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Where time-telling is a luxury

July 13, 2010

It was unfortunate that I wasn’t able to take pictures of some of its breathtaking collections of watches, clocks and automatons, all of them built before the age of computer-controlled precision instruments. In fact, on the ground floor of the museum, there were some models of the very machines and apparatuses used by the horologists to make everything from hand-held watches to automatons. In fact, many of these automatons are worked into the grander clock themselves, providing much entertainment to the owners whenever an hour strikes. Many of these huge, ornate clocks that would have been a showpiece in many a grand house are like mini-theatres, as much actions will take place whenever the hand strikes the hour. These tableaux are manipulated by hundreds of tiny cogs and wheels that were painstakingly pieced together, sometimes with the help of pincers and other fine instruments to hold on to and manipulate pieces that no nimble fingers can handle. It is really hard to describe what I saw without the pictures, and I will urge anyone who has the chance to visit the museum and see for themselves what I am talking about. I guess that’s why they wouldn’t let anyone take pictures (hell even handbags are forbidden inside).

Upon relinquishing my property, I went to the ground floor where a bunch of people were gathered in readiness for a guided tour on the third floor exhibit, which is all about the enamels, automatons and lavish timepieces made for the Chinese market of the 18th and 19th century, just before the conquest of the Manchurians. The horologists of Geneva were at their most inventive as they experimented with various techniques (including that of baking intricate watch pieces in the oven in order to set the rather tiny enameled paintings on the cover of the watches). The guide told us that more emphasis was placed on the lavish decorations on the timepieces than even the purpose of the timepieces themselves, since the ability to tell precise time is of no cultural value to pre-20th century China. This is true, as novelty as higher premium, especially in the Emperor’s court (well, this is true of any courts of wealthy empires and nations). Hence, horlogists use their skills to make a perfume dispensing double-barrelled flintlock pistol-watch with an automaton singing bird at its front side for the wealthy Chinese, and also paired timepieces (though I doubt the Cantonese will give watches as presents to newly-weds because the homonym of the word in Cantonese also means ‘grave’ but I wouldn’t know if they would have had used such a word in Cantonese at that time) for newly-weds of well-to-do familiies. In fact, I hypothesize that Geneva’s horologist’s wizardry in combining free-ranging automaton pieces with time-telling capabilities stemmed from competing for this vast market. Religious references were removed (despite the Calvinistic traditions of the Genevese) in order to not alienate the Chinese who have no emotional affiliations with any of the Nativity tales. Miniaturists were involved in the making of the timepieces, since their especial skills are required to make tiny paintings on tiny surfaces, usually through enamle-painting techniques. However, many of the sceneries were still very European, with the occasional stereotypical chinoiseries of the nightingale and peach blossoms.

On the other floors, there were on display a chronological history of the development of horology in Geneva from its earliest years, beginning from when the Sumptuary Laws were enacted stemming from the conversion from Catholicism to sober Calvinism by the Genevese. Hence, what is considered profligate consumption (not unlike what exists today) is strictly prohibited. The one way by which one can get around these laws is to turn luxury items into utility items, and horology flourished because of that. Even as far back as the 17th century, Geneva already has a huge international market for its horological pieces, and I think it would be interesting to study up on the link between horology and the development of mechanical automatons. Frankly speaking, I find these carefully created automatons to be more interesting than many of the digital creations we have today, mainly because of the character and extreme care that went into their creation. For example, at the museum, I saw many automatons in the form of people and animals, with much care taken into creating an interesting exterior (rather than the cheap plastic look one sees in most ‘toys’ today). Very few of the pieces shown in the museum are in existence today, and I don’t suppose that I will ever own any one of them unless I end up being really wealthy (which would necessitate either a career change or very strategic move).

Check out the website, and if I’ve time later back home, I’ll try to scan some images from the catalogue that I have. It is hard for me to go into detailed descriptions of any of the items without an accompanying picture, but I do hope you can see some of what I am talking about by looking at the website. Also, the museum has a research and reference section dedicated to the work of pioneers whose inventions helped advance horology, even if these people were not necessarily directly involved in horology. There is also a timepiece that allows astronomers to measure both sidereal and the normal solar time. And all these were done mechanically. Would it had been possible to build LHC during such a time, supposing that we were aware of the possibilities of the Standard Model back then?

I remembered the time when I was in college and visiting the Bangsar Shopping Center with my friends (this was before it became what it is today). I saw what I thought at that time to be a beautiful clock with a carousel of waltzing couples in gold. Of course, by today’s standard, the clock wasn’t too expensive. I think it was maybe about under RM300 or RM400. But that was a lot of money to a non-wage earning student without a trust fund. I remembered wanting to get something like that years later, when I finally could afford to (even though the idea of acquiring something so luxurious an item sends tingles of shame through my frugal Cantonese genes, however much I love luxury). I couldn’t find this clock again. Or maybe, the magic of it has become obviated with time.

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