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Watches collection


In Search of Lost Time

There is a very European enclave in the Museum for Islamic Art, a gallery devoted to the genius of time-keeping. It contains a spectacular collection of rare watches and clocks, one of the world’s most important, assembled by Sir David Lionel Salomons in the early 20th century. His daughter and heir, Vera Bryce Salomons, decided to exhibit the collection in the museum she founded in Jerusalem, despite the absence of any apparent connection between European timepieces and Islamic artifacts – apart from their all being works of art, of course.

David Lionel Salomons was not just a collector, however: he was an amateur scientist and an enthusiastic horologist. Most of the timepieces on display were crafted in the 18th and 19th centuries, and reflect Salomons’ interest in complex watches built on sophisticated mechanical principles, and his extensive knowledge of every aspect of watch-making.

Watches and clocks of different kinds grace the collection, from simple examples to musical clocks that are the epitome of mechanical and aesthetic thinking. Among them are self-winding (“perpétuelle”) watches, portable clocks, longcase clocks, scientific devices, music boxes, and painted enamel boxes equipped with intricate miniature mechanisms. What distinguishes this magnificent collection is the exquisite taste of its owners, and the exceptional feel Salomons had for discovering such treasures – the “gadgets” and fashion accessories that delighted the royalty and nobility of the Old World.   

At the heart of the 200-item collection are fifty-five watches and clocks made by the famous Parisian watchmaker, Abraham-Louis Breguet (1747-1823). Sir David wrote in the original catalogue of the collection: “To carry a fine Breguet watch is to feel that you have the brains of a genius in your pocket.” Of his generation, Breguet was the only expert in the science of measuring time. He introduced the self-winding watch, which he refined to perfection over time.

Apart from their accuracy, Breguet’s watches were notable for their elegance and charm. It is no wonder that Marie Antoinette was one of his first famous customers, and that he made watches and clocks for kings, princes and aristocrats in England, Russia, and across Europe.

Breguet worked all his life on the correct concept of the dimension of time, and invented watch movements that were designed to overcome the technical limitations of the period. He was an expert in extremely fine mechanics. His watch movements were entirely perfect and logical, and set the standard for watch-making to this day; it is said that they have never been improved upon. He produced thousands of timepieces for every possible civilian and scientific use, and his watch movements, both the simple and the complex among them, were renowned for their reliability. To protect his work from imitators, Breguet would engrave his signature on the side of the watch, but so tiny that it was invisible to the naked eye.  

Pride of place of the Breguet creations in the Salomons collection goes to a self-winding watch, No. 160 (WA 69). This splendid watch was commissioned in 1783, apparently by an officer of the guard in the court of the French queen, Marie Antoinette, whose name it now bears. The work was only completed in 1820, almost thirty years after the queen’s execution.

Only a master-watchmaker like Abraham-Louis Breguet could design and create a watch so special and sophisticated. The Marie Antoinette watch is a virtual computer. It demonstrates Breguet’s incomparable ability to construct watches with complex movements and multiple applications. Today, we would download a whole list of “apps” to access the information built into this remarkable watch: a calendar that adjusts to leap years, a thermometer, reminders, and the equation of time, are just a few on the list.  

The watch is distinguished by its quiet elegance. Apart from the necessary steel parts, it is made entirely of gold. The surfaces of the gold watch-case are studded with sapphires. The top and bottom lids are made of rock crystal, through which to appreciate the perfect finish of the movement. The watch-face, also made of rock crystal, is engraved with Roman numerals and the signature “Breguet et Fils.” Additional displays in the watch-case include a secondary watch-face that tells seconds and the day of the week. The hands are made of blue steel, with a jumping hour hand. A display on the left is devoted to equation of time and state of winding, and on the right to the date and a thermometer scale. On the side of the case is another engraving: “Breguet No. 160.”  

Breguet’s invention of the self-winding watch is widely regarded as his most important contribution to the watch-making world, but its manufacture was eventually suspended because of its high cost and difficulty of assembly. These watches measured time to a deviation of ten seconds per day, and could continue that consistently without the need for calibration.   

Another, self-winding watch, No. 1670 (WA 77), sold in 1814, demonstrates the significant changes Breguet made in the layout of the movement. It was, for example, half the thickness of any watch movement made before it. The winding weight is smaller, and recessed into the plate to reduce height. To make space for the winding weight, the escapement and the wheel train were moved to the side and their dimensions reduced. Breguet’s solutions are evidence of his ability as an innovator in watch design.

Watch No. 5050 (WA 99) is even more complex than No. 1670. It strikes the hours, for example, and the watch-face has additional apertures to show the date and phases of the moon. The sector on the right is for the regulator, while the one above shows the state of winding.

Breguet’s watches carry a whiff of the romanticism of 19th-century Europe. They conjure up images of a train ambling across Europe, or of a steamship crossing the ocean. They are beautiful relics of a world in which a gentleman, with his crinoline-draped lady on his arm, would take his watch on its gilded chain out of his waistcoat pocket and discreetly check the time.

In 1815, Breguet was appointed the official watchmaker of the French navy. With his talent and expertise, he built a series of exceptionally precise marine chronometers, which were used to determine the longitude of a ship’s position – a vital device since ships were often at sea for months, or even years, with no opportunity to recalibrate their instruments.  

Like the chronometers, Breguet’s watches kept excellent time. Watch No. 2980 (WA 92) had a deviation of no more than a few seconds a day over a period of years. In the era before high-quality lubricants, the lack of lubrication was a significant cause of irregularity in timepieces. Breguet solved the problem of deviation with a specially designed escapement, which, together with the balance wheel, was embedded in a rotating movement. This allowed the various differences to balance each other out, and achieve a regular daily rate.

Another kind of timepiece, known as a “carriage clock,” was invented by Breguet in the mid-1790s. The most sophisticated of this type in the collection is the “sympatique” (CL 4), created by Louis Rabi, one of Breguet’s talented apprentices. It was designed to accommodate a companion pocket watch, which it could set and wind or regulate simultaneously.

Apart from the Breguet timepieces, the collection includes a variety of clocks made by other masters: “automata” (complete with moving scenes), shelf clocks, and longcase (“grandfather”) clocks. Scientific instruments, from the 17th to the 19th centuries, include compasses, barometers, solar clocks and telescopes.

The French dominance of the market for snuff boxes and similar items made from precious metals ended at the end of the 18th century. They were superseded by Swiss artists who developed glazed enamel within relatively simple gold boxes of neo-classical design.

In the 19th century, Swiss watchmakers turned their knowledge and skill to a new market: increasingly complex musical boxes and singing-bird boxes, based on highly intricate movements.

An excellent example is the gold singing-bird box with an embedded watch (WA 4), dating to the early 19th century. On the top of the box is an oval enamel panel, decorated with a detailed painting. When the panel is lifted, it releases the bird beneath it, which stands up and sings. This fine piece demonstrates the connection between watch-making and the art of musical boxes.

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