A masterpiece of watchmaking art, a mystery tale and an amazing restoration work brought back to light a one-of-a-kind objet d’art.
Jaquet Drot’s Singing Bird Clock is an extraordinary object which history is enshrouded in mystery.
Most probably built for Napoleon I as a gift for Catherine of Wurtemberg, the future Catherine Bonaparte, following her marriage to the Emperor’s brother, it went lost in time, until its sudden apparition, in 1983, at the Musée d’Horlogerie du Locle.
But where did it come from?
A fascinating story.
An English collector entrusted it to the Museum; however, prior to him, there was no trace of the clock after 1917, the year in which an antique dealer from Lucerne had put it up for sale.
Well before, a specific title marked its imperial destiny: “Empire Clock (…) given by Napoléon I to a princess from Wurtemberg”) [“Pendule Empire (…) offerte par Napoléon Ier à une princesse wurtembergeoise”].
The authenticity of this creation is nonetheless certain because it was signed by the hand of its maker, “P Jaquet Droz A La Chaux de Fonds.” Moreover, the clock’s backplate bears the signature “P. Jaquet Droz A La Chaux de Fonds”.
Hence, on the occasion of its 280th anniversary, the Maison Jaquet Droz gave The Singing Bird Clock to the Association Automates & Merveilles’ high-level team of experts, supporting its restoration.
Here, with a special technique called dendrochronology (the science or technique of dating events, environmental change, and archaeological artefacts by using the characteristic patterns of annual growth rings in timber and tree trunks), they were able to confirm that it is made of spruce wood fell around 1754, perfectly corresponding to the activity of Pierre Jaquet-Droz (1721-1790).
Singing birds: it-objects in the 18th century.
The watchmaker from La Chaux-de-Fonds is known today as an accomplished master watchmaker, from the most sophisticated pocket watches to the automatons he pioneered.
Singing birds were also one of his many specialities. These animated creations featured an often-life-sized bird producing varied melodies in richly decorated cages. These birds – in line with the fashions of the 18th and 19th centuries – were frequently canaries, or serins in French (from which their name “serinettes”).
The very pinnacle of naturalism, the Enlightenment was obsessed with birdsong. Pierre Jaquet-Droz was no doubt also charmed by their gentle melodies in the spring and summer, but above all the young watchmaker had a feeling for and was able to capture the spirit of the times.
In this period, singing birds began to adorn table clocks, snuffboxes, urns, bird cages and pocket watches. His mechanical creations are animated by incredible miniature automata combined with a system of bellows and cylinder pistons that reproduced prodigious birdsong.
Singing Bird Clock: the highest in artisanal craftsmanship.
Jaquet Droz’ Singing Bird Clock is an authentic masterpiece, which was able to reunite the excellence in watchmaking and in various disciplines. Highly specialized artisans worked together and were capable of designing, building, coordinating and adjusting the clock movements, music and automatons.
The Singing Bird Clock, in fact, features a motor powered by a double fusee and chains (1.80 meters each). As for the clock movement, it features a crown wheel escapement and chimes the hours and quarter hours.
The singing bird is in the cage on top of the cabinet. It amazingly plays six different tunes on ten flutes. During the melody, the bird pivots on the spot while opening its beak, shaking its tail feathers and – much rarer for this type of automaton – puffing up its chest.
Today, the now completed restoration has given renewed life to the movement, bird and bronze components, as well as to the mahogany cabinet, built on this first original assembly. The bronze components, inspired by the Empire Retour d’Egypte, stars, palmettes and fusaroles confirm that the clock had several lives, updating it to each day’s tastes by its illustrious owners through modifications to the cabinet. CC
The “Singing Bird Clock” is currently part of the temporary exhibition “Rêves en trois temps,” running from June 26 to August 26 at the Musée International d’Horlogerie in La Chaux-de-Fonds and from September 4 to October 28 at the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire in Neuchâtel, before it will return to the Musée d’Horlogerie du Locle – Château des Monts.
The clock, which will be conserved at the Musée d’Horlogerie du Locle beginning in November, was entirely restored. Although its components have been preserved and the ensemble kept working, it will only be activated on rare occasions and under strict surveillance, to guarantee its longevity. For its 280th anniversary, the chirping of this precious canary is a most beautiful tribute to the legacy of Jaquet Droz.