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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.

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.

While Cartier may be best known for its mystery clocks, its reputation as one of the world's finest jewelry makers dates back much earlier. The firm traces its beginnings to France, where it was founded by Louis Cartier in 1847 to serve a largely royal clientele. His son, Alfred, took over the business in 1874 and certainly one would have to count Alfred's three sons, Louis, Pierre and Jacques, among his greatest productions. It is to them that we really refer when we speak of the renowned jewelry firm of Cartier. In 1899, the business was moved to the Rue de la Paix in Paris, the most elegant and posh shopping street in that style-besotted city. That the firm came to have three branches (Paris, London and New York) to match Alfred's three sons is due to circumstances during the early years of the twentieth century rather than a need to give each of them something to do. The 1902 coronation of Edward VII (who had waited interminably to succeed his mother, Queen Victoria) created so much work for Cartier that Pierre was sent to London to deal with it all. A permanent London branch, run by Jacques, was opened the same year. Jacques would remain there, becoming a lifelong resident of London. Edward frequented the shop in person in his pursuit of the lacy, delicate-appearing jewels that quickly became one of Cartier's hallmark design motifs and gave a name to an entire era of design, the Edwardian Age.

After an initial foray to New York two years earlier, Pierre established Cartier in America in 1909, opening a salon at 712 Fifth Avenue. His presence was needed to deal with the American millionaires--the country's own brand of royalty. Pierre became known as the "American brother." He married an American woman, from St. Louis, and lived in the United States until 1947, when he retired.

Louis, meanwhile, ran the Paris branch. In 1898, he married Andrée Worth, daughter of the important fashion designer. Though that marriage lasted only 12 years, it created a firm connection between the House of Cartier and the fashions of the times.

This was most strikingly shown at the famous 1925 Art Deco exposition in Paris, which was formally known as L'Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes. (According to Cartier chairman Destino, the term "Art Deco," which derives from the landmark exhibit, did not come into use until the 1960s.) Although Cartier exhibited there, the firm sidestepped the Grand Palais where the other jewelers were showing. Instead, Cartier chose to exhibit in the Pavillon de l'Elegance along with the couturiers, emphasizing their understanding of the connection between jewelry and fashion.

The question of whether the brothers were right for their times or that they were made by the times in which they lived is a toss-up. In any event, each of the three brought to the business a different quality, a different talent and a different personality. Taken together, they set the firm on a remarkable journey into jewelry design and the history books. They were certainly right for the first four decades of the twentieth century. It was during the Art Deco period that Cartier established a level of design and craftsmanship unrivaled since the time of Fabergé and rarely equaled since. The range of designs and the daring experimentation with color combinations and shapes, with the inclusion of stones and elements bought in the East, were unparalleled. They still stand as outstanding examples of the jeweler's art and today command enormous prices whenever they are offered at auction.

Indeed, Destino contends that the Art Deco era is the greatest in the entire history of jewelry. "Jewelry has been made for at least four thousand years of recorded history," he says. "If you look back at the whole four thousand years, it's the first 25 to 35 years of the twentieth century that were probably the most important in that history. The seventeeth and eighteenth centuries are interesting but irrelevant--you can't wear the jewelry. The work of the Art Deco period looks right today."

Cartier's involvement with the styles and gems of the East, especially India, began after the death of Queen Victoria in 1901. The end of the Victorian era coincided with a collective sigh of relief from the fashion world. English women of fashion had not dared to dress themselves flamboyantly during Victoria's 40 years of mourning for her beloved husband, Albert. Her death was a signal to open the windows and let in the light. Even during the year of mourning that followed Victoria's death, Pierre Cartier was already embarked on the creation of an Indian-style necklace to complement Indian gowns that had been sent to Alexandra, Edward's wife. Nothing in the extensive royal collection was suitable, and small wonder. It was not only the mourning period that made jewelry so gloomy and heavy--the white metal generally used to set gems at this time was silver. Soft and apt to tarnish, silver tended to dull rather than illuminate the stones set in it. Around 1900, Cartier began to work with platinum, a very strong white metal that lent itself to lacy, openwork designs. Thin platinum wires are strong and hold precious stones securely.

