On April 15, 2013, Doyle New York auctioned a collection of jewelry and goods from the estate of Consuelo Vanderbilt Earl, daughter of railroad magnate William Vanderbilt. The entirety of the auction took in more than $1.5 million, but it was a Cartier mystery clock that dominated the discussion. Sold for a record $515,000, the clock was a prime example of Cartier’s famous Model A clocks that enjoyed a brief period of enormous popularity in the early decades of the 20th century. While some wondered why anyone would pay such an extravagant sum for a clock, others wanted to know more about this treasure from another era.
What is a mystery clock? What, indeed, is the mystery? It is in search of those answers that we delve into one of horology’s most interesting stories.
Mystery clocks may have lost some of their magical appeal in an age of David Copperfield, movies with thousands of special effects, and digital technology that few laymen understand comprehensively, but they still have a few things going for them. Anyone even slightly interested in the making of timepieces throughout history will take great joy in the craftsman’s quality of these special clocks. What started as a simple magic trick became a cherished, rare treasure from some of the finest clockmakers around the world. But start as a magic trick, it most certainly did.
The Magician’s Chime
Picture yourself in a grand French theater. A former watchmaker named Jean Robert-Houdin takes the stage to tepid applause. This watchmaker has brought an array of wonders and illusions with him, and the most interesting one seems to be a holdover from his horology days. It is a magical clock, and there seems to be no way of telling how it works. It shouldn’t work, by all accounts. It has no gears, the hands seem to float independently of any guiding mechanism, and the clock gives no indication to the viewer of how it operates.
Robert-Houdin, often cited as the father of modern-day magic, had invented the first mystery clock. Careful: this is not the famous magician known by the stage name “Houdini“. Instead, Robert-Houdin is the magician who Harry Houdini named himself after, in homage to his precursor. While Robert-Houdin wanted only a device that could lure audiences into the French theater he had built for his performances, he had created a timepiece that drew other clockmakers to discover the secrets behind its operation.
Great inventions – particularly when they are so specialized – have a way of becoming lost to time. Thankfully, this was not the case with Houdin’s mystery clock. What could have been a trick that showed up only in the performances of derivative magicians became a template for clockmakers like Andre Romain Guilmet. Throughout the later decades of the 19th century, Guilmet developed several mystery clocks of his own. The most popular clocks were made from elaborate figurines with pendulums that swung from their grip without obvious cause. The secret behind its performance was in the small platform upon which the figurine stood. It moved too slightly to be seen by even a close observer, but the movement was sufficient to keep the pendulum swinging in time.
Cartier Popularizes the Mystery Clock
Ask anyone with even a passing interest in the subject of mystery clocks, and they will be intimately familiar with French jeweler Cartier. It is from this famous jewelry-maker that some of the most exceptional examples of mystery clockmaking come. The credit for this reputation belongs to a man named Maurice Couet. A watchmaker by trade, Couet designed a clock for Cartier that he called the “Model A.” With gold-plated hands, an 8-day caliber, and a Swiss lever escapement, it would have found a comfortable home in the Cartier collection even without its mysterious operational qualities.
Those mysterious qualities, however, were exactly what made the Model A famous. No longer were mystery clocks hidden away in French magic shows and available only to French customers. Though Cartier was French as well, the reach of his jewelry firm was vast. Couet’s Model A wowed appreciators throughout Europe with its floating hands, neither of which seemed to have any point of fasten to even the most minute cog. Of course, we now know that both hands were mounted to a flat disk made from crystal, its serrated edge rendered invisible to the outside onlooker. Racks secreted away in the sides of the clock drove the serrated discs. What’s fascinating about Cartier’s mystery clocks is that they lose very little of their aesthetic appeal even when the “trick” is revealed. Timeless creations bringing together the twin disciplines of art and science, Couet’s Model A clocks were an instant sensation.
The Junghan Touch
In the early years of the 20th century, Junghan was the name to know in the clockmaking business. The German-based company was the top-selling timepiece manufacturer in the world, so it was perhaps only a matter of time before they introduced their own take on the mystery clock. These ornate clocks were called “swingers,” and they were made with delicately-detailed figurines representing various animals, historical figures, and relevant-to-the-time references such as “Bat Boy.”
Americans Take a Crack at the Mystery
Ansonia took their cue from Junghan, and began making figurine-based mystery clocks that enjoyed a brief period of substantial popularity in the U.S. One of their most enduring clocks went by the simple name, “Gloria.” This clock was so striking that it was used by jewelry stores in Ansonia’s home state of Connecticut to attract shoppers to their windows. The winged, angelic figure of Gloria stands astute on her perch, a clock ball resting in her palm. The ball is the secret to the clock’s machinations, hiding away the gears and cogs within what seems to be a decorative accent.
