Jaquet Droz’s Tropical Bird Repeater: the magical flight of the hummingbird
Over the past few years, the La Chaux-de-Fonds brand has started adding rare pieces to its collections. Pieces steeped in the magical history of the founder's identity as a master watchmaker, great traveller of his time, and legendary producer of automatons.
Glimmering warmly in the cold light of a brisk Geneva evening, the Hôtel Kempinski was the venue for the official European launch of an exceptionally rare watch. One that combined the most masterly inventions of watchmaking genius, the minute repeater – with the revisited ancient art of the automaton. Framed by a lush wall of tropical vegetation were a few showcases housing other marvels, screens brimming with images inviting us on an exotic journey and a bird delightfully captured on a watch dial, protected beneath a convex crystal. So real, it could have been alive! The life-like beating of the hummingbird's wings appeared to transcend its micromechanical origins and pervade the surrounding decor with the gentle murmur of surreptitious movements.
A celebration of nature
It took Jaquet Droz’s master craftsmen three years to create this poetic Tropical Bird Repeater. No less than 7 animations randomly play out 4 different scenarios, adding to the already high degree of complexity in an undertaking that is an apotheosis of chronometric science and involved the assembly of no less than 77 components for the dial and more than 650 for Jaquet Droz’s calibre RMA89. Did it really need to tell the time as well? Of course. It is, after all, a shock-resistant wristwatch, even though within its hand-crafted case, it houses a tropical paradise, complete with flowing waterfall and ever-watchful fauna keeping an eye to the microscopic wing beats of a mechanical bird. The fée-like hummingbird is straight out of a fairy tale, the breeze from its wings setting into motion superluminova-tipped dragonflies, a peacock and even a toucan …
Pierre Jaquet-Droz (1721-1790), whose automata are still to be seen in museums around the world, was a nature and bird lover. Admittedly, the brand's present guardians, who insist upon celebrating its extraordinary past, could have chosen an easier bird to animate. Interestingly, in real life, the hummingbird flaps its wings at a speed invisible to the naked eye of 80 beats per second. Here, it settles for 40 wing beats, in itself a major technical achievement. Engraved, fitted and adjusted by hand by means of a second barrel wound by a single stem, the dial is, in effect, purpose-built to breathe life into this mini paradise. Suddenly, we emerge blinking from the mesmerizingly intricate workmanship that it has taken to create these optical illusions, and enter a mysterious living jungle, its thirst slaked by a rushing waterfall, lush and full of surprises with touches of gold or mother-of-pearl. These indescribable details boast an exquisite finesse and subtle elegance. For we have an example of the art of miniaturisation pushed to its limits.
Flight over a fantastical landscape
The bird finally landed in Geneva in late November 2017. It had returned from an extended journey around the globe starting in China, before taking off for Tokyo. China is, in fact, significant, in that Jaquet Droz, was the first, and, for a long time, the only, such craftsman allowed to enter the Forbidden City. The Emperor at the time, nearly 250 years ago, adored his pieces, and would be amused and entertained by them for hours on end. The demand for such a watchmaking construction being strong, the eight one-off examples scheduled for release (8 being the brand's lucky number) will easily find a taker despite the princely sum of CHF 680,400.- (inclusive of taxes) per watch. Nonetheless, Christian Lattmann, the current CEO, is wondering who are these crazy enthusiasts clearly in their second childhood, seeking to be filled with the same emotions that no doubt lit up the heart and eyes of the old Chinese Emperor? Collectors, of course, but collectors with a difference, evidently those with a penchant for Art.
Firmly embarked upon its journey of initiation, the hummingbird continues an adventure started in 2012, one that has been punctuated by similarly exceptional pieces: Bird Repeater, Charming Bird, La Lady 8 Flower, the Loving Butterfly Automaton, not to mention the Charlie automaton showcased at Baselworld in 2013 and the Signing Machine. The latter is an incredible machine produced in homage to The Writer, and an automaton capable of memorising and reproducing at will the owner's signature. The Jaquet Droz brand thus continues to sally forth, unstoppable, into territory that pushes back the boundaries of creativity and originality, and in so doing consolidates its position within the world's largest watchmaking group.