Once again, destiny played a large role in the firm's development. After waiting six decades to gain the throne, Edward VII didn't last long. Perhaps it was all those years he spent as a wealthy man occupied exclusively with nightlife, mistresses and fashion. He died in 1910, barely nine years after becoming king, and was succeeded by his brother, who took the throne as George V. As with the previous coronation, the House of Cartier was flooded with orders. The most important and influential customers were the wealthy royals of India, the jewel in the crown of the British commonwealth of the time. In 1911, Jacques was dispatched to India to deal with the needs of the Indian royalty. It was a trip into destiny for Cartier.

Although sometimes described as the most introverted of the three brothers, Jacques Cartier seemed very much at ease in a photograph taken during a trip to buy pearls in Bahrain. Impeccably dressed in white trousers and white shoes, and flanked by two sheikhs in their robes and turbans, Jacques was the very essence of Noël Coward sophistication. In those days, when pearls were worth a king's ransom, it was Jacques who traveled to the East to deal directly with the sheikhs in whose territories the pearls were found. He journeyed to Hormuz and Dubai, recording his impressions in a diary that has survived. He went to the pearl beds to watch the divers; they searched as many as 200 oysters without finding a single pearl during his visit. In addition to the pearls themselves, Jacques and his traveling companions observed the opulent way the Arabs wore pearls, which inspired Cartier to create very long strands of pearls and earrings; one famous pair extended into a necklace.

There was an ongoing relationship between the family of jewelers and various members of the royal Indian establishment. Indeed, there seemed to be as many Indian rajahs as there were gems in their vast palaces. Although the firm of Cartier had contact with Indian design before 1900, it was the 1911 trip that set the scene for Cartier's remarkably inventive use of colored gemstones. There was an exchange of influences: The Indian royalty had lived with their colorful enamels and gold settings, but now they longed for the new look of platinum--they wanted Parisian design. For the Europeans, the brilliant colors from India--the flamboyant mix of red and green accented with white--was a refreshing change from the all-diamond jewelry that had been the staple of British society.

Although Cartier was the name on the jewelry and on the beautiful red leather cases, it was Charles Jacqueau who designed many of the pieces that we think of as "Cartier." He was hired in 1909 and worked for the firm through the next two decades. It was Jacqueau who created the panther-skin designs and the designs based on Oriental influences; even some of the most innovative color combinations were his. But he would never have been able to weave his magic without the basic ingredients and influences of Asia. The firm would often purchase plaques--a jade screen, for example--that had been carved in China or Japan, and, using them whole, place them into mountings that would transform them into some of Cartier's most readily identifiable pieces.

With Jacqueau contributing much of the look of Cartier throughout the early decades of the twentieth century, Cartier created magical pieces of jewelry and objects throughout the Art Deco era. Cartier's innovations were manifold: Chief among them were the use of Egyptian motifs in innovative designs; blue and green gems and enamel whose combination hit the eye like a thunderbolt; the adaptation of Chinese and Japanese elements into wholly new designs; and the use of carved gemstones from India. The latter, virtually baskets of colored gems acquired during Jacques Cartier's trips to Asia, were used in profusion, the way a child might splash color on a page. Not only the stones came from India but also this opulent usage; Indian jewelry is known for its profusion of color, for the sense of overabundance. Cartier's genius lay in keeping the generous use of stones while disciplining their use in exquisite platinum settings that were masterpieces of balance and rhythm. The firm's Egyptian-style designs originated as early as 1913. They were well in advance of the explosion of Egyptian motifs that followed the opening of the tomb of King Tutankhamen in 1922.

