Jacquemarts and automata: It’s alive!

09.01.2019

If the world of luxury watches is the last stronghold of classical mechanics in today’s digital world, then the timepieces with jacquemarts and automata are indeed a sacred temple, hidden beneath its fortified walls. What other complication can be so ridiculously old-fashioned, yet extremely cute and fun, like tiny figures moving to the strikes of the gong?


The tradition to equip tower clocks with jacquemarts – mechanical figures that come to life at the stroke of every new hour – has become widespread in the Middle Ages. And the very idea of an automaton, as a device that copies the behavior of a human or an animal, goes back to antiquity. They are mentioned in the texts of ancient Greece and China, the middle East and Japan. And judging by the drawings, even Leonardo da Vinci had worked on creating his own version. 

The watch industry currently produces both versions of this old complication, so it’s better to define define the terms right away: not every automaton is a jacquemart, but every jacquemart is an automaton by default. Even a common cuckoo clock falls under this category.


While large and robust figures, that dwell for more than five hundred years next to the giant dials in Church of Notre-Dame of Dijon, France, or the Torre dell'Orlogio di San Marco in Venice, Italy, do actually strike bells or gongs with their hammers, their tiny counterparts in the pocket or wristwatches only create the illusion of such a contact. And since the hourly mechanical parade would look rather strange in the format of a wearable accessory, the majority of automatons in a watch tend work on demand, often followed by the repeater chime. 

Unlike the most popular complications, there are no universal recipes for energy transfer from the main wheel train to automatons. Each time engineers solve a specific design task, simultaneously trying to minimize the negative impact of additional functions on other working parts inside the unit. Given the cost and complexity of such pieces, there is enough to worry about. The whole idea of having the precious mechanical piece with a secret show inside can be ruined, if the owner starts considering the risk before pushing the button.

In most cases the automaton operates on its own main spring. As you might guess, the figurines' dance, especially accompanied by gongs, requires much more energy than a measured rotation of hands. But a double-barrel trick is not always an option, and sometimes watchmakers need to with just one sure the current power reserve is sufficient . For example, the butterfly in Jaquet Droz Loving Butterfly Automaton starts waving its wings only if the mainspring is wound-up more than a half.


European art of automaton-making reached its zenith in the XVIII century due to the names of Jacques de Vaucanson, Pierre Jaquet-Droz, and Henri Maillardet. Their figurines, practically indistinguishable from humans, could write poems, draw pictures, and even drink water. Each piece had been created by hand and took really a lot of time, therefore only the royals and the highest aristocracy could afford them. And while pocket watch with jacquemarts were also very expensive, there was one thing that really amplified their popularity.

In the noble circles, having a piece with animated erotic scenes was considered a kind of special chic and courage. Moreover, in Protestant countries, including Switzerland, such devices became so widespread, that they were formally banned. In case of detection, they were ordered to be destroyed on sight.

It is no coincidence that some of the most playful scenes, were usually located not on the dial, but on the case back. And today this tradition is more than alive at Blancpain, where the watchmakers are ready to create a passionate mechanical scene considering customer's individual wishes. 


The production of the jacquemart has vanished in the middle of the twentieth century, but in 1989, the old-fashioned complication suddenly got a second chance. All thanks to Ulysse Nardin San Marco Jaquemarts Minute Repeater. In the scale of a tiny thematic niche, the brand is still the first among equals. Fortunately, a limited number of manufactures capable of creating this kind of mechanical wonders do not affect the variety of themes. There are blooming flowers, working cranes, racing chariots, and singing birds. The piece with an absurdly long name Ulysse Nardin Hannibal Minute Repeater The Westminster Carillon Tourbillon Jaquemarts depicts Hannibal's troops crossing of the Alps, and Van Cleef & Arpels Midnight Poetic Wish tells the story of one failed rendezvous, in the form of an hourly indication. So, despite everything the tradition is alive and developing, and it is still too early for the bell of history to toll for it.