Revisiting Patek Philippe’s Exhibition “Timepieces Signed Rousseau”

Cultural Perspectives • 02 Jun 2021

Revisiting Patek Philippe’s Exhibition “Timepieces Signed Rousseau”

Patek Philippe Museu – Timepieces Signed Rousseau 

We look back at a series of unrivalled exhibitions hosted by Patek Philippe over the years. Back in 2012, on the occasion of the three-hundredth anniversary celebrations of the birth of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and to coincide with the City of Geneva’s “2012 Rousseau pour Tous” (Rousseau for All) programme, the Patek Philippe Museum and the Comité Européen Jean-Jacques Rousseau (CEJJR) held an exceptional horological exhibition titled “Timepieces Signed Rousseau”.

Patek Philippe Museum Geneva
Patek Philippe Museum Geneva, Switzerland

Patek Philippe Museum

The exhibition showcased horological masterpieces from the 17th century: some thirty precious and rare timepieces from the collections of the Patek Philippe Museum, prominent museums and private collections. Constituting a vibrant tribute to the Rousseau watchmaking dynasty, they bore witness to the extraordinary manufacturing expertise of the Geneva Fabrique, an institution that from the 17th century onwards made the City of Calvin the cradle of fine watchmaking. Accompanied by a selection of archive documents, the watches on display invited visitors to discover a fascinating century where time won its spurs through the hand of man.

Rock Crystal Mounted in Gilded Brass Watch by Jean Rousseau (ca. 1650 – 60)
Rock Crystal Mounted in Gilded Brass Watch by Jean Rousseau (ca. 1650 – 60)

Geneva Fabrique

Under the name of the Fabrique” were organised all of Geneva’s jewellery and watchmaking industries, in the form of independent workshops based on the apprenticeship system and grouped together in the Saint-Gervais neighbourhood. Transmitting their know-how from generation to generation, the master watchmakers and jewellers, along with the goldsmiths, enamellers, miniaturists, engravers, chasers and other artisans of the corporation, were zealous in pursuing and developing their métiers. Jean Rousseau, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s great-grandfather, belonged to this aristocracy of craftsmen. His seven sons followed in his footsteps, some as watchmakers, others as goldsmiths, engravers or lapidaries. Thus did the Rousseau dynasty occupy the horologically related trades.

Rock Crystal Mounted in Gilded Brass Watch by Jean Rousseau (ca. 1650 – 60)
Rock Crystal Mounted in Gilded Brass Watch by Jean Rousseau (ca. 1650 – 60)

The Horologically Minded Rousseaus

From his youngest age, Jean-Jacques used to observe his grandfather David in his watchmaker’s atelier. It was there that he would realise the value of the craftsman’s work. From this immersion into the precision of the act and of the mind, he developed a structural approach to thought as attested in this excerpt from Emile: I am like a man who sees an opened watch for the first time and, although he did not know the use of the machine and had not seen the dial, should not cease to admire the result. I do not know, he would say, what all this is for, but I see that each piece is made for the others, I admire the craftsman in the detail of his work, and I am very sure that all these gears go thus in concert for a common end which I cannot perceive.” (Book IV, OC p. 578)

Among the works featured in the “Timepieces Signed Rousseau” exhibition, more than twenty were signed by a member of the Rousseau family. Through the variety of shapes, decorations and mechanisms is revealed the astonishing freedom of creation of the 17th and 18th centuries. From memento mori to cross-shaped watches, coach watches to complicated timepieces, all are imbued with exceptional aesthetic and technical creativity. Here a miniature enamel painting embellishes a cover; over there, a finely chased decoration graces a case. Every detail crystallises the mastery deployed by the makers of time from past centuries.

In the course of the exhibition, viewers took a swath of history to heart through the saga of the Rousseau dynasty and immersed themselves in the Age of Enlightenment: the century that, beyond the realm of pure philosophy, consecrated the artisan as the emblem of reasoning with one’s hands.

Rock Crystal Mounted in Gilded Brass Watch by Jean Rousseau (ca. 1650 – 60)
Rock Crystal Mounted in Gilded Brass Watch by Jean Rousseau (ca. 1650 – 60)

The Rousseau Renaissance Men

Rousseau the philosopher, Rousseau the writer, Rousseau the politician, Rousseau the interdisciplinary sage… This man of greatness marked Western history and society for eternity. His convictions on liberty and intuitive conscience and on freedom of expression and thought, in addition to his analytical and contemplative sensibilities, have undeniably contributed to the aura of the city of Geneva.

The exhibition catalogue presented a collection of scientific and historical articles that provided a fresh perspective on the effervescent period of the 18th century. Highlighting the value of the Rousseau legacy, the authors portrayed a Geneva undergoing rapid expansion. A look at the Rousseau family tree reveals that Isaac Rousseau, the father of Jean-Jacques, worked as “watchmaker to the Sultan” on the banks of the Bosphorus. He studied the context of Calvin’s sumptuary laws of 1558 and the organisation of the famous Fabrique, and followed the aesthetic evolution of watches from their beginnings until the 18th century.

Rock Crystal Mounted in Gilded Brass Watch by Jean Rousseau (ca. 1650 – 60)
Rock Crystal Mounted in Gilded Brass Watch by Jean Rousseau (ca. 1650 – 60)

Comité Européen Jean-Jacques Rousseau

The Comité Européen Jean-Jacques Rousseau, founded in 1995 in Geneva comprises a group of Rousseauistic authorities. Under the presidency of Rémy Hildebrand, the organisation unveils the highlights of Rousseau’s life in Switzerland and in Europe. The CEJJR was the driving force behind the creation in 2002 of the Espace Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the house of his birth at 40, Grand-Rue in Geneva.

Discover Patek Philippe

  • Rock Crystal Mounted in Gilded Brass Watch by Jean Rousseau (ca. 1650 – 60): Image Credits: The MET
  • Banner Image: Retouched Digital Scan of Christophe Nicolas Tassin’s Map of Geneva in 1636. Accessible via the David Rumsey Map Collection
Tags: art history patek philippe patek philippe museum

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