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Cartier's Clocks

Cartier's Mystery Clocks Still Bewilder Even As They Bewitch
Ettagale Blauer
From the Print Edition:
Chuck Norris, Jul/Aug 98

The Duke and Duchess of Westminster were having a very bad night. In the fifth year of their marriage, the British royals had a raging scene, which the duchess described in her memoirs: "Objects flew through the air. A friend had given me a Cartier clock made of crystal with diamond hands as a wedding present; an exquisite little thing which seemed to work by magic. One night, during a nightmarish argument, it was hurled against the wall and shattered into a thousand pieces."

Fortunately for horological history, that little scene of spent passion in the early 1930s has been the exception. Many of the great works of Cartier, including the astonishing and exquisite "mystery" clocks, have survived intact. They remain a tangible testament to the creative and technical genius of the Cartier family and their team of jewelers, designers and watchmakers.

The mystery clocks embrace everything that we now recognize as the remarkable hallmarks of the firm--the technical virtuosity, the design, the color combinations, the exotic influences, and the elements purchased and incorporated into new designs. In an age of electronic wizardry and computerized, digitized images, the mystery clocks retain their appeal. We honor their unique achievement: the perfect balance of science, art and material.

The entrancing allure of the mystery clocks is their total transparency. We gaze at them in awestruck, childlike wonder: How can a complicated clock movement be hidden within when everything is so transparently clear? The heart of each clock is carved from a solid, flawless piece of rock crystal or a similarly pure and transparent gem material. Viewing this utterly clear gemstone offers not a hint of an answer. Enlightenment doesn't come if the clock is viewed while gazing at its beautiful facade or its equally beautiful, and different, reverse. They tease us with their seeming openness: "Look deep within my heart," says the rock crystal. "Observe my diamond-set serpent hands and try to understand what propels them to wriggle their way around the dial in an endless display of bedazzlement."

Diamond-set arrow hands offer no more a clue than do the serpents. As if that was not enough of a dazzler, consider the star-and-pointer hands of another clock. Not only is there no hint at how the clock's movement works, the tips of the hands aren't even connected to the pivot. Mysterious? Magical, mystical, even miraculous doesn't seem too extravagant a description for objects of such exquisite manufacture.

There is an answer, of course, for these clocks do work, they do keep time, and they continue to do so for decades. What makes them tick was one of the most closely guarded secrets in the history of clock making, but today we can all share in this glorious secret. To fully appreciate them, though, a little history is in order.

The original technical inspiration for the Cartier mystery clocks came from a nineteeth-century Frenchman who was both clockmaker and magician, Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin. Borrowing from Robert-Houdin and others, Maurice Couet, who came from a great clock-making family, created his own version of the mystery clock and presented it to Cartier in 1913. It was known as the Model A, evoking an amusing comparison to the Model T, the car introduced by Henry Ford in 1908. While the Model T was the epitome of mass production, the mystery clock was a unique product, one-of-a-kind and totally handmade. Couet became the exclusive supplier to the firm, working his magic in conjunction with Charles Jacqueau and Georges Remy, who both designed for the firm. That first Cartier mystery clock by Couet was nearly a year in the making, and it was sold to J. P. Morgan, the American financier.

In addition to its exquisite technical achievement, each mystery clock made by the firm is housed in a work of art that captures the essence of Cartier design. Each clock movement is set within a richly ornamental frame, often enameled in dramatic black, gold or white. The clock could be mounted on a small platform, often of black onyx or nephrite. In the portico series, made in the 1920s, the clock is suspended from the frame like a Chinese gong. The frame itself is made to look like the columns of a temple gate. These dramatic designs often combine Chinese elements, such as carved jade, that are mounted on pillars of black enamel, rock crystal or onyx. The motifs extend to every aspect of the design, and the clocks are as beautiful (and mysterious) when viewed from the back as from the front. Only six portico clocks were made, so it is a rare moment when such a clock comes up for sale. In 1993, there was such an occasion. A mystery temple clock, originally sold for $3,200 in 1929, was auctioned at Christie's for $1,540,000.

While some clocks have passed into private hands and are seen only by a few, others have been repurchased by Cartier for its exhibitions as part of the firm's historic collection and are displayed on special occasions. The collection includes five of the six portico clocks.

The mystery clocks are remarkable for more than their technical virtuosity or their incredible beauty, or even for their inherently precious raw materials; they are remarkable, too, because they were made for stock, rather than for any particular client. That didn't mean they stayed in stock for very long. One dramatic example is the Shinto shrine gate clock, one of the portico clocks. It was entered into the stock book on January 29, 1923. Two days later, it was sold to opera singer Ganna Walska, also known as the wife of Harold McCormick (son of the inventor of the McCormick reaper). Unlike the unfortunate Duchess of Westminster clock, this one survived intact, to be repurchased by Cartier for its collection. The clock represents absolute perfection, from the purity of the rock crystal, to the contrast between the onyx base, the touches of gold, and the delicacy of the diamond-set hands as well as the overall design--the reproduction of a Shinto gate with the clock hung as a gong. On top sits a grinning Buddha carved from rock crystal. The combination of Japanese and Chinese design elements in one piece typifies Cartier's genius for weaving something new of threads taken from different cultures.

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