Many collectors say that to buy a vintage timepiece is to possess a piece of history. This could not be truer when applied to this gold, enamel and pearl-set flintlock pistol-form perfume sprinkler with concealed watch. Attributed to the famous Swiss manufacture, Moulinié, Bautte & Cie of Geneva, this lavishly embellished pistol represents the height of early 19th century Swiss automata technology and exquisite craftsmanship.
Defining himself as "a lover of forms", the founding member of the manufacture, Jean-François Bautte had a fondness for fanciful "montres de forme". Only a talented craftsman with a vivid imagination and a great measure of audacity and playfulness could metamorphose a pistol, a priori, an instrument of destruction, into a desirable timepiece of such grace and sophistication. Operating much in the same way as a real flintlock pistol, when the trigger is pulled, a tulip with beautifully painted enamel petals shoots out of the barrel and perfume is sprayed through the pistils of the flower. The watch is hidden under a hinge in the butt of the pistol.
The pistol, entirely made of gold, is adorned with seed pearls and decorations in rich translucent dark blue and scarlet red enamels. A stunning repoussé or chased gold plaque in relief of a galloping horse or two nestling lambs adorns each gold pan side of the pistols. Notwithstanding its luxurious nature, this exquisite objet d'art is more importantly the repository of a fascinating cultural exchange between China and the West during the Ming and Qing dynasties.
In 1600, Matteo Ricci, the most influential Jesuit missionary in China of his time, gained access to Emperor Wanli (1563 - 1620) by presenting to him two chiming clocks or ziming zhong. In the following centuries, tributes from Europe in the form of clocks, pocket watches, technical instruments and toys poured into the imperial collections of Chinese emperors. By the 18th and 19th centuries, this passion extended beyond the Imperial court to include aristocratic and wealthy families in China. Thus began a lucrative commerce dominated by the English and Swiss watchmakers - 'Sing Song' merchants as they were called - whose sole aim was to invent increasingly luxurious and whimsical timepieces, specifically to the taste of this new market of choice.
Towards the end of the 19th century, a combination of nationalism resulting in a falling from grace of all Western imports, civil wars, revolutions and invasions finally put an end to this trade. At the end of the Qing dynasty and the Republican period, many of these valuable timepieces were taken from China or by families fleeing Communism and ended up in the West, in private collections or museums.
Unlike pocket watches, these pistol-shaped perfume sprinklers were extremely rare, undoubtedly due to the complexity of production. Only singing bird pistols produced by the Frères Rochat could rival in rarity and originality. No more than fifteen single examples of these pistol perfume sprinklers are known to exist. Each of these pistols is a variation on the same theme with differences in colour and decoration. Similar examples are found in the Sir David Salomons Collection in Tel Aviv; the M. and E.M. Sandoz Collection at the Musée de l'Horlogerie et de l'Emaillerie in Geneva; the Hans Wilsdorf Collection, Montres Rolex in Geneva and in the Musée Cognacq-Jay in Paris.
Very few of these pistols are currently in private hands. This particular example found its way to USA and was formerly part of the illustrious collection of Alice Appleton Hay (1894-1987). Mrs Hay's father-in-law was none other than John Milton Hay, President Abraham Lincoln's private secretary and later Secretary of State under Presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt. John Hays was famous as the author of the Open Door policy notes on China in which Hays reaffirmed the principle that all countries should have equal access to any Chinese port open to trade.
One could imagine that John Hays was presented this pistol as a gift by the Chinese officials and it remained in the family until the dispersion of Alice Appleton Hay's estate. Or, one could envisage the pistol as a prized possession of Mrs Hay's parents, Fannie and Francis Randall Appleton who, after all, was born to a family of horology as he was the son of Daniel Fuller Appleton, founder of the Waltham Watch Company of Waltham, Massachusetts.
Whatever the theories may be, the pistol has come full circle to the East. Perhaps it is providence that this magnificent pistol with its galloping horse, is offered for sale in 2014, the year of the Horse, by Christie's, a Western auction house based in Asia in order for it to continue its legacy as a cultural link between the East and the West.
SWISS. AN EXTREMELY RARE, IMPORTANT AND FINE GOLD, ENAMEL AND PEARL-SET FLINTLOCK PISTOL-FORM PERFUME SPRINKLER WITH CONCEALED WATCH, MADE FOR THE CHINESE MARKET
UNSIGNED, CIRCA 1805
Gilt brass verge movement, chain fusée, pierced and chased cock, polished steel endstone, white enamel dial, Breguet numerals, gold hands, concealed within the end of the grip under a circular cover with applied chased and engraved gold head of Medusa within a ring of split pearls, opened by pressing secret button in the band, the movement concealed under a similar cover with engraved gold head of Sartyr on the other side, the grip with translucent red enamel over arc and shell-shaped engine-turned decoration, the edges set with split pearls, a small gold loop for chain under the timepiece, pierced and tooled flint strike with square agate hammer and lion's head mask on top, the lower barrel sides with plaques depicting a galloping horse on one side and a two sheep curled up together on the other with black enamel and split pearl surround, above tooled straight trigger, the octagonal barrel in deep blue enamel with gold paillons and pearl-set tip, the perfume spread through the pistils of the gold tulip with painted polychrome enamel petals, released by the percussion of the hammer when the trigger is depressed, with gold slide underneath to retreat into the barrel, unsigned
108 mm. overall length