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5 magnificent Cartier desk clocks

Specialist Rebecca Ross picks out highlights from our Rare Watches and American Icons sale in New York on 21 June, ranging from the intriguing ‘Mystery’ clock to a modernist piece with a ‘hidden’ cigar box (above)

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  • A ‘Mystery’ clock — Cartier's greatest achievement

At the beginning of the 20th century, the relationship between Louis Cartier and master clockmaker Maurice Coüet helped to cement Cartier’s reputation as the leading manufacturer of jewelled objects. Coüet was inspired by the magician Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin — considered by many as the father of modern conjuring — and incorporated the most technologically advanced mechanisms into his designs, creating works that continue to fascinate and entertain today.

Best known for his pendules mystérieuses, or ‘Mystery’ clocks, with their mechanisms hidden in the frame, Coüet astonished the industry with his use of illusion. The dial of this clock is set above two prisms, so that it appears reversed when out of its case. However, when placed above the prisms, they create a mirror image so that the dial appears to float in its case.

A fine silver-plated, lead-glass and lapis lazuli rectangular-shaped ‘Mystery’ desk clock. Signed Cartier, Case No. 91180447, Movement No. 90150, Circa 1980. Estimate $4,000-6,000. This lot is offered in Rare Watches and American Icons on 21 June at Christie’s in New York

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A fine silver-plated, lead-glass and lapis lazuli rectangular-shaped ‘Mystery’ desk clock. Signed Cartier, Case No. 91180447, Movement No. 90/150, Circa 1980. Estimate $4,000-6,000. This lot is offered in Rare Watches and American Icons on 21 June at Christie’s in New York

Cartier guarded the secret behind these masterpieces fiercely — even at the expense of his own sales staff. ‘It was not simply a matter of the name; the “Mystery”clock contained a secret that was supposed to be never revealed,’ explains Hans Nadelhoffer in his book, Cartier: Jewellers Extraordinary. ‘Over-inquisitive salesmen at the Rue de la Paix, who tried to force explanations from the craftsmen, were rebuffed. The wonder clocks guarded their secret like the Sphinx, and Cartier protected them from the eyes of prying admirers.’

Mystery clocks are considered by many to be one of the House of Cartier’s greatest achievements. Queen Mary was given a Mystery clock in 1924; in 1945, General Charles de Gaulle presented one of these ingenious creations to Joseph Stalin.

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  • A clock with a mystical night scene

Cartier. A very fine 18k gold, rock-crystal, mother-of-pearl, enamel, diamond and gem-set desk clock. Signed Cartier, European Watch & Clock Inc., France, Case Nos. 3768 2060, 1135 0701, Movement No. 29787610, Circa 1925. Estimate $120,000-180,000. This lot is offered in Rare Watches and American Icons on 21 June at Christies in New York

Cartier. A very fine 18k gold, rock-crystal, mother-of-pearl, enamel, diamond and gem-set desk clock. Signed Cartier, European Watch & Clock Inc., France, Case Nos. 3768 2060, 1135 0701, Movement No. 2'978'7610, Circa 1925. Estimate: $120,000-180,000. This lot is offered in Rare Watches and American Icons on 21 June at Christie's in New York

A host of materials — including rock crystal, mother-of-pearl, enamel and diamonds — have been used to create the mystical night scene on this clock. Different shades of mother-of-pearl create light and dark shadows, diamonds light up the sky like stars and the blossoms of the trees hang low, encompassing the three figures that stand below them.

Created in 1925, the scene appears to follow the style of Tadeusz Makowski, a Polish painter who worked in France and was associated with the School of Paris. The case was probably produced in the Coüet workshop, and the rock crystal most likely supplied by Fourrier.

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  • A clock fit for a Bond villains's desk

Cartier. A fine, large and attractive rectangular-shaped silver-plated, gilt and lapis lazuli desk clock and cigar box. Signed Cartier, European Watch & Clock Co., France, Movement No. 1598, circa 1940. Estimate $40,000-60,000. This lot is offered in Rare Watches and American Icons on 21 June at Christie’s in New York

Cartier. A fine, large and attractive rectangular-shaped silver-plated, gilt and lapis lazuli desk clock and cigar box. Signed Cartier, European Watch & Clock Co., France, Movement No. 1598, circa 1940. Estimate $40,000-60,000. This lot is offered in Rare Watches and American Icons on 21 June at Christie’s in New York

This is the kind of clock one could easily imagine having a cameo role in a James Bond film. Its modernist design, featuring a ribbed silver exterior, lapis lazuli pyramid studs and gold panels to each side, is immediately striking. What is not apparent, however, is that the entire front portion lifts up from the lip at its edge to reveal a fairly deep cigar or cigarette box.

The clock is 10 inches wide and 6 inches high, with large and somewhat eccentric luminous numerals offering an added level of interest. The case is stamped ‘Cartier, France’, with the absence of the words ‘made in’ before ‘France’ suggesting that it could be of New York production.

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  • Astonishing detail in a hunting scene

Cartier. A fine and attractive 18k gold, enamel, coral and mother-of-pearl square-shaped desk clock with alarm. Signed Cartier, European Watch & Clock Co., France, Case Nos. 4542 2595, 1611, S379, Movement No. 10138, circa 1930. Estimate $30,000-50,000. This lot is offered in Rare Watches and American Icons on 21 June at Christie’s in New York

Cartier. A fine and attractive 18k gold, enamel, coral and mother-of-pearl square-shaped desk clock with alarm. Signed Cartier, European Watch & Clock Co., France, Case Nos. 4542 2595, 1611, S379, Movement No. 10138, circa 1930. Estimate $30,000-50,000. This lot is offered in Rare Watches and American Icons on 21 June at Christie’s in New York

The brilliantly coloured mother-of-pearl dial in different shades reaches each corner of the 18k gold bezel on this desk clock, creating a hunting scene with two men, one on horseback, both engaging in activity with a bow and spear. The ingenious perspective is achieved by the elaborately decorated clothing of gold, enamel and hardstone, with a backdrop of rolling hills which seem to extend far out into the horizon.

The astonishing detail extends to blades of green grass in the foreground — demanding a level of craftsmanship that was the hallmark of the workshop of Maurice Coüet. The case is made of black ebonite, a material that resembles black onyx. Cartier used this material in some of its most important clocks, including one of its most famous, the Roosevelt Victory clock.

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  • A polyhedral case set atop a gold and silver tripod

The highly unusual design of this desk clock, its gold and diamond-set polyhedral case set atop a gold and silver tripod — lending it a height of 10 inches — was probably created for a special Cartier exhibition in the late 1950s. The base is stamped ‘Cartier London, Designed by R. Emmerson’, and the English hallmarks further add to its heritage.

Rupert Emmerson made only two or three of these clocks between 1958 and 1960. Trained at the Chiswick Art School, he worked on insignia and medals for Charles De Gaulle’s victory parade through the streets of Paris in 1944. Towards the end of the 1960s he also designed the extremely popular Cartier Crash watch. Rupert Emmerson’s work is exhibited at the British Museum.