In the early 1900s, the House of Cartier created a treasure trove of bejeweled timepieces that are still coveted by collectors today—mystery clocks. Dubbed a “tour de force of illusion in equally impressive packaging” by The New York Times, the clocks’ hands appear to float freely over their faces, seemingly attached to nothing.
Made of lapis lazuli, jade, mother-of-pearl, rock crystal, gold, and obsidian, the ”floating” quality of the clocks’ hands is often dramatized by pavé diamonds. And you’d be forgiven for thinking there’s something magical about the technology within them. In fact, these timepieces date back more than 150 years and, intriguingly, began with magic.
These exquisite examples showcase Cartier’s passion and knowledge—Marie-Cécile Cisamolo
The origins of mystery clocks can be traced to 19th century France, where horologist Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin—considered by many as the father of modern magic—ordered a set of clockmaking books. Instead, he received a set on creating illusions called Scientific Amusements. The magic of mechanics instantly captivated him.
In his quest to invent creations that would aid in stage magic, Robert-Houdin experimented with glass, creating “invisible” actions or hidden mechanisms that truly seemed to work by enchantment alone. It was these pieces that were the inspiration for Cartier’s own examples and in 1912, with the expertise of master clockmaker Maurice Coüet, the House’s career in mystery clocks began with the Model A.
Coüet incorporated the most technologically advanced mechanisms of the time into his pendules mystérieuses, helping to cement Cartier’s reputation as the leading manufacturer of jeweled objects. “Today, these pieces give us great insight into the clockmaking by Cartier during the first half of the 20th century,” says Marie-Cécile Cisamolo, Associate Specialist in Christie’s jewellery, Geneva.
As is to be expected, the clocks were sought-after gifts—Queen Mary was given a mystery clock in 1924 and, in 1945, General Charles de Gaulle presented one to Joseph Stalin. “One of my personal favorites is thought to have been a present for the 1930 marriage of Loelia Lindsay, a British peeress and magazine editor, to Hugh Grosvenor, the second Duke of Westminster,” Cisamolo says. The wedding was a society affair, with Winston Churchill present as best man. “A mystery clock of this standing would have been a typical gift in aristocratic circles at the time.”
Now, in what the auction house has called a “once in a lifetime” event, Christie’s Geneva will offer a unique collection of 101 Cartier Clocks in an online sale from July 7–21. “Such a collection has never before been presented at auction,” Cisamolo explains. “These exquisite examples really showcase Cartier’s passion and knowledge.”
To find out more about the range of timepieces, and “get a feeling for their stones, metal, and craftsmanship,” she recommends viewing as many pieces as possible online or by attending one of the auction house’s frequent webinars. A collection this unique deserves taking the time to examine it—as an engraving on one 1913 example states, “I do not count the hours, if they are not brilliant.”
Banner image: Two examples of Cartier mystery clocks, also known as planet clocks