How Pierre Jaquet-Droz Enthralled European Royalty
The amazing automatons that have inspired whimsical creativity.
Come on dear, do your thing, and don’t let us down,” the octogenarian caretaker tells the Draughtsman, one of the three Jaquet Droz automatons that reside at the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire de Neuchâtel (MAHN), before it begins its task.
The dolls sit in a mini amphitheatre within the museum, facing their audience as they perform their dedicated tasks. There are three of them: the Writer, the Musician and the Draughtsman, and they were all constructed in the 1700s by Pierre Jaquet-Droz. Let that sink in: these mechanical robots performed their magic tricks more than two centuries ago, before the first president of the US was elected, before Beethoven composed Fur Elise, before even the invention of the modern fire extinguisher.
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Now, automatons have existed since the Middle Ages, but they remained rare objects, given the level of mastery required to construct them. Crowds came in from all over the country to La Chaux‑de‑Fonds to view these mechanical masterpieces, and Pierre travelled around Europe to present them to royal courts. Jaquet Droz would go on to gain international renown, even as far as being the first Swiss watchmaker to exhibit its works in China’s Forbidden City.
Built between 1768 and 1774, these complex, animated dolls could write, draw and play the piano. The secret is the set of irregular shaped cams that are essentially the “motherboard”: they retain the memory of the action, and are connected to the hands of these artists. The Draughtsman can trace four different drawings, including a dog, a portrait of Louis XV, a royal couple and a chariot carrying Cupid pulled by a butterfly. His eyes follow the movement of the pencil, and every now and then, he dips his quill in the inkpot. The Musician plays five melodies that were composed by Pierre’s son Henri‑Louis and you can see her chest heave as she performs her task. Lastly, the Writer, the most complicated of them, can write phrases of up to 40 characters. Every now and then, he releases a gust of air from his mouth to blow off the lead dust.
When both Pierre and Henri-Louis passed away within a year of one another, the company died a natural death in 1790, only to be revived by the Swatch Group in the year 2000. The three performing automatons had, by then, changed owners several times before settling at the MAHN in 1909, donated by a famous Berlin collector, Carl Marfels.
Today, visits to the Jaquet Droz manufacture in La Chaux-de-Fonds start with a mandatory call on these automatons, as they are telling of the Swiss watchmaker’s enduring legacy of crafting mechanical masterpieces that are both technically astute and artistically sublime.
What a Charmer!
The brand today rests on three main pillars: its Grande Seconde collection, which is based on a 1785 Jaquet Droz pocket watch with two subdials shaped like a figure 8; its atelier d’art, where artistic crafts such as enamelling and engraving keep its founder’s artistic legacy alive; and its automatons.
All three pillars coalesce into one another—take for instance the enamelled dials of the Grande Seconde timepieces, or the miniature painting upon the Bird Repeater watches. These workshop collaborations are best demonstrated in the Charming Bird automaton timepiece, introduced in 2013. The automata function was more than three years in the making, and features a series of cams inspired by the traditional automatons made by Pierre himself, along with 21st‑century updates to enhance its performance.
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Upon the click of a button, the feathered creature flaps its wings, rotates its body, moves its head and tail, and opens its beak to sing. A series of cams, measuring a mere 0.4mm each, operates this mechanism, while a system of bellows and sapphire tubes produce different notes and chirps emitted by the bird.
So far, the manufacture has hired two craftsmen who specialise in the making of the automatons for the maison; there are two automata currently in production, the Charming Bird and the Lady 8 Flower. It takes them three to four weeks to work on the Charming Bird, after which it is sent to the metiers d’art workshop to be beautified. The automaton function and the timekeeping mechanism operate independently from one another, and the latter is just as impressive: the self-winding calibre 615 features a platinum rotor and offers 38 hours of autonomy. Only 28 Charming Bird automatons will be produced.
As far as tributes go, the Charming Bird beautifully encapsulates the spirit of the maison’s founder, while taking the brand resolutely into the 21st century.