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.
The 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.
An 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.