One could be forgiven for thinking that pornography was invented with the dawning of the computer age. But, as early as the 17th century, English and Swiss watchmakers were taking full advantage of the old adage that sex sells.
Today we hear a lot of talk about the future of wearable technology. Data-streaming glasses, 4G shirts, online tights and what-have-you. But this is not new. After all, what is a watch other than wearable tech? And everybody, at least if he or she is honest, knows how pornographic content of one sort or another is often present in today's technology of smartphones and tablets. It would be pleasant to pretend that the creation of a global wired community was leading to more study of Virgil's Eclogues, but more people are watching screens with 21st-century versions of Debbie Does Dallas. With a nice equivalence, one of the secret episodes in the history of classic horology is the erotic watch: wearable tech - even wearable porn - that is centuries old. The watch with erotic scenes, at first static enamel or engraved pictures concealed behind flaps, later evolved into complex automata with miniature figures performing in meticulous, if mindless, metronomic bliss. 'A Man's Way With His Maid' would be an unsurprising caption. The trade began in the late-17th century with exports to China: how might quiet afternoons in the Forbidden City be beguiled by a handsome watch with scenes of a rutting gweilo, humping in sync with the passing minutes and seconds in the Emperor's silent palace. The development of the minute-repeater and a gong sound provided an irresistible stimulus to the erotically inclined horologist. The moment critique of an animated couple might, thus, be indicated by a nice bit of tintinnabulation. The genre perhaps reached 136 its climax in the 18th century then continued, somewhat furtively and depleted, into the 19th. And now, in a nice demonstration of the circular nature of history, demand for erotic timepieces at recent sales has come mostly from Asia. The same markets are now demanding a new generation of erotic watches.
Secret loveThe history of the erotic watch is, however, obscure and the literature is thin: only one specialist book has ever been published: Roland Carrera's Les Heures de l'Amour (Editions Scriptar, Lausanne, 1993). Proper academic study of the subject is difficult as few intact collections exist and official records are scarcer still. These watches were collected with passion, but with a necessary secrecy that adds an additional frisson to the stimulus they were designed originally to excite. Collections of erotica, in whatever genre, acquire additional seductive force by being kept from view. For example, in 1865 The British Museum decided to put all its 'obscene' material into a collection known as The Secretum. In the absence of much documentary proof for or against, it is irresistible to think that all the great watchmakers have a Secretum of their own: treasure houses of unseen tick-tocking erotica. There is a curious relationship between love and horology, or between sex and time (to put it a little more bluntly). Psychologists know that the intense power of the erotic impulse is rooted not in mere lubricious lust, although that is certainly a part of it, but in a larger mystical battle with the passing moment. Sex defines vitality and, at least for a moment, defies mortality. It is surely significant that the French expression for orgasm is petite mort, the little death that is the life-enhancing absence of all feeling.
Literature is full of references to sex and time. The poet Andrew Marvell, wooing his Coy Mistress, promises to: 'Tear our pleasures with rough strife / Through the iron gates of life /Thus if we cannot make our Sun stand still / Yet we will make him run'. So there's another haunting suggestion of how sex changes perceptions of time - the more we enjoy ourselves, the quicker time passes. For Carlo Petrini, founder of The Slow Food Movement, the thing eating and sex have in common is that each is best done slowly. So the delicious paradoxes and suggestions of les montres erotiques are to be savoured and enjoyed. The human emotional mechanisms of sexual desire might be complex and contradictory, but the end result of all erotic fantasy is a simple and predictable intromittent action, which clockwork is perfectly suited to imitate.
Original sinAn erotic watch is, in several ways, the 18th-century equivalent of pornography in your smartphone. (Or, in a more primitive age, those cute nude ballpoints where a model's black lace basque falls off when you invert the pen, a reliable way of livening-up the dullest of meetings). One, it is advanced technology used to support and indulge very ancient tastes. Two, it is a personal secret made more pleasurable because it can be covertly enjoyed in public.
All artefacts speak of their time, betraying the yearnings and obsessions, hopes and fears, of the people who made them - and, indeed, the people who use them. Thus, we have gaudy porn on our iPhone while our ancestors had a quarter-repeater pocket watch where you slid a cover to reveal a miniature enamelled scene of a partially undressed and notably inflamed priest fitting a plump, naked girl with a chastity belt. Before or after? It is difficult to say. The development of automata in the Geneva area, by Jacquet Droz and others, was a symbolic moment in man's historic escape from God during the period we now call The Enlightenment. An automaton's simulacrum of life put Man in competition with the Divinity. One Jaquet-Droz masterpiece was a duck that digested and defecated, causing astonishment wherever it was demonstrated. It was, naturally, an advertisement for his watchmaking skills. Meanwhile, his contemporaries might automate a scene of vivid lovemaking as the quarter-repeater drives the piston movement of a pink male bottom grinding through the repetitive motions of love with a clockworking girl. Not always of the loftiest artistic intent, these erotic scenes are nonetheless all small masterpieces of miniaturism. There are certain craft techniques that lent themselves to the miniaturist's art. Since the 17th century, Geneva had been a centre of enamelling and engraving. CloisonnÃ© was a technique where compartments were made by soldering gold or silver wire to the surface and these compartments were filled with enamel powder and then fired in a kiln. champlevÃ© was similar, but depended on incisions carved or etched into a surface, which then were also filled with a vitreous enamel.
