Collecting guide: Cartier clocks

From Belle Epoque to Art Deco, mystery clocks to prism clocks — a guide to the evolution and many styles of opulent timepieces produced by Cartier, illustrated with lots offered at Christie’s

A selection of Cartier clocks offered at Christie’s, including mystery and semi-mystery clocks, and Art Deco models from the 1920s

The Belle Epoque years

The Belle Epoque was a period of optimism, economic prosperity and technological progress on both sides of the Atlantic.

It was during this time that Cartier produced some of its most spectacular clocks. It was fashionable to offer such clocks as gifts, says Max Fawcett, Head of Jewellery at Christie’s in Geneva. ‘They were often inscribed with initials or messages and offered by wealthy families as keepsakes.’

The most popular desk models were made from polychrome and guilloché enamel and inspired by Fabergé.

Clocks made in polychrome and yellow guilloché enamel are particularly sought-after today, says Fawcett. ‘If you add yellow enamel to yellow gold there is not much of a colour change,’ he explains. ‘But it involves a lot of hard work, which is why such models are so rare.’

Enamel cases were square or round in shape and produced in a spectrum of bright colours, including blue, pink, purple and green.

The urn clocks

Cartier also made table clocks in the form of garlanded urns during this period: the Louis XVI-style model pictured below, made from dark-blue opaline glass, white enamel and silver gilt, is particularly spectacular.

‘With their marble, hardstone or porcelain bodies, Cartier urn clocks echo the design of the pendules à cercles tournants of the late-18th century,’ says Fawcett. ‘The clock movement, set horizontally in the body of the urn, drives a rotating band dial.’

The mystery clocks

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 world’s leading manufacturer of jewelled objects. Coüet was inspired by Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin — the father of modern magic — and incorporated the latest technological advancements into his designs, creating works that continue to fascinate today.

The clockmaker is best known for his pendules mystérieuses, whose mechanisms were hidden in the frame. In the model below, the dial is set above two prisms and appears in reverse when taken out of its case. When the dial is in its case, however, the prisms create a mirror image, and the dial appears to be floating.

Cartier guarded the secret of these mystery clocks fiercely — even from the sales staff, explains Hans Nadelhoffer in his book, Cartier: Jewelers 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.’

Many consider the clocks to be one of Cartier’s greatest achievements. Queen Mary was given a Mystery Clock in 1924, and in 1945, General Charles de Gaulle presented one to Joseph Stalin.

The semi-mystery clocks

The first semi-mystery strut clocks (named for the hinged support at the back) were made in 1912. Called ‘planets’ or ‘comets’, they consisted of a round or angular case with two superimposed dials and day-night indicators. The lower dials of ‘planet’ clocks were usually crafted in light- or dark-blue enamel and rotated to represent the sky during the day or at night. Sometimes, a crescent moon in diamonds served as an indicator for nighttime.

‘These models were not only technically innovative but also extremely attractive,’ says Fawcett. ‘One thing that sets semi-mystery clocks apart from mystery clocks is that they are not transparent.’

‘Comet’ clocks were produced between 1912 and 1920. They are characterised by a circular enamel dial with a diamond-set comet-shaped hand that rotates within the dial; the minutes are read off a marquise-shaped diamond that circles along a concentric ring.

The clock shown above right also boasts a diamond in the centre of the dial. According to Fawcett, some of the models created in rock crystal were embellished with a diamond-set circle on the outside of the bezel.

The chronoscopes

From 1919, Maurice Coüet began to design desk clocks inspired by the 17th-century chronoscope. Cartier chronoscopes feature three hidden arms, each bearing four numerals. The arms revolve on an axis, with one appearing each hour from the left-hand side of the dial quadrant. As the hand pivots across the dial, it simultaneously marks the minutes before disappearing off the right-hand side. This series of clocks also served as photograph frames.

The Art Deco years

The Art Deco period was one of the most creative in Cartier’s history. Clocks from the 1920s and 1930s are usually square in shape and incorporate a range of materials, including onyx, nephrite jade, enamel and precious stones.

Like the clocks of the Belle Epoque, Cartier’s Art Deco models were often given as gifts and can feature personalised details.

‘Oriental’ Art Deco

The Art Deco years also saw an increase in demand for luxury goods of oriental inspiration. ‘Jacques Cartier and his brothers were fascinated by Asia and India and travelled there from the 1910s onwards,’ says Fawcett. ‘They also imported raw materials from China, such as burgauté lacquer.’

Cartier began to make clocks bearing Art Deco motifs inspired by Asian elements. ‘The gold hands, enamelled or set with diamonds, take the shape of hearts, arrows or Persian tulips, while sapphires and rubies usually replace the diamond stars that traditionally adorned the base.’

Broadly speaking, the dials of such models are made of lapis lazuli, carved jade or mother-of-pearl inlays. In some exceptional examples, as in the lot below right, dials are embellished with magnificent iridescent kingfisher feathers.

In ancient China, applying kingfisher feathers to paper or metal for use as hair ornaments or as picture backgrounds was a popular decorative practice among the elite, says Fawcett. ‘Cartier began to use kingfisher feathers in clock dials from the beginning of the 20th century. The mix of blue, green and black was rarely seen in Europe and came to symbolise the height of luxury.’

Persian influences also inspired the design of some Art Deco models, says Fawcett. The above ‘Altar’ desk clock — or purse clock — (above left) has shuttered doors embellished with a traditional Persian decoration. ‘It can be placed on a flat surface once the pivoting support is opened out, meaning that the time can be read when the dial shutters are open or closed.’

This miniature example, which measures just 4 x 2 x 1 cm, was offered with its original Cartier fitted case, increasing its value to collectors.

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The prism clocks

In 1937, Cartier master watchmaker Gaston Cusin invented the prism clock, a model of desk clock with a dial reflected through prisms. The design, which was patented in its year of creation, was inspired by an underwater periscope.

‘These travel clocks were sometimes small enough to be carried around in your pocket’, says the specialist. ‘The dials are like magical optical illusions.’

This ground-breaking design was later applied to a select number of Cartier wristwatches, says Fawcett, and enjoyed a resurgence in popularity in the 1980s.

Explore Luxury at Christie’s in Hong Kong, Geneva, London and Paris, November and December 2023

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