The first "Chinese Market" watches were made by Jesuit missionaries during the Ming Dynasty in the late 16th century. The Emperors had an avid interest in horological and astronomical instruments, which allowed the missionaries to enter China.
By the late 18th century, Chinese patrons requested only the finest watches, featuring complicated movements such as repeating, music or automatons. To satisfy their desire for aesthetics, the cases had to be highly enamelled with motifs representing nature or classical scenes, set with pearls and precious stones. Many of these marvels were made for the Imperial Palace in Beijing.
The history of erotic watches begins at the time of Louis XV when noblemen would enjoy showing such scenes to innocent young ladies to make them blush and, possibly, seduce them. Soon the Chinese, masters in the art of gallantry, began to value these pieces as well and numerous watchmakers attempted to fulfil the growing demand. These scenes were in general highly enameled and with moving parts and hidden in concealed compartments in the case, underneath the cuvette or yet in the dial.
The present watch and its spectacular combination of a lavishly decorated case and a highly complicated movement featuring an automaton, repeating, music and a concealed erotic scene is the perfect example for such a timepiece made by special order for a Chinese dignitary.
The movement is signed Piguet & Meylan who made musical items of extraordinary quality. Some of the movements were extremely thin and based on the disc or sur plateau format with fan teeth, a system believed to have been invented by Meylan. The majority of the pieces were marked with the initials PM in a lozenge and a serial number.
Isaac-Daniel Piguet was born in Le Chenit in the Valley of Joux in 1775. At an early age, he specialized in the manufacturing of expensive and complicated pieces such as watches with carillons and en passant hour and quarter striking clock watches. He finally settled in Geneva where, in 1811, he formed a partnership with Philippe-Samuel Meylan.
Philippe-Samuel Meylan (1772-1845), a member of a family of renowned watchmakers, was born in Le Brassus. He specialized in the production of very thin watches and became an eminent maker of watches with musical automata.
The superb quality of the enamel decoration illustrates the celebrated art of enamel miniatures originating from Geneva in the early 19th century. It was not unusual during that period that an artist would sign his work. The enamel on the present watch however can be attributed to Jean-François-Victor Dupont. Dupont (1785-1863) a renowned enamel painter working in Geneva, was famous for his portraits of eminent personalities (King George IV, Henry VI etc.) as well as boxes and watches for the Chinese Market. He cooperated frequently with Ilbery and Piguet & Meylan.
The sumptuous case was done in the workshop of the Frères Oltramare, renowned monteurs de boites en or or makers of gold cases. Louis-David-Benjamin and Jean-Hughes were descendants of the Oltramare family of watchmakers, originally from Genoa, of which some members settled in Geneva in the 17th century. The brothers worked together and registered their hallmark in November 1815 after the liberation of Geneva from French occupation.
The original owner of this exceptional timepiece, or rather work of art, unquestionably knew how to appreciate his treasure as its condition is as exceptional as the craftsmanship.