The present watch is part of an exceedingly rare series of urn-shaped watches with seal foot made for the Chinese market around 1790.
Although not signed, its design and outstanding quality are typical for the work of the renowned firm of Jaquet Droz et Leschot. The movement, made in Geneva, is inspired by the English style and featuring the "Green Man" mask, a mythical figure in many cultures, notably Great Britain, and symbol of good fortune and rebirth.
The enamel miniatures can be attributed to the celebrated Jean-Louis Richter, made after English genre works painted by artists specialising in romantic English rural life, such as William Hamilton, Francis Wheatley and William Redmore Bigg. These paintings enjoyed enormous popularity at the time and were often used by Genevan enamellers to embellish their masterpieces.
Research has revealed in the discovery of only four examples of such urn-form watches to appear in public to date, however all unique since the shapes and decorations are varying:
1. The present, case no. 3131, with narrowing top, enamel scenes depicting "Three Children and the Bunny Rabbit" to the front, back with the enamel miniature of a lady and her children in a park: first public appearance at Antiquorum Hong Kong, 10 June 1997, lot 426
2. Case with triple curvate top, enamel scene depicting "Playing at Thread the Needle" to the front, enamel miniature of two maidens in a park to the reverse, also attributed to Jaquet Droz and Richter: Antiquorum Hong Kong, 10 June 1997, lot 425
3. Case with rounded top, enamel scene depicting "Blind Man's Buff" to the front, plain enamel back, also attributed to Jaquet Droz and Richter: Antiquorum Hong Kong 10 June 1997, lot 427
4. Similar to the latter, with mirror-inverted enamel scene "Blind Man's Buff", the reverse with two enamel miniatures, a small riverside scene and a larger classical landscape depicting a lady, her child and a sheep: Sotheby's London, 1 October 1997, lot 71.
The similarities of numbers 3 and 4, including the identical heights of 123 mm., lead to the assumption that at least these two urn-shaped watches may have been made as a pair, a typical characteristic of watches sold to the Chinese market, both for symbolic as well as for practical reasons: the number "2" is a lucky number in Chinese culture, symbolizing harmonious coexistence; moreover, a Chinese proverb states "good things come in pairs". The pair assured that its owner would have a reserve should one of the objects need to be returned to Europe for repair for example, a process likely to take several months at the time.
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, or in the form of urns, hearts, animals, pistols and others. 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 or intended as prestigious gifts to be presented to Chinese Emperors by European sovereigns.
The present watch and its highly attractive, lavishly decorated urn-shaped case is a perfect example for such a timepiece made for a Chinese dignitary, the foot destined to engrave the mandarin's initials or coat-of-arms to be used for the sealing of important documents. Distinguished by its extraordinary rarity and quality it is doubtlessly amongst the most significant Chinese market watches to be offered at auction in recent years.
Jaquet Droz et Leschot
Pierre Jaquet Droz, born in La Chaux-de-Fonds in 1721, was one of the most brilliant and innovative watchmakers of his era, specializing in musical and automaton watches and clocks, boxes, fans, singing birds and other ingenious playing-toys. His astonishing creations fascinated nobility, kings and emperors of the world, most notably in China. Pierre Jaquet Droz travelled widely, notably in England, France and Spain. In Madrid he was condemned to death by the Inquisition for allegedly practicing black magic but was saved by the Bishop of Toledo.
His second son, Henri-Louis, was born on 13 October 1752. At a young age, the talented child was sent to Nancy in order to study music, science, mathematics, physics and drawing. Upon his return in 1769, He Henri-Louis joined his father's workshop together with Jean-Frédéric Leschot (1764-1824), Pierre's adoptive son. The extremely successful partnership between the three men resulted in the production of the most extraordinary singing bird boxes, automaton watches and other timepieces. When Pierre Jaquet Droz grew old the firm was taken over Henri-Louis and Jean-Frédéric Leschot who changed the name to Jaquet Droz et Leschot and continued after Pierre's death in 1790.
Jean-Louis Richter (1766-1841)
Jean-Louis Richter was born in Geneva in 1766 and learned his art from the celebrated David-Etienne and Philippe-Samuel-Théodore Roux.
Throughout Richter's lifetime he was known for is characteristic heads which were upon closer inspection of interesting proportion and doll like features. Contrary to what is usually thought, painted enamel subjects are seldom through ones own imagination, and Richter himself was inspired by, may it in some cases loosely, known paintings and prints of the period. There are some differences between Richter's interpretations and the originals but this can be mostly attributed to the constricted techniques of enamelling. These changes though are most harmonious and it is sometimes suggested that this was the will of Richter himself.
Although his signature can be found on some of his works, the majority of his paintings remained unsigned but are easily recognisable as being his from their quality and style.
Richter's landscapes and figures are among the most accomplished works of the period and can be admired in Geneva's Musée de l'Horlogerie et de l'Emaillerie and in the prestigious Patek Philippe Museum.