smiled, beaming with pride: “I’m glad to hear it, it is always our aim to ‘émerveiller’ our visitors.” And amazed we were, indeed.
Full names have been omitted per Jaquet Droz policy and for the employees’ privacy.