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  • Harry Fane

The pinnacle of Cartier's creativity..


In all our discussions about vintage Cartier, we have only briefly touched on the subject of the Cartier Mystery Clocks. Louis Cartier’s aim was to create ‘the clock as a jewel and the jewel as a clock’. This combining of ‘the utilitarian with the jewelled’ was one of the House’s great aims and great successes. If one looks back over history, there are few ‘objets d’art’ which have any moving parts and Cartier sought to change this. Paperknives with clocks in the handle, paperknives which are also magnifying glasses, cigar boxes with clocks in the lid, paperweights which house calendars, powder compacts with hidden lipsticks, etc etc, the list grows long…but, without doubt, Cartier reached the pinnacle of this particular mission with the creation of the extraordinary, jewelled clocks known as the “Mystery” clocks. These clocks were the result of the great collaboration and shared vision of Edmond Jaeger and Louis Cartier. The mechanics which lie at the heart of these timepieces are complicated. Even today, the clockmakers need the greatest skill to service and repair all the intricate moving parts. It is not the clock movements themselves that present problems, it is the delicate gearing which allows the hands to operate seemingly by magic without any connection to a movement. Hence ‘the mystery’ which, even as you purchased a clock in the 1920s, was never revealed. This highly complex mechanism was then to be hidden in a case of rock crystal or enamel or gem-set gold with a huge rock crystal dial, so clean and clear it was totally transparent. Today, it is only when deconstructing these jewelled wonders, that one gets a true sense of the precision and exquisiteness that went into original making. Every intricate part had to fit perfectly so nothing impeded the workings nor revealed the ‘illusion’ which was at the heart of the creation. There is plenty already written about these clocks and their mechanics, and I will choose to stick with tradition and not reveal how they work.

Last month, Sothebys New York offered this beautiful model. This upright, rectangular model is known as the ‘Ecran’ as it shape derives from the small screens (ecran) placed in front of fireplaces to stop sparks flying into the room. These Ecran models always have small arches at the base which seemingly hold the 'screen' upright, but which are simply decorative. All the ‘Mystery’ clock shapes are derived from some simplistic origin. A milestone (Model A), a fire screen (Ecran), a Chinese Temple gate (Portico), etc etc. Where the Ecran is unique, is that they are mostly (only two out of the assumed ten ever made do not conform) red and black in colour. This was created by the use of coral and black onyx or black enamel and this became one of Cartier’s most popular and iconic colour combinations throughout the 1920s and 1930s. There are the most extraordinary pieces of jewellery in coral and black enamel, always enhanced by diamonds. Diamonds also feature in the Ecran clocks as borders to dials etc. Overall, perhaps the Ecran ‘Mystery’ clocks contain just enough iconic Cartier elements to make them the best of the best although plenty of others will argue this point. For me, I love this red/black combination and I love the elegant simplicity of the design. Very Art Deco. I also love the sparing use of diamonds which add sparkle and preciosity. Also, in my opinion, there was no greater master of dimension than Cartier. In everything the famed House created, this appears as an innate understanding. The dimensions of this clock, and of all the ‘Mystery’ clocks, is absolutely superb.

Sadly, this clock has had a rough life. Over the hundred years since it was made, it has had its fair share of falls and bumps, bad falls and big bumps and some rather hare-brained schemes to mend it previously have done more harm than good. It will need a great deal of attention to restore it to how it once was. In this case, it will not only be the skills of a clockmaker but also the clever hands of goldsmiths, enamellers, lapidaries and gem-setters and the knowledge of someone who understands how it should all be. It can be done and what a joy for today’s craftsmen to revisit the works of their forebears who were working in very primitive conditions compared to today and yet who could still produce an item of such amazing beauty and precision…..a clock which is equally a jewel.. a jewel which is actually a timepiece….just as Louis Cartier wanted.

As a result of the condition, this clock made a modest $ 565,000 at the auction. In perfect condition, it would have been nearer a $ 1 million.

What is quite interesting is that this was the 7th Ecran ‘Mystery’ clock to be sold at auction over the last thirty years. If only ten were ever create, three remain unaccounted for.

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