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Perpetuating the Mystery
The word “mystery” is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “something that is difficult or impossible to understand or explain.”. This enigmatic quality is something that Louis Cartier and his trusted watchmaker, Maurice Coüet, aimed to capture with their series of Mystery Clocks. This mission of expressing and encapsulating mystique has been one of the preoccupations of Cartier starting from 1912, and which has also endured to this day as the Maison continues with their relentless pursuit of perfecting a Mystery Clock. Described as “marvels of horology” by influential French magazine, the Gazette du Bon Ton in 1925, Cartier’s mystery clocks are significant in not just showcasing the brand’s technical prowess, but are also significant in the realm of the decorative arts.
Inspired by Houdin
Louis Cartier was inspired by Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin, a 19th-century French watchmaker, illusionist and magician. Houdin was super passionate about magic, and would often incorporate his watchmaking skills to create mechanical conceptions and automata that will aid with his myriad of tricks. It was his experiments with glass that would go on to inspire Cartier. Houdin loved to use the reflective quality of glass and harness it creatively to create glass structures and conceptions that lend a sense of transparency and “invisible-ness” to his tricks, creating great optical illusions.
One such creation was a clock with hands that seemingly levitate and float on the dial, without any perceivable gears attached to them. This illusion created a sense of disbelief, as people were captivated by how the hands stay suspended in the air. This is also why many refer to him as the father of the modern style of conjuring – theatrical representation of the defiance of natural law. His creations and tricks have the appeal of defying the laws of physics, and these enthralling and somewhat beguiling characteristics would go on to have a profoundly stimulating effect on Cartier as they go on to produce their own Mystery Clocks.
The first in a long series of Mystery Clocks would be unveiled in 1912 with the Model A. The clock looked very decorative and ornamental, with diamonds set in the hands and gold laurel leaf motifs at the edges. Various other precious metals such as gold and platinum were also utilised for aesthetic details such as the edges and the indices of the clock. The base of the clock, which housed the movement, is cased by white agate and featured the signature Cartier Sapphire Cabochon at each of its four corners. However, despite the prominence of these eye-catching materials, what really drew fascination and attention were the “floating” hands. This illusionary effect was achieved by not affixing the hands to the movement, but transparent glass discs that were driven by metal gears with tooth edges hidden within the gold-accented minute track. The fact that these were all encased in a seemingly transparent block of glass helped to further strengthen the effect.
The Mystery Clocks that follow would continue to utilise the same concept, but would also be inspired by and incorporate culture from other parts of the world in its aesthetic display. One notable example is the Elephant Mystery Clock (1928) that featured a carved-jade elephant as its base, with the clock being encapsulated within a pagoda structure that sits on top of the elephant’s back.
The striking use of jade in this case, a very popular hardstone deemed to be culturally significant in China, as well as the display of a pagoda clearly makes known that the clock was inspired by Chinese culture. Another example is the Large Portique Mystery Clock (1923) where the structure of the clock was shaped in the form of a Japanese Shinto shrine gate.
Hence, Cartier’s Mystery Clocks should not just only be seen as a tour de force of Cartier’s horological capabilities, but also as cultural objects reflecting the heightened interest in the Orients in that historical context. It is also no surprise that these Mystery Clocks would command great value and provenance for their cultural value, as they were owned by people such as The Maharaja of Nawanagar, Count Greffulhe and Queen Olga of Greece.
However, one of the limitations of these clocks is that due to their size, they can only be admired in the comfort of one’s home placed on a display shelf. In 2013, Cartier presented the world with the Rotonde Mysterieuse, a wristwatch that featured the same mysterious complication so that its owners could experience the magic wherever they went.
Miniaturising the Mystery
The Mystery Clock had now been condensed and miniaturised into a wristwatch with a Rose Gold/White Gold case of 42mm in diameter and was just 11.6mm thick. It was powered by the manual-winding 9981 MC caliber. It also uses the same concept of the Model A, whereby the illusionary effect was produced by anchoring the hands on transparent sapphire discs which were in turn attached to gears that were hidden beneath the dial.
The Rotonde Mysterieuse would then receive a sibling in 2017 with the Rotonde Mysterious Double Tourbillon. It came in a 45mm solid platinum case and had the unequivocal Cartier aesthetic with the skeletonised dial with the Roman numerals, blued-steel hands and the sapphire cabochon crown. However, unlike other previous mysterious clocks or watches, the hands in this piece were not the ones “levitating”.
Instead, it was the flying tourbillon of the watch that was placed on a sapphire disc driven by gears concealed by the skeletonized dial. The flying tourbillon in this case, seemed to be literally ‘flying”. The use of a tourbillon also symbolizes the integration of Cartier’s contemporary watchmaking prowess with their traditional but no-less-impressive watchmaking techniques.
In the same year, Carrier further illustrated this point with the Rotonde de Cartier Mysterious Day & Night Watch. Made in a 40mm Rose Gold/White Gold case, it was the day/night indicator that would receive the “mysterious” treatment from Cartier this time. The top half of the dial would feature a sapphire disc that continually rotates to first show the sun and then the moon depending on the time of the day. The sun/moon indicators also have a pointer that points to the hours indicated on the dial at the top half. The minutes were shown on the bottom half instead through a retrograde display with a single long blued-steel hand.
Cartier’s Mystery Clocks as well as their more modern Mysterious Watches are a fine representation of a harmonious marriage between horology and the arts. Their ability to incorporate tradition with immaculate designs and technologies really speaks of the brand’s long history of innovation and inspiration. Just as how Houdin’s magic had inspired Erik Weisz to change his stage name to Harry Houdini in homage, he also inspired Louis Cartier who would continue to go on and create equally magical pieces that will continue to enthrall and enchant generations to come, all while remaining true to the core Cartier aesthetic and appeal.
Modern Mystery Clocks Pictured Below