In the mid-1920s, Cartier used some of those gemstones--rubies, sapphires and emeralds carved to look like berries, leaves, fruits and flowers--in a series of brilliantly colored pieces that have become known as tutti frutti, the fruit salad designs. The stones are set within a framework of platinum branches in such a way that they seem to be growing there organically. Two such bracelets of this design were bought by Linda Lee Thomas, the wife of composer Cole Porter. The first was purchased in 1926 and the second in 1929, each soon after it was made. Once again, platinum and Cartier's treatment of it enabled the jeweler to support gemstones with the most delicate of settings, with merely a hint of metal showing.

In the '30s, Cartier created a series of pieces that would highlight a melodramatic moment in British history. In the 1930s, a situation involving a member of the House of Windsor was unfolding, a situation that in many ways presaged the spectacle of Prince Charles and Diana in our time. Edward, Prince of Wales, had succeeded his father, George V, on January 20, 1936, to become King Edward VIII, but he had not yet been crowned in a formal ceremony.

The new king was determined to have Wallis Warfield Simpson, an American and twice divorced, as his wife. The British royal family, as well as members of the British government, were equally determined that this not take place. The weeks and months leading up to the fateful day, December 10, 1936, when Edward abdicated ("I have found it impossible to carry on the heavy burden of responsibility and to discharge the duties of King as I would wish to do without the help and support of the woman I love.") were marked by an outpouring of gifts between Edward and Wallis of jewelry and objects, most of them designed by Cartier. There appears to have been no occasion that was not marked by a new jewel, as evidenced by the elaborate inscriptions many of them bear. In 1935, his future wife presented him with a remarkable gold cigarette case made by Cartier's London branch, which showed a map of Europe depicting their various trips with red and blue enamel lines, the stops represented by gemstones. Any event was an occasion for a gift: a trip to Cannes on a yacht, a visit to friends in Ascot, a Mediterranean cruise--all were marked by charms inscribed with the dates, their names or initials, and excruciatingly embarrassing love chat, all of it preserved in gold.

The flow turned into a torrent after the king abdicated. Once Edward's brother was crowned as George VI, the couple were free to marry, which they did on June 3, 1937. The Duke and Duchess of Windsor, as they then became known, had little else to do but get dressed in preparation for socializing. Most of the designs for the duchess were unique but soon became hallmarks of Cartier in the 1940s and 1950s. Prominent among these were the panther jewels that incorporated perfect miniatures of spotted cats that we know as leopards (panthers and leopards are the same species; panthers are black leopards).

The panther jewels were designed by Louis Cartier's intimate friend Jeanne Toussaint, whom he called "Panther." She joined the firm in 1907 and became director of the jewelry department in 1933. Although she did not sketch, she is credited with a major role in the Cartier look. According to chairman Destino, Toussaint brought her understanding and love of fashion and the artwork to their collaboration. "She was the first in our history to introduce a sense of fashion to real jewelry. She was a style setter and was famous for her taste, imagination and independence."

The House of Cartier under the three brothers essentially ended in the 1940s. Jacques and Louis died in 1942 and Pierre retired to Geneva in 1948, having turned the New York branch over to his nephew Claude, Louis's son. In 1962, the New York branch was sold, and the firm fragmented. In 1972, businessman Robert Hocq bought the three separate branches and united them as one company.

It was under Hocq's reign that the firm introduced Les Must de Cartier, a worldwide marketing concept, and the era of merchandising began in earnest. Hocq saw clearly that the merchandising stood on the shoulders of the great era of design, so he set out to buy back great Cartier pieces from the past. That's how Cartier's historic collection was born. There was, according to president Critchell, a desire to acquire "all the pieces that mark key moments in Cartier's history or the history of its customers."

Certainly the history of the mystery clock is still being written, and today's customers may very well be tomorrow's honored members in the Cartier collection. If you get a hankering, though, for one of those enigmatic timepieces, get in line. It still takes months to make one of these glorious creations. The wait, of course, is well worth it.

Ettagale Blauer is a frequent contributor to Cigar Aficionado and author of books on jewelry and wristwatches.

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