Van Cleef & Arpels Éveil du Cyclamen automaton
Making of the Van Cleef & Arpels Éveil du Cyclamen automaton © Van Cleef & Arpels

In our AI-powered age of Alexa and ChatGPT, the idea of a mechanical automaton may seem out of step with the times. But several watchmakers are finding creative expression anew in these mechanical machines, which enjoyed their heyday in the 18th century. Whimsical in style and often mimicking human behaviours, automata were beloved for their sense of wonder, sparking astonishment but also fear. In the mid-1700s, the eponymous watchmaker Pierre Jaquet-Droz was condemned to death by the Inquisition for practising black magic after showing his humanlike automata to the Spanish court. He was subsequently spared.

Such raw emotion is likely why automata are resonating again now. According to a Euromonitor report published in January, one of 2023’s top 10 global consumer trends is authentic automation and technology with a human touch.

“Digital is a dominant force, but tech can’t match human nuances,” says the report. “While machines make convenience and speed possible, the power of emotional connections shouldn’t be underestimated.”

One of the most notable automaton makers right now is Van Cleef & Arpels, with enchanting, fairy tale-like designs that evoke a strong sense of emotion. In 2017, the house unveiled an impressive, fairy-themed Fée Ondine automaton and clock, alongside several watches.

At today’s Watches and Wonders fair, the brand is unveiling three new mechanical objects, which follows on from three similar automata introduced last year. Richly bejewelled, narrative-led, and themed around nature, the creations merge the maison’s jewellery and watchmaking savoir-faire.

Éveil du Cyclamen
Éveil du Cyclamen
Éveil du Cyclamen

Two new floral automata, for example — each one approximately 27cm tall — are made in conjunction with the Swiss automaton master François Junod. Featuring either precious lacquered cyclamen or a lily that opens up on-demand to reveal a fluttering, masterfully enamelled and bejewelled butterfly, the pieces are set on equally decorative bases that tell the time. The Floraison du Nénuphar object, for example, has a gem-set base crafted from marble, shattuckite, ebony, aluminium and leather.

Rainer Bernard, Van Cleef & Arpels’ head of research and development, refers to the automata as “a field of expression that is crazy — it’s big” and says to expect more in coming years. “Automata perfectly integrate the things that we love: métier d’art, woodmaking, and wood marquetry, our knowledge about stones and high jewellery, watchmaking and automata making,” says Bernard. “For us, it’s the perfect blending of different crafts, creativity and beauty.” Working with outside masters like Junod is also increasingly part of the process — while channelling the romance behind keeping ancient skills alive.

The third novelty, an astronomy-themed Planétarium set with handcrafted bejewelled planets, continues from models unveiled last year. The design called upon the expertise of a specialist Swiss bellmaker that has been producing church bells for over 600 years, which Van Cleef & Arpels commissioned to make tiny bespoke bells with specific tonalities.

The Louis Vuitton Tambour Opera Automata © Louis Vuitton
The Louis Vuitton Tambour Fiery Heart Automata © Louis Vuitton

Bernard adds that buyers of Van Cleef & Arpels’ automata are often existing clients who are familiar with the house.

Automata are increasingly found in watches, too, with Louis Vuitton gaining recognition in the field. In 2021, the fashion house won the Audacity Prize at the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève (GPHG) watchmaking awards for its Tambour Carpe Diem, an esoteric, snake and skull-themed automata watch that incorporated four complications.

This month, the house follows up with two similarly daring designs. A 42mm automata watch nods to the Sichuan Opera Bian Lian via five animations, including a mask that changes its facial expression on demand to reveal a jumping hour. Meanwhile, the Tambour Fiery Heart Automata has seven animations that include a flaming heart, spinning roses, rising thorns and text that reveals “Sweet but Fierce”, alongside a flying tourbillon.

Jaquet Droz’s The Rolling Stones automaton
Jaquet Droz’s The Rolling Stones automaton

Michel Navas, master watchmaker at La Fabrique du Temps, Louis Vuitton’s high watchmaking arm, called the creations “theatre” and “a real mix between the high watchmaking and automata worlds”. Before its 2021 GPHG win, the house had been making bespoke automata watches for VIP clients. Navas says it is the rarefied art of automata that captures imaginations: “It’s difficult to bring some poetry into the mathematical world of watchmaking.”

Mastering automaton making is a tall order that takes expertise and patience. “You only make one — and then you think about the next one. It takes time, it’s not mass produced,” says Van Cleef’s Bernard.

Last month, independent watchmaker De Bethune acquired Reuge, a 157-year-old Swiss maker of mechanical music boxes and music automata. De Bethune chief executive Pierre Jacques says the acquisition will make sense for its clients. “In the past few years, many of our customers collect not only watches but also like collecting art pieces or mechanical art pieces,” he says. “Clients are seeking bespoke objects, like automata or special clocks.” It will be some time before the first pieces with Reuge land but De Bethune is planning to launch its first automaton watch later this year.

Dior’s Grand Soir automata features their 30 Avenue Montaigne flagship in Paris

In January, Dior launched its first automata watches under its Grand Soir line, where two watches depict enchanting scenes: one a bejewelled jungle complete with flora and fauna that playfully sway; another the Christian Dior flagship at 30 Avenue Montaigne in Paris, where a button animates shooting stars.

And, finally, 300 years on from Pierre Jaquet-Droz’s close encounter with the Spanish Inquisition, the brand is a byword for automaton watches and is starting a special personalisation service. A Dragon Automata collection launched last autumn enables clients to customise the likes of the case, dial, hands and hour markers, in what chief executive Alain Delamuraz calls a “new direction” for the brand. “We now want to intimately connect with our clients and their personal universe — be it art, music, yachting or passions such as cars, and sports,” he says.

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