At the turn of the 19th century, Switzerland’s most pioneering watchmakers were making history not in the picturesque Jura Mountains towns of Geneva and Neuchâtel, but farther afield — in the uncharted, lands of China. Bovet, Piguet & Meylan, and Vacheron Constantin, among them, were seduced by the land-of-a-billion, both professionally and personally: for example, after a 12-year stint in Canton, Édouard Bovet returned home in 1830 flush with cash, success and a four-year-old, half-Chinese son.
Yet few can lay claim to having had the ear of the Chinese emperor himself — quite literally. That honour goes to Jaquet Droz, whose genius, musical automatons and mechanical timepieces so enthralled the Qianlong emperor in the 1770s that the ruler set up his own national office to import and trade in such wondrous objects. In 10 years, Jaquet Droz exported more than 600 pieces to the most discerning of Chinese patrons, the creations of which combined highly complicated movements with the bling of their day: extravagant enamel work, pearls and precious stones. The stunning mechanical marvels set the tone for Jaquet Droz’s serious approach to craft, which courses through its D.N.A. today.
Founder Pierre Jaquet Droz was destined to sell to kings. His early long-base clocks, dreamed up in his La Chaux-de-Fonds workshop that he set up in 1738, defied those of his time. By 1773, Pierre and son Henri-Louis were wowing royal courts throughout Europe with their remarkable humanoid automata — essentially life-size, hand-wound androids. The robots could write, draw and sing, some fully clad in ruffled shirts and satin breeches — plus with painted toes and fingers, bizarrely. Whimsical and truly astonishing, they were also sinister to some; in Madrid, the Inquisition condemned Pierre to death for allegedly practising black magic, and he was saved only by the Bishop of Toledo.
All this made for fantastic branding, enabling Jaquet Droz to go on and sell its timepieces, some of which are highly coveted today. At Sotheby’s last year, for example, a collector paid $2.5m for a 1786-87 gem-set, singing-bird automaton scent flask. Standing 16cm tall, the work featured a white enamel dial and diamond-set balance on one side, an articulated ivory bird on the other. Pumping out song via a six-valve pinned cylinder, it “predates what one normally sees, which is whistle and piston”, says Daryn Schnipper, chairman of Sotheby’s international watch division. “This has a tiny organ called a serinette. The miniaturisation factor is insane.” So too is the decoration. Translucent pink enamel, bezels and alternating rubies and pearls surrounded the bird, all further ensconced by Renaissance-style gold paillon arabesques over a rich-blue background. The piece is pretty over the top — and out of reach — for most, but such automata are synonymous with Jaquet Droz today, even if some of its most well-known modern timepieces are starkly pared down in comparison. “They are recalling their history,” says Schnipper.