It’s difficult to talk at length about high-end jewellery without mentioning Van Cleef & Arpels. Founded in 1896, this Parisian purveyor of luxury jewellery, watches and cologne has earned worldwide acclaim for its uncompromising delivery of superlative quality and cutting-edge design. It seems strange to think that it all began as a modest venture shared between Alfred Van Cleef and his father-in-law Salomon Arpels. Then, in 1906, no more than a decade later, Arpels sadly died and left Alfred and his two brothers-in-law, Charles and Julien to carry their dream of establishing a high-end boutique. Shortly after Arpels death this new trio acquired a place for Van Cleef and Arpels in the coveted square of Place Vendome, opposite the Hotel Ritz and opened the first of many boutiques. It was at this time that the third Arpels brother, Louis, joined the company and helped to unify what would later become one of the most successful family businesses in recent history. Of course we’ve all seen and no doubt marvelled at the iconic Arpels motifs, delicate Diamond flowers, animals and fairies, or perhaps delighted at the way in which their jewels have been worn by gorgeous stars like Grace Kelly and Elizabeth Taylor.
Something that you might not know about Van Cleef & Arpels, though, is that over the years they’ve also perfected the art of making mystery clocks. Sometimes referred to as ‘impossible clocks’, mystery clocks are unique mantle timepieces often made with no visible workings at all. In many cases the whirling hands appear to be disconnected from any discernible movement, whereas with conventional clocks it’s quite easy to see how hands are run by the workings that drive them. Whether they use a mechanical pendulum or a secret electric motor, mystery clocks retain their secrets, even if you turn the clock over and scrutinise the caseback you’ll be unable to see how it ticks. When you consider this feature it’s no wonder these designs have been associated with illusions, whilst also attracting a number of famous magicians over the years, drawn to the seemingly impossible motion of the clock hands. Like magicians, mystery timepieces fool us by keeping their movement private and allowing our imaginations to roam wild.
These designs were first introduced by Jean Robert-Houdin in the 19th Century. Robert-Houdin was a French magician – he later became world-famous after performing privately for Queen Victoria on several occasions – and clockmaker who picked up the craft after he married the daughter of an eminent Parisian horologist. Into this new discipline he brought his proclivity for magic and combined the two passions to make a variety of mystery clocks. Back then these designs were distinguishable by the fact they teased the viewer with different optical tricks, achieved in a number of clever ways, one of which involved running a rod up from the base of the clock, along the top edge of the case, until it reached a screw connected to an invisible glass dial. He would even occasionally use his mystery clocks in his act by firing a few volts of electricity through the apparatus and making the clock strike the different times called out by members of the audience. So influential was Robert-Houdin that the iconic American illusionist and escape artist Ehrich Weiss, aka Harry Houdini, called him ‘the father of modern magic’ and created a stage name to honour him.
During the 19th Century Jean Robert-Houdin took his intimate understanding of illusions and science and applied it to the intricacies of watch-making. Shortly afterwards the first ‘mysterious clocks’ appeared, powered by invisible mechanisms. Using cleverly designed dials comprised of crystal panels with visible numerals, hands and an indented metal frame, Houdin was able to trick the viewer, hiding the mechanism in the decorative base whilst showing the clock in working motion. What he’d brought to the world was the intriguing marriage of illusion and science, conveyed through the medium of horology.
In 1926 high-end watchmakers began to pay tribute to Houdin with their own interpretations of the mystery clock. First there were the Portique Japonais and Ours de Jade clocks, and then, in 1998, the Galilee clock (pictured above) was released, using the full gyration of the dial to ensure continued verticality and also adorned with a stellar polar bear, shaped with more than 2,300 diamonds. Another design features a centred crystal moon, creating a celestial scene that elegantly pays homage to Galileo, the Italian ‘Father of Modern Physics’. Since Houdin first showed it to us this puzzling aesthetic has both beguiled and enthralled clockmakers, from the antique French and German mystery clocks of the 19th Century, to the expensive jewelled creations of the 20th Century. All the while the bar remains as high as Houdin first set it. With every finished timepiece we have seen a fascinating triumph of imagination and decorative craftsmanship.