The Advent of Electricity
Following the first World War, electricity went from something in museums, libraries, and the homes of the rich to the common household power source it is today. It was only natural that the next generation of mystery clocks would use this mysterious power to further obscure their wondrous secrets. A Dutch clockmaker named Leendert Prins was among the first to make the electric mystery clock a reality when he patented one for advertisement purposes. His used four invisible discs to pull off the trickery, and it was not long before several American clock companies joined the fray.
Tiffany and Boots Boy were only a couple of the American companies that turned mystery clocks into a widespread 1950s fad. One of the most exceptional mystery clocks from this time period was made by an Illinois company called the Jefferson Electric Co. It was known as the Golden Hour, and it attracted fans of both the clean design and the inscrutable mystery behind its workings. Radium paint was the secret behind the hands, which glowed in the dark and kept perfect time in spite of the seemingly clear face of the clock. These Golden Hour clocks were a remarkable step forward in mystery clock design, but much of their popularity was due to their relatively low asking price. For just $25, a family could own a mystery clock of their own.
Famous Mystery Clocks
The art of mystery clocks has been responsible for some of the most stunning timepieces of the last three centuries. To fully appreciate the elegance, craftsmanship, and magical appeal of these clocks, you really have to see one in person. Failing that, however, let’s take a closer look at some of the most celebrated models of its rich history.
The Golden Hour
Manufactured by the Jefferson Electric Company from the 1950s to the 1980s, the Golden Hour held a motor in the socket of the clock, driving the glow-in-the-dark hands which were attached to clear plates in the center. The strategically-built frame hides the gear rim from the viewer’s eyes. Though Jefferson was based out of Illinois, there is some evidence that their clocks were produced by a contractor in the Netherlands.
The Ansonia Clock Co. of Connecticut was responsible for this mystery clock, and it remains one of the most enduring specimens to this day. This clock and its sister-creations “Juno,” “Fisher,” and “Huntress” were built in the early part of the 20th century. The mechanisms of the clock are secreted away in the ball held by the winged figure central to the piece. A recent auction saw one of these Gloria clocks go for more than $5,000.
Robert-Houdin’s Original Mysteries
No visual tour through the history of mystery clocks would be complete without including an example from the innovator himself. Although Robert-Houdin had no obvious interest in seeing his invention become a worldwide cult phenomenon, his stage trick became much bigger than his French show.
The Model A
If Robert-Houdin was responsible for planting the seed, Cartier and their master clockmaker Maurice Couet were the parties most responsible for the flourishing crop. Couet’s Model A mystery clock remains one of the most highly sought-after examples of the craft. It is said that the Model A was the first mystery clock to cross the Atlantic, having been sold to American billionaire J.P. Morgan in the early decades of the 1900s.
The Junghan Elephant
The German clock company Junghan developed many mystery clocks throughout the years, but it is their elephant clock that truly captures the imagination. Built in the 1930s, the piece encapsulated Junghan’s swinging-clock style and incorporated a prominent animal the way many of their clocks did at the time.
The Shinto Shrine
Another fascinating piece from the Cartier collection, the Shinto shrine clocks were created in the roaring years leading up to the Great Depression. One of the first portico clocks were sold to opera diva Ganna Walska, and the magnificence of the piece cannot be overstated. The base of onyx, the exceptional rock crystal, and the delicate gold plating conspire to make one of the most outstanding clocks of the early 20th century. That it is a mystery clock is almost a footnote.
The Mystery Clock in the 21st Century
Reproductions dominate the mystery clock field these days. The only new examples being made are limited to hobbyists. It is clear that the “fad” of the mystery clock is one whose time has, at least for now, passed into history. Still, auctions like the one for Vanderbilt’s collection demonstrate that these classics are still prized by collectors. This isn’t likely to change for some time. Collectors will always have an interest in great timepieces of the past, and mystery clocks remain exceptionally collectable because their designs match so much of what we prize in today’s minimalistic market.
Could Mystery Clocks Make a Comeback?
It’s certainly possible, though the simple pleasures of hidden mechanisms may have a hard time wooing a population that has seen digital clocks, atomic clocks that won’t go out of time in a hundred years, and, of course, online clocks. Still, if you happen to come across an elephant swinger or a pristine Gloria in a shop somewhere, don’t hesitate to pull out your wallet!
The biggest mystery may be how lucky you were to come across one of horology’s most interesting developments.