The “Rare Watches And A Rolex Afternoon” sale at Christie’s on May 15th was most notable, to most watch mavens, for the presence of a lot of high value and highly collectable Rolex wristwatches. One lot that just about everyone had their eyes on was number 216, a gold cased Rolex Daytona “Paul Newman” with a tropical dial. The estimate in this case was as so often seems to be the case with Paul Newmans, a bit on the low side; in the catalogue at $199,073 to $398,145 (converted fromCHF 200,000 to 400,000 at the time of the catalogue’s publication) this ref. 2641 went for $560,803.
Less visible and at a much lower price (though still hardly inexpensive) was something very unusual and if you are attracted to the really unique, very beautiful. Lot no. 126 is according to the catalogue, probably unique and we see no reason to think otherwise. It is a so-called “form” watch this is a term given to watches that are in the shape of some other object, and throughout watchmaking history there have been many examples in shapes as diverse as those of insects, flowers, and even skulls (the latter popular as so-called “memento mori” or remembrances of human frailty and morality). In this case the watch is a sort of double-form watch in that it is both a utilitarian object and a decorative one. It’s meant to be used as the head of a cane, but it is also a form watch in that it is shaped like a parrot’s head.
The parrot’s head is elaborately carved and decorated, with the individual barbs of each feather carefully delineated, and decorated with contrasting champlev enamel (enameling in which a metal surface has hollows carved in it which are then filled with enamel, and fired). The cover over the watch is released by a catch in the handle and is spring loaded so that when it pops open it looks like the parrot has raised its crest. Inside is a wonderful watch movement in an octagonal case, with a miniature music box hidden below it that plays when you open the case.
This is not a precision timekeeper per se, obviously; rather, it was intended to be a mechanical distraction and diversion, as well as a conversation piece and would have been a real show-stopper for whomever owned it. The mainspring has the year 1807 scratched on it, and the catalogue notes speculate that a likely date of completion is 1810. The notes also observe: “Almost certainly made in Geneva, it is a testament to the quality of the work of the goldsmith and watchmaker in Switzerland at the beginning of the 19th century. Although the signature on the mainspring of the musical movement cannot be deciphered it must have been made by one of the great workshops in Geneva such as Piguet & Capt or Moulinie, Bautte & Cie.”
In addition to telling the time and playing a tune, the movement incorporates two animations forming the sort of rustic scene often shown in Rococo period art. The Rococo era only flourished through the mid-18th century and by 1810 its last vestiges would have been wiped out by the French Revolution, but you can still see characteristics of its lightheartedness in some Swiss watchmaking of this period, especially watches incorporated in decorative or useful objects, and those which had animations. Here a blacksmith hammers on his anvil against a backdrop of a fountain; the illusion of flowing water is created by a rotating glass rod. Even the balance wheel has been decorated; its rim glitters with rose cut diamonds. Best of all the watch and music box are fully functional, having been restored byRal Pags, a watchmaker based in Les Brenets, Switzerland.
The estimate on this piece was $29,861 to $49,768 (converted from CHF 30,000 to 50,000) and eventually it sold for $95,221. Costly to be sure but a mere fraction of the cost of a Paul Newman Daytona. While lacking the instant recognizability and wider audience of many collectible wristwatches, it makes up for that in its great character and interest yes, in its time it was an expression of wealth but also a kind of ingenuity and charm that makes such horological objects, at least to a certain niche coterie of collectors, irresistible.
View the original listing and the auction notes right here.