The complicated 18th-century pendulum clock was in a blackened state of disrepair and deemed unfixable by Sotheby’s auction house. Known as the Pendule Sympathique, it was a showcase of the legendary watchmaking genius of Abraham-Louis Breguet, produced by his own hand in the late 1700s and incorporating astounding mechanical features and craftsmanship. But time had treated it roughly.
It was a monumental challenge, but in 1990, several years before establishing his eponymous watch brand, watchmaker Michel Parmigiani managed to successfully and beautifully restore the clock. This was a significant achievement, and just one example of the horological wonders to which he’s given a second life.
Despite the watch industry’s constant talk of history and tradition, the field of restoration is often overlooked. It’s a discipline that takes watchmaking and associated skills to another level, often requiring watchmakers to act as detectives in order to reverse-engineer missing or damaged elements. Sometimes, they even have to make the tools needed to recreate components from scratch, mine centuries-old hand-written archives for clues, and rediscover lost crafts and techniques, all while staying as true to the original item as possible. Restoration is where many of the most respected names at the highest level of modern watchmaking got their start.
The Parmigiani watchmakers in Fleurier, Switzerland, recently showed Gear Patrol an example of an incredibly thin, restored pocket watch from around 1840 along with pictures of its pre-restoration state. It had been missing a critical component: the balance wheel. Like forensic horologists, they were able to determine the size of the original balance wheel based on the patterns of oxidation left on the metal beneath where it had been. It now not only functions, but gleams, in all the intricate, engraved glory its long deceased creator intended.
When rare historical objects like bejeweled automatons, Fabergé eggs, or ultra-thin pocket watches need to be restored, the workshops of Parmigiani is where many of them go. It’s even where the Patek Philippe Museum often turns for its restoration needs. This part of Parmigiani’s business quietly continues alongside the modern brand making wristwatches directly influenced by restoration projects and the unique horological features uncovered in the process. Below are some notable examples of mechanical marvels that help illustrate the world of restoration, Parmigiani’s specialized expertise, and the surprising creativity of the era these exotic items exemplify.
Breguet Pendule Sympathique
The Breguet Pendule Sympathique mentioned above was a landmark piece for Michel Parmigiani, but it’s also an unusual and impressive creation in its own right, unlike anything else in existence today. More than a pendulum clock, it incorporates an upper dock that holds a companion pocket watch. In this ingenious system, the pocket watch needs merely to be docked and the mechanism will automatically wind it and synch its time to the clock’s. And all this came centuries before your phone’s charging dock or watch winders for automatic watches.
In comparison to this unique feature, the clock’s chiming mechanism and extensive decoration almost seem standard, but are in reality startlingly complex. The clock’s exterior is decked in red tortoiseshell with pewter and gilt brass inlay. Breguet is believed to have made only around a dozen such clocks, and this particular one was made for the Duc D’Orléans for a price of 10,000 18th-century francs. In 2012, it sold at auction for $6.8 million.
Frères Rochat Double-Barrel Pistol and Bird
Clockwork and automata run on similar mechanical principals, and they indeed often complement one another. There is no time-telling, however, in this strange and wonderful gadget dated to circa 1815. As anyone can see, it’s a lavishly decorated double-barrel cavalry pistol, covered in pearls, diamonds, and other precious materials. It’s dazzling simply in its appearance, but it packs a surprise: cock the hammer, take aim, and pull the trigger — and instead of a smokey explosion a startlingly lifelike bird emerges suddenly from the barrel, flitting its wings, pirouetting, and singing a cheerful melody. Then it disappears back inside.
Can you just picture froofy-collared 19th-century aristocrats laughing with delight at their friend’s expensive gag? This is a frivolous toy of sorts, but it’s also artistically creative and highly complicated engineering. Over the centuries, it had been repaired multiple times, but by inexpert hands, resulting in an even greater challenge for the Parmigiani restorers. It took them 12 months to restore its every component, down to the bird’s enamel and feathers, as well as the gears and cams that animate it. It now resides in the Sandoz Family Collection to bedazzle modern spectators just as it did centuries before.
Yousepov Fabergé Egg
Only 57 of the famously bejeweled, decorative eggs produced by Fabergé for Russian royalty (and some others) are known to survive today. These are lavish works of art centering on an Easter egg theme, but each with a different creative interpretation, often incorporating surprising features and elaborate constructions. In 2007, Parmigiani restored one 100 years after it was created for Prince Felix Yusupov as a 25th anniversary gift for his wife in 1907.
Much of the fascination for this peculiar object is in its history, the craftsmanship of its decoration, and its outrageous opulence. With a silver base, it’s covered in gold, onyx, precious stones, translucent pink enamel, sculptures, and guilloché engraving. However, while not all Fabergé eggs incorporate clockwork, this one tells the time via a ring which itself rotates. The time is indicated by the diamond-set head of a snake pointing to diamond-set Roman numeral indices on the ring. The movement inside is the work of watchmaker H. Moser & Cie.
The above projects are relatively prominent examples of Parmigiani’s remarkable restoration. There are other works, however, that paint an even broader and more nuanced picture of the ingenuity of 18th-century inventors and horologists, as well as the world of the aristocracy that commissioned them. Alongside the likes of charming, twittering birds were unexpected automata such as a gold and pearl-beset mouse, frog, or silkworm that crawl — and, in the case of the frog, croak. These are essentially windup toys, but executed with a wide range of incredible crafts, valuable materials, and clever engineering.