The story of Cartiers Mystery Clocks starts with a man named Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin, a French horologist and a man now recognised as the father of modern magic.
Having studied clock and watchmaking, one day he came across a two-volume set of books about magic called Scientific Amusements. Mechanical magic immediately fascinated Robert-Houdin, and while he continued his career in clockmaking, magic became his obsession.
Despite going from height to height with his magic and performing, he didn’t abandon clocks and automata; constantly creating unique inventions to aid his stage magic. His most lasting legacy in the world of horology is due to his experiments with glass, implementing glass structures to create “invisible” actions or hidden mechanisms.
One result of this was a clock that appeared to have no gears driving the hands, seeming to float midair unattached to anything.
The reason this might sound familiar is that Robert-Houdin’s inventions were the inspiration for Cartier’s example more than 65 years later in 1912, with the help of master clockmaker Maurice Coüet.
Cartier’s first mystery clock came in 1912 and was named Model A, it was a mainly standard-shaped mantel clock that seemed to be made entirely out of rock crystal with no indication that the invisible dial was in any way connected to a mechanical movement.
The shapes of the rock crystal case and glass dial seemed out of this world, with whatever was driving the delicate floating hands nowhere to be seen.
The secret was found in two columns encased in the rock crystal on either side of the dial inside of which two axles extended from the movement hidden in the base to engage with the dial made of two separate glass disks mounted in thin metal ring gears hidden by the bezel of the hour track.
The hands, fixed to the glass dials, rotated relative to each other with no visible connection. It was a remarkable creation, proving popular among collectors at the time.
In 1920, the mystery clock designs changed to include pedestal or single-column shapes. These matched the design of Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin more closely, surpassing any amazement that was ever felt for the Model A Clocks.
The Maharajah of Nawangar owned a mystery clock that was on of 12-part series featuring animals or figurines carved in stone at the base of the clock. The Maharajah’s clock was a sleeping elephant carved in jade that disappeared the movement.
However, it was the six Portique clocks made between 1923 and 1925, the third design change, that represented the brilliance of the style. This clock featured a dial suspended from a surrounding frame as if by a metal chain, taking the illusion to the absolute maximum. It completely turned the style on its head, since the movement was no longer hidden in the base like the other designs. It proved to be a triumph of the era.
Cartier presented a set of 19 mystery clocks from its famed collection at SIHH 2018 that showcased the incredible artistic range the brand has displayed, as well as the skilled craftsmanship needed to assemble such a mechanical wonder.
And to think, it was all inspired by Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin – who was so inspirational in his magic the famous Harry Houdini named himself after him. Hardly the worst two people to go on to inspire, wouldn’t you agree?