Among the most exclusive and complicated timepieces exhibited at last weekend’s WatchTime New York event at Gotham Hall were a pair of chiming automaton watches by Jaquet Droz — the Bird Repeater Openwork, introduced last year; and the brand’s showcase piece from Baselworld 2016, a new edition of the Charming Bird with an engraved Swiss landscape motif adorning the mother-of-pearl dial.
The Jaquet Droz Bird Repeater Openwork (which I had the opportunity to try on; see video below) is a tribute to brand namesake Pierre Jaquet-Droz, the legendary 18th century Swiss watchmaker known for creating automata in various forms, human and animal, and in various sizes, from tiny miniatures to life-size. He invented exceptionally complex machinery that allowed the figures to perform a variety of tasks, including playing musical instruments, writing, and drawing. Animatronic birds, like the ones in these modern wristwatches, were used often in Jaquet-Droz’s table clocks, pocketwatches, and music boxes.
At the activation of a slide on the side of the case, one of the adult birds bobs down, offering a beakful of food to a fledgling. The other adult spreads its wings, revealing an array of colored feathers. At the same time, the egg opens to reveal a chick, and the waterfall flows in a continuous cascade. In all, the movement animates eight distinct and synchronized animations: the movement of the birds’ heads and wings, the movement of the fledglings, the hatching of the egg and the waterfall. The dial is clear sapphire, which has the effect of naturally opening up the complex mechanism behind the automata, allowing the owner to appreciate the movement’s complexity and craftsmanship.
The slide also activates a minute repeater, whose mechanism strikes the hours, quarters, and minutes while the birds perform their motions. The repeater’s chimes are produced by a cathedral gong that circles the movement twice, resulting in pleasing, resonant tones. The birds are anatomically accurate to the smallest detail, from the forms of the bodies to the feathers to the tiny beaks and eyes. The details and vivid colors in the birds’ finely rendered plumage showcases the impressive work of the Jaquet Droz’s painters and engravers.
The 18k rose gold case of the Jaquet Droz Bird Repeater Openwork is 47 mm in diameter and 18.4 mm in height. The manually wound movement is Caliber RMA 88 with a fully wound 48-hour power reserve. The black alligator strap is hand-made with rolled edges and is secured with an 18k-white-gold folding clasp. The watch is an individually numbered, limited edition of just eight pieces worldwide.
The new edition of the Charming Bird — shown for the first time in the U.S.A. at WatchTime New York — sports a hand-painted and engraved mother-of-pearl dial depicting a Swiss countryside landscape. Its design was inspired by the traditional technique of paper cutting. Also limited to only eight pieces in rose gold cases and eight pieces in white gold (both 47 mm in diameter), the watch combines aspects of the Bird Repeater and the original, 2015 Geneva Grand Prix-winning Charming Bird from 2014. The dial incorporates the familiar Jaquet Droz figure-eight design, here with the top circle devoted to the hours-and-minutes time display and the bottom one to an amazing, three-dimensional tableau featuring a tiny, singing tit-bird automaton under a round sapphire dome.
In the watch’s patent-protected mechanism, the bird’s song is generated by air compression rather than by vibration, an innovation made possible by introducing three miniature sapphire crystal tubes. Air enters the first tube, then is stored inside the second and finally pushed into the third, regulating the melody according to the volume of air and the speed of the piston. The mechanical regulator harnesses a magnetic effect that prevents any contact between the metallic components and to eliminate auditory interference within the watch. The ultra-realistic sculptural bird, the movement, and the decorated mother-of-pearl dial are all the result of hand- craftsmanship at Jaquet Droz’s Ateliers d’Art workshops.