The Illusionists

The Illusionists

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Cartier’s Mystère clocks position the brand in an undoubtedly select group—a feat unrivalled by any other watchmaker. We take a peek into the watches showcased by the La Chaux-de-Fonds manufacture and the Paris-based design teams of the brand

Mystery clock is a fascinating object in which the hands appear to float like magic within the crystal, unconnected to any mechanism. They’re illusions and spectacles of magic, so it’s no wonder that their history is entwined with that of famous magicians. The mystery lies in the movement of the clock’s hands. The creator of a mystery clock fools the observer by hiding the workings so that the hands appear to moveon their own. Over the years, clever clockmakers have devised many ways to achieve this illusion.

1914, Model A mystery clock
Platinum, gold ;Rock crystal;Rose-cut diamonds;White enamel Four sapphire cabochons;White agate for the base. Rectangular, 8-day movement, gilded, Swiss lever escapement, bimetallic balance, Breguet balance spring. Hand-setting and winding mechanism underneath the base. Height 13.0cm. This clock was purchased by Count Greffulhe, husband to the famous Countess Greffulhe.

Fittingly, Jean Eugene Robert- Houdin, a 19th-century French magician and clockmaker, is widely hailed as the inventor of the mystery clock. He combined his two passions—conjuring and magic—in the making of mystery clocks. His first mystery clock won a bronze medal at the Exhibition of the French Industry of 1839. Houdin used various optical tricks in his mystery clocks, including a rod that ran up through the ornate clock base and along the right of the top of the case, attaching to a screw that was connected to a second, invisible glass dial that turned behind the visible dial. In many of his mystery clocks, Houdin used some variation of secreting the mechanism the clock base and attaching the hands to a second, transparent, serrated-edge dial that was turned by pinions inside the frame of the case. Many other clock makers used similar tricks involving transparent dials that look round but really have cogs hidden inside the clock’s frame.

One of them was Maurice Couët (1885-1963) who came from a great clock-making family, created his own version of the mystery clock and presented it to Cartier in 1912. Known as the Modèle A, it was a crystal parallelepipede. The clock had a gold plated movement, Swiss lever escapement, bimetallic balance and a balance spring made by Breguet. The back of the clock was smooth, since the winding mechanism was, not in the body of the clock, but underneath the base. How the platinum and diamond hands seem to float in the air, behind the glass, was at the time, a top secret. Now we know that each hand of the clock is mounted on a flat crystal disk, with a invisible toothed edge. Two vertical racks, that are hidden in the left and right side of the clock, drive the toothed discs. The movement, located in the base of the clock, drives the vertical racks.

1920, Mystery clock with single axle
Yellow gold, white gold, platinum;Citrine;Rose-cut diamonds;Turquoise-blue, black and white enamel; Ebonite for the base and screen.Rectangular 8-day movement, gold-plated, Swiss lever escapement, bimetallic balance, Breguet balance spring.Hand-setting and winding mechanism underneath the base. This model is one of the very first single-axle mystery clocks produced by Cartier.Height 12.0cm

The idea that Coüet based on this was simple in essence, but extremely difficult to turn into reality: in Coüet’s clock the link between the hands and movement is rendered invisible, the hands appearing to float freely within the clock face, with no apparent connection to the movement.

In fact, the hands are mounted on transparent discs that are, in turn, linked to a concealed clock movement. The Modèle A relies on crystal columns that engage with the toothed edges of the crystal hour and minute discs (the gearing is hidden behind the metal chapter rings). Coüet took most of a year to complete the first example, which was then sold to the US financier JP Morgan. Another piece was sold to Count Greffuhle in 1914. Coüet became the exclusive supplier to the firm, working his magic in conjunction with Charles Jacqueau and Georges Remy, who both designed for the firm.

In the 1920s, Maurice Couët developed several versions of the mystery clock, including 12 with Chinese origins and 6 with the “Portique” structure. These have remained the most expensive decorative objects ever produced by Cartier. Later on, around 1927, when more, larger and different Mystery clocks were produced, Coüet was over seeing the Cartier workshop at 53 Rue Lafayette.