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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

(continued from page 1)

Cartier was never reluctant to borrow, sometimes in wholesale quantities, the elegant design and craftsmanship of other cultures. The mystery clocks became the setting for some of the firm's most theatrical designs and its most enthusiastic borrowings. The portico series was especially representative of the firm's ability to merge exotic themes, materials and objects with technical wizardry and artistic innovation.

These foreign influences are present throughout the design of the portico clocks (which were also known as temple gate clocks), beginning with the sophisticated application of Chinese enamel. Some elements are used whole: Chinese carved jade figures were used to support clocks or applied as components. Some merely suggest their origins, such as the geometric design on a 12-sided rock crystal clock that is used to enhance the plaque from which the clock itself is suspended. In the end, the symmetry and sophistication of these pieces emerge with all sense of the Eastern cultures intact.

The Chinese connection is strongly felt not only in the decoration but in the very conception of this group of clocks as gongs, suspended from frames. Because we know that gongs swing freely from pivots, there seems no possible way for the movements to be connected to the hands. But while the clocks appear to hang quite freely, they are intricately, amazingly connected to the top of the portico roof through hidden wires.

And therein lies part of the answer to the mystery clocks. To fully understand the illusion, one must start from the center of the clock and work outward. The central element, usually rock crystal, must be cleaved in half perfectly, and then hollowed out to make space for two crystal discs. The hands are attached to the discs, which are then encased between the rock crystal halves. Each of the discs has a sawtooth-edge border that is driven within the surrounding frame. The illusion is perfect; the hands appear to float and work their way around the dial without any visible means of locomotion.

Cartier made mystery clocks until the outbreak of the Second World War. The world was turned upside down, and with it went much of the materials that were formerly used in jewelry. Precious metals were needed for the war effort; the flow of goods, including precious gemstones, nearly came to a halt as normal commerce and transportation ended. After the war, the production of mystery clocks remained on hold. A few pieces were probably made in the postwar years, but the grand and glorious works of art did not reappear for more than 40 years.

Such a disruption in production is not easily repaired. It takes a certain remarkable sense of one's own history, a firm commitment to reinvent the past, and the dedication of tremendous financial resources. All of these came together in 1981, when Cartier introduced new mystery clocks to an eager public. "If your company claims leadership, you have to lead," Cartier chairman Ralph Destino says simply. How to lead best? "By presenting each year great pieces, pieces that will one day wind up in a museum. I think it's important to do that.

"I was really proud of us as a company making the decision to create new mystery clocks. To make a mystery clock, by today's business judgment, is totally impractical. To get a group of craftsmen together and dedicate yourself to that. I love the notion that people say we can't do that anymore. In fact, we can, and we did. In 1981, we reopened that department. We had two of the original craftsmen head it up; they taught the new craftsmen. These were two old craftsmen who had never left the company. They were so thrilled to be able to make mystery clocks again."

In spite of modern technological advances, the clocks--which cost a couple of million dollars each--are still made exactly the same way. It takes a team of craftspeople, including lapidaries, horologists, jewelers and designers. It can take eight to 12 months to produce one clock. Cartier has the whole world of precious materials from which to choose--very fortunate indeed, since this is one shopping list that cannot be satisfied by any single resource. Like a great chef cooking a superb dish, the designers are not satisfied with anything less than the best. For the center precious stone that will hold the hands, they look to Brazil for a piece of flawless rock crystal, or occasionally a topaz. The choice of material is critical: It has to be light enough and transparent enough for viewers to see the hands. Since the firm needs only one such perfect gemstone every eight months or so, finding one is not much of a problem. Cutting it, however, is another matter. Creating the general shape--six-, eight- or twelve-sided--is well within the skills of a fine lapidary. But it is a rare cutter indeed who can carry out the unique steps required to make a mystery clock.

What makes the new mystery clocks as special as the original production is that they are inspired by the same design themes. Art Deco had its first stirrings at the time the first clocks were made, around 1910. The cool sophistication of the lines, the choice of materials and the juxtaposition of elements in new and exciting combinations all came together in this jazzy style. It was then known as Art Moderne--modern art--and it was a bold andrefreshing change from the styles that had preceded it. Coming just after the Edwardian era, with its lacy looks of fragility, Art Moderne was a statement in step with the changing times, a reflection of a modern age that relied on electricity and motor cars. The new style had a forthright appearance coupled with excellence of material and execution. It was the ideal combination of style and technique, of history and modernism, and it's perhaps this combination that has kept the mystery clock looking fresh and desirable as we approach the twenty-first century.

"During the years of 1900 to 1939, there was a certain daring about the designs that were being done by Cartier," says Simon Critchell, the chief executive officer and president of the firm. "This was contemporary, extravagant, made for stock. There was a lot of risk-taking. It was a family business." And so the risks were entirely their own, with no shareholders to satisfy.

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