Then there was the engraving technique of guillochÃ© whose intricate, repetitive patterns so readily bring to mind the weave of a strumpet's fishnet stockings. All these techniques were used in the static or automated tableaux in erotic watches. Besides Geneva, London was also a centre of erotic watch production where they were sometimes known as conversation pieces. Although this term is most often applied to the paintings of informal social groups by Arthur Devis, an erotic watch might be expected to start a conversation of a sort that did not conclude with the exchange of words and ideas...
Anglo-French relationsAn already vigorous stream of native English pornography was engorged by France. Legal records reveal how familiar pornography was three centuries ago in London. In 1688, the publisher of The School of Venus (translated from L'Escole des Filles) was fined 40 shillings at The Guildhall for publishing what the diarist Samuel Pepys called a 'mighty lewd book'. Its subject was the instruction of a young woman by an older one, more skilled in the ars amatoria. This was a recurrent design motif in erotic watches. So too was the sexually ambitious nun who appears in Venus dans le Cloître, a book of 1683 intended to subvert the Church by acknowledging the sexual turbulence beneath a nun's chaste habit. At an adultery trial of 1796 a Mrs Errington admitted showing copies of John Cleland's Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, better known as Fanny Hill, to her friends. I wonder whether Mrs Errington owned a watch with similarly provocative content. Harris's List of Covent Garden Ladies began publication in 1757 and continued for nearly 40 years as an annual list of loose women, a sort of Baedeker of bawdiness. An entry in Harris's List refers to a woman who enjoys, and shares with her clients, 'an extraordinary titillation in all her members'. Subscribers to Harris's List would surely have been customers for erotic watches? In a context such as this, a context where the great biographer James Boswell might, with a condom made of a sheep's bladder, enjoy a prostitute in broad daylight on Westminster Bridge, where prominent politicians belonged to Sir Francis Dashwood's Hellfire Club, where the Whig leader, John Wilkes, published an Essay on Woman in 1763, was a context where an erotic watch was perhaps a familiar accessory. Certainly, a 2011 Antiquorum sale in Geneva included a single London-made James Cox erotic watch of 1780 showing a woman spying on a pair of lovers. If there was one, there might have been many.
Whether in England or France, the narratives and iconography of theses scenes were based on well-established pornographic traditions, although the gross transgressions of the Marquis de Sade feature less often in erotic watches than do salon seductions and pastoral trysts. Typical is a watch by the Geneva maker Henry Capt. A secret scene is revealed in gold and enamel. Two gentlemen and a woman are in an interior and about to do what two gentleman and a woman might most feel inclined when each is expecting a ménage à trois. The action is activated via a steel cam and, as the decisive moment looms, music plays. The technical description of the mechanism sounds like a parody of sex: full-late double-train movement with cylindrical pillars, going barrel and polished end-piece. All of this activated by twisting the pendant.
Hidden desiresAlthough the production of erotic watches was always necessarily covert, it was commerce that reached a significant volume. So much so that, in 1817, the Consistoire de Geneve had to issue a critical edict to the watchmakers of La Chaux-de-Fonds. 'Obscene jewellery has long been manufactured in your Canton!' the Calvinists nagged. The Consistoire was appalled by the popular 'lewd scenes'. And it was not only watchmakers. The depraved craftsmen of the Swiss Jura were also busily decorating snuff boxes and signet rings with scenes of lust. There was a demand to stop this 'wretched commerce' so as to protect the reputation of Switzerland abroad. Instead of gratifying lustful tastes, craftsmen were ordered to return to Calvinist principles. Because of legal compulsion or changes in taste, production of erotic watches began to decline. Now, quietly, the Enlightenment tradition of erotic watches is being revived. What effect this has on Switzerland's international standing is yet to be seen. To animate the little amorous figures, the Blancpain Libertine adds wheels and cams to what is already a complicated repeater mechanism. As in sex, no friction or play can be tolerated. Jacob & Co.'s Caligula is claimed by its manufacturer to be the 'most erotic timepiece ever made'. Caligula promises 'a scene reminiscent of any man's greatest fantasy... revealed every hour'. The menu includes dial scene options, ranging from 'boat, beach, or city backdrop with blonde, brunette, red, black female hair'. The syntax is certainly less promising than the product it describes. Caligula's erotic dial is either revealed or hidden, according to circumstances and need, by a crown at four o'clock. There is no mention of a drop-down menu, but perhaps such a thing would be appropriate.
Concealment and display have forever been elements in the tragi- comedy of the erotic imagination. And concealment and display are part of the theatre of an erotic watch. That your elegant Blancpain face successfully disguises a secret, erotic interior world is doubly pleasing. Seduction, too, works like clockwork. Again, time is an ever-present question in any discussion of sex, whether personal or horological. What is a quickie other than a bargain between passing time, opportunity and desire? Many other vernacular descriptions of sex also involve a suggestion of time. There is, for example, the French institution of the cinq à sept: that hiatus in the day, between office and home, when a man so inclined might visit his mistress. The French precision and bureaucracy indicated by the start time of five and the hard-stop of seven are charming, as if the waves of desire work to a timetable. Of course, he would need a reliable watch to make it on time. Who buys erotic watches today? Elton John 'fidèle á ses goûts', a French report says, owns a 'montre libertine' with two men 'en train de faire l'amour observé par un chien'. I presume Elton is not alone in his taste for wearable porn. But the fascination of the subject is that we will really never know.This feature was first seen in Issue 6 of Revolution Magazine.