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Automata - Life in motion

Automata Life in motion

Mobile, animated, programmed : automaton-type figures represent a field of their own in the watchmaking industry. From the simplest to the most complex, they imitate an action, a movement… and indeed life itself.

What could be more ‘horological’ than movement ? By its very nature, following the course of time implies constant motion. It is thus hardly surprising that watches display their movement in various ways. Nonetheless, this animation reaches peak expression in an entirely different realm, that of automata. In an age dominated by large-format horology (pocket watches, floor clocks or steeple clocks), automata were the ultimate technological accomplishment. The animated figures on large clocks, appearing in stately procession at appointed times, represented tourist attractions during the Middle Ages. Androids made by the Jaquet Droz family or Vaucanson delighted European courts. These lifelike figures were mechanically programmed to perform certain daily activities.

Since then, although automata have been replaced by robots, they have retained their fascination, precisely because the very fact that they are in motion conveys emotions – and even thrills in some instances, since automata are often associated with erotic watches. A naughty little scene is an even better conversation starter (or more besides if the chemistry is right) when it depicts explicit thrusting action. Two types or complication are concealed behind these small portable libido-enhancers. Jacob&Co. has chosen the simplest, which involves turning a crown to open the dial and activate the figures on the Caligula watch. The second is both nobler and more complex.

A jaquemart (jack) is an animated character coupled with a striking mechanism. Ulysse Nardin is a great specialist that regularly introduces wristwatches enlivened by a visually accompanied minute repeater function. Whether a juggling bear or a blacksmith beating metal, these models feature a variety of chaste themes. Blancpain reserves them for special, mainly erotically themed orders. But automata are also capable of partaking in chaste love scenes, as illustrated by Van Cleef & Arpels. In the Poetic Wish collection, Le Pont des Amoureux (lovers’ bridge) shows two sweethearts drawing close to each other without ever managing to kiss, since they are repeatedly pulled back by a (cruel) retrograde movement.


Scènes de vie
Kinematic horology also exists outside these classic interpretations. By way of example, Richard Mille uses the principle of elevation in its RM 19-02. A 3D enamel camellia blooms, releasing a tourbillon and raising it to the level of the sapphire crystal. The Metamorphosis II from Blancpain is equipped with a retractable dial that opens to shift from one complication to another.


The petals of Christophe Claret’s Margot are plucked as in the French version of the daisy oracle game (“He loves me… a lot, passionately, madly, not at all…). Cartier stages its cult animal within a maternal setting, since on the dial of the Panthères et Colibri Watch, the panther reveals on demand her cub sheltered between her paws.


Jaquet Droz perpetuates its founders’ heritage with two objects. The first is the Signing Machine, which scripts out its owner’s signature via a series of cams. The second is a tribute to the most beautiful subject of historical watchmaking automata. The Charming Bird is a singing bird designed to sit on the wrist. The watch is truly impressive, since the tiny creature whistles a delightful tune as it turns and looks extremely lifelike.



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