Pierre Jaquet-Droz was a real devil.
Or at least people thought so. In 1758, Jaquet-Droz, whose name lives on in the high-end mechanical-watch brand owned by the Swatch Group, scared so many people with his mysterious, other-worldly machines that he was suspected of witchcraft.
That year, Jaquet-Droz, an erudite clockmaker from the Swiss town of La Chaux-de-Fonds, brought his finest pieces to Madrid to show King Ferdinand VI in hope of drumming up some business in Spain. They were no ordinary clocks: they had figures – people, animals, birds – that moved by themselves as if propelled by magic, or by Satan. One especially fearsome clock featured a dog that lurched forward suddenly and barked when anyone removed an apple from the basket of the dog’s master.
King Ferdinand was amused, but few others were. All but the king fled in fear when they saw the clocks. Most believed Jaquet-Droz was possessed. To clear his name, he asked to meet with Spain’s Grand Inquisitor. After demonstrating the clocks and explaining how they worked, he managed to convince the Spaniard that he should not be jailed (or worse).
It was as a maker of such amazing automata that Pierre Jaquet-Droz, along with his son, Henri-Louis Jaquet-Droz, and adopted son, Jean-Frédéric Léschot (the three were business partners) would achieve fame that has lasted to this day.
Their best-known automatons were “The Writer,” “The Draughtsman” and “The Musician.” The first, a barefoot, three-year-old boy, could write a message containing as many as 40 characters on a piece of paper, his eyes following his pen as it moved. The second, also a young boy, could draw one of four pictures, pausing occasionally to blow the dust off his paper. The third, a young woman, could play five different melodies on an organ by pressing keys on a keyboard, bowing sweetly after each tune.
The three were completed in the 1770s and shown at royal courts across Europe. Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI saw them (one of the draughtsman’s drawings is believed to depict the royal couple). The hoi polloi could admire them, too, for a fee: Pierre Jaquet-Droz rented a hotel room in Paris and sold admission tickets to the curious. (These days the curious can see the automata in the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire in Neuchâtel.)
Although Jaquet-Droz is most famous for his clocks and automata, which were sold all over the world (the company had a huge following in China), the company was also greatly admired for its watches. The noted timepiece historians Eugène Jaquet and Alfred Chapuis write in their book, Technique and History of the Swiss Watch, “The watches made by this house were of a quality as nearly perfect as possible, sometimes embellished with complications, such as music or singing birds, and tastefully ornamented, usually with enamel.”
The company flourished, reaching its zenith just before the French Revolution, when it had workshops in three cities: La Chaux-de-Fonds, Geneva and London.
Pierre Jaquet-Droz died in 1790 in Bienne, where he had moved after retiring. Henri-Louis survived him by just one year. Léschot kept the business going until sometime in the early 1800s, when lack of demand for luxury products forced him to close it. The brand was largely dormant until the Swatch Group bought it in 2000.