Most people see time as a finite entity, knowing that their lives are measured in this currency. But flâneurs see it differently, time being something they have an excess of. Every hour becomes less urgent, especially when spent deep in thought or in the casual observance of the things around him. For the flâneur, time is measured in experiences—if time is to be measured at all— and how much of it is spent in these little discoveries quickly becomes irrelevant.
Fortunately, the field of watchmaking was never simply about timekeeping. Over the centuries, craftsmen have displayed their artistry in ways that go beyond gauging the passing seconds. From the earliest clockwork automata to modern wrist planetariums, countless hours have been devoted to mechanical creations that are paeans to art, ingenuity, conceit, and obsessive craftsmanship. These pieces are as much about high concept as they are about mechanics, turning ideas that seem frivolous at first to existential fruition. Watches, for example, that tell the time differently and, in some cases, only as an afterthought.
Arceau Le Temps Suspendu
Hermès first released this watch in 2011, and updated it again in 2013. In essence, the watch has the curious ability to stop telling the time, but not in the way most watches do when you pull out the crown. The timepiece normally displays the hours and minutes on the dial, with a retrograde date display at the bottom. Pressing the button at the 9-hour mark, however, triggers a complex sequence in the movement. The hour and minute hands stop moving, coming to rest at the 12-hour mark, and the date display hand disappears altogether. This creates the illusion of time being suspended.
Pressing the button again returns all the hands to their correct positions, which means that the watch keeps track of the time even while you suspend it. This isn’t an easy complication to produce, and is the first of its kind in the world. The watch’s aesthetics are just as curious, with a mix of asymmetrical elements. The crown seems awkwardly placed at 2 o’clock, the dial has a raised area at the bottom, and the date display is placed at a slanting angle. Somehow, all of these elements still result in a cohesive design. Even if the so-called suspension of time had people scratching their heads at the purpose it served, the Arceau Le Temps Suspendu still won Best Men’s watch at the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève in 2011.
Rather than make you mindful of time, Cristophe Claret’s Poker wants you to forget about it—just like the casinos of Las Vegas, where there are no clocks to heighten your disconnection from reality. The watch incorporates a fully functional, 52-card Texas Hold’em poker game into the movement. Using pushers located at the left side, the user controls the flop, the turn, and the river, while small slats on the dial display the players’ hands. Red and black dominate the design, and the see-through caseback shows off a roulette-themed display.
Behind its whimsical appearance, however, is a complex automaton, capable of mechanically producing 32,768 possible combinations per player. And if you deign to get past the games, it also tells the time. The watch is designed to accommodate up to three players, though a flâneur would most likely go at it alone, playing against the watch while sitting in an outdoor cafe.
Known for its automaton watches that display historical figures accompanied by Westminster chimes, Ulysse Nardin went into a similar direction when it developed the Stranger line of timepieces. The collection is focused on playing complex tunes, and the Stranger Vivaldi pays tribute to one of the Baroque era’s most popular Venetian composers.
Every hour, the watch plays Vivaldi’s “La Primavera,” one of four violin concertos that make up The Four Seasons. Representing the rhythm of spring, the tune is played by a rotating disc that plucks at a series of pins on the dial, essentially forming a strippeddown music box. The concerto can also be played on demand by pressing the pusher at 8 o’clock, while the pusher at 10 o’clock deactivates or reactivates the musical function.
Geo Tourbillon Orrery
When one contemplates about one’s place in the world, it’s probably useful to have a visual representation of the planet to go along with such thoughts. The Geo Tourbillon Orrery is a mechanical solar system that sits on the wrist, displaying the movement of the Earth, its moon, and Mars as they orbit the sun. The watch takes its name from an eighteenth century planetarium model invented by George Graham, which was called the orrery. The dial shows the relative positions of the planets in real time.
The Earth— represented by a tiny sapphire ball— completes its orbit around the hand-engraved depiction of the sun after 364 and 1/4 days. Mars, on the other hand, completes its journey after nearly 687 days. Housed under the sun is a tourbillon—a pulsating mechanism that offsets the effects of gravity on a watch’s movement—that makes it seem alive.
The Geo Tourbillon Orrery takes its design cues from the 1700s, giving it a distinctly old world spirit. The calendar feature, in particular, uses the Roman names for months, and the position of the miniature Earth allows you to keep track of the date. On the caseback, the current year is displayed using etched numerals on the crystal. Graham’s tribute to the orrery is so precise that it only needs adjustment every 300 years, and while a flâneur might believe he has all the time in the world, he’s unlikely to be around when the watch needs tweaking.
Until the end of the Edo era in 1868, the Japanese looked at time differently. Instead of dividing the day into 24 hours, the Japanese used a system that divided it into 12 units of time—six units for daylight and another six for nighttime. Each unit varied in length depending on the season, and one “hour” of Japanese time could be several times as long as a regular hour—making it seem as if time could stretch.
The clocks of the Edo era, called wadokei, were sophisticated instruments that mechanically adjusted to the changing seasons. Masahiro Kikuno’s Wadokei is a recreation of these ancient clocks in wristwatch form and equipped with a self-winding movement. To accommodate the varying lengths of the Japanese hours, the Wadokei’s hour markers automatically move along the dial, using a complication hidden in the movement. As an independent watchmaker with only the most basic equipment, Kikuno created his watches completely by hand, which makes the Wadokei’s construction and complexity all the more impressive.
The Bird Repeater
Pierre Jaquet-Droz was a famous creator of automata in the 18th century, assembling clockwork figures that ranged from scenery to simulacra of people. He was a keen observer of detail, mindful of the movements and traits of the things around him. Jaquet- Droz was especially interested in birds, appropriating their trills and likenesses in his music boxes.
The house that he founded carries his legacy to this day, with The Bird Repeater an homage to Jaquet-Droz’s skill in the field of automata. The watch features a pair of birds around their nest, which are hand engraved and painted to lifelike colors. The background is made in the same way, depicting a riverside scene.
Upon activating the repeater function, the entire dial comes to life. The waterfall on the left side of the dial begins to flow. The bird on the right spreads its wings and moves its head, while the one on the left feeds the young birds in the nest. Toward the end of the sequence, the egg in the middle of the nest hatches, and a new bird appears. Meanwhile, the watch chimes out the time, using separate tones for the hours, quarter hours, and minutes. The Bird Repeater is a marvel of old technology, and inspires the wearer to pay closer attention to the things around him, much in the way Pierre Jaquet-Droz did during his time.
This story first appeared in Vault Issue #21, 2015, "The Flannery issue". Banner photo by AlamaCreative for Pixabay.