October 29, 2017
by Jason Swire
Jaquet Droz is among the most unique of the Swatch Group’s high-end brands, known for their excellence in traditional decoration methods as well as their use of automata, or moving mechanical devices meant to imitate life. The Jaquet Droz Tropical Bird Repeater is the latest creation of mechanical artistry from the La Chaux-de-Fonds manufacture, celebrating the Enlightenment-era passion for nature and animals of brand founder and namesake Pierre Jaquet-Droz.
Pierre Jaquet-Droz opened his first workshop in 1738, and within a few decades had become known internationally as a master of elaborate pocket watches, mechanical singing birds, and automata. In 1759, Droz presented a mechanical clock to King Ferdinand VI of Spain, featuring a shepherd playing the flute and a dog guarding a basket of apples. When the King reached forward to take one of the apples, the mechanical dog began barking with such a natural sound that the King’s own dog began barking in response, and most of the courtiers fled the room fearing witchcraft.
After Droz proved that the mechanism worked via natural means and was not the result of sorcery, the King paid handsomely for the “Shepherd’s Clock” which is still on display in the Spanish palace museum. The fame and funding from this venture led Droz to produce ever more astonishing works of automata, such as The Writer. In many ways, these were precursors to modern computers, and a testament to the astonishing engineering skill of Droz for his time.
Despite his fame and ability, Droz’s workshop went into liquidation in 1790 when drafts made on their principal correspondent in China came back unpaid and their principal client in London failed. In 2000, the Swatch Group acquired the brand and re-established Jaquet Droz in their town of origin, La Chaux-de-Fonds. Since then, the brand has been paying tribute to the skills and passions of the founder, releasing the first Bird Repeater in 2012 (revisited hands-on here) and perfecting it further with the Charming Bird watch in 2015 (hands-on). The latest Jaquet Droz Tropical Bird Repeater combines two of this maison‘s eight “codes” or primary disciplines, automata and Ateliers d’Art, or the decorative arts.
The dial on the Jaquet Droz Tropical Bird Repeater is made of mother of pearl, hand-engraved and painted to depict a lush forest scene. When the minute repeater function is activated, there are seven animated elements on the dial which spring to life:
The animations can exceed 12 seconds and play out four different scenarios, which is a serious level of automation to pack into a 47mm-wide by 18.95mm-thick wristwatch case. Every element on this dial is decorated by hand, with an off-centre subdial in onyx near 12 o’clock to indicate hours and minutes.
The case of the Jaquet Droz Tropical Bird Repeater is made of 18 karat red gold and features yet more hand-applied engraving along the sides and lugs. It comes supplied with a rolled-edge dark green alligator strap which nicely matches the flora in the depicted scene. The watch is not water-resistant, though I don’t imagine many owners will attempt to shower or swim with one of these on anyway.
Visible through the sapphire exhibition caseback is the Jaquet Droz RMA89 hand-wound minute repeater movement with a single barrel which offers a 60-hour power reserve. That power reserve is up from the RMA88’s 48 hours used in previous Bird Repeater watches, and we will assume that maximum power reserve refers to use of the watch without running its massively complex and undoubtedly power-consuming chiming and automata mechanisms – the hummingbird’s wings beating 40 times per second is faster than some larger species of real hummingbirds.
Like every other element of the Jaquet Droz Tropical Bird Repeater, this movement is meticulously hand-decorated, with Côtes de Genève, perlage on the base plate, and polished surfaces. Fantastic to admire in and of itself, some past Bird Repeater watches went even more next-level by engraving the movement with, for example, leaf motifs (see the above linked-to Bird Repeater article) that feel even more congruous with the overall watch than this traditional finishing. The movement features 86 jewels and a balance spring which oscillates at 21,600 vph, or 3Hz. A clef symbol etched into a spur of red gold just underneath the striking hammers refers to the musical nature of the movement.
While none of the whimsical high complications expressed in this watch represent any sort of a gain in utility for the wearer, that was never the point, of course. Jaquet Droz is not the only manufacturer offering automata in wristwatch form, with other recent examples including the Van Cleef & Arpels Ronde Des Papillons and the Ulysse Nardin Hourstriker Pin-Up, but Jaquet Droz really goes the extra mile in terms of its decorative arts and complexity of the automata. Only 8 pieces of the Jaquet Droz Tropical Bird Repeater watch are being produced, with an asking price of $661,500 each. jaquet-droz.com