From the Vault
Automata are magical moving figures that add life and movement to
clocks, watch cases and jewelry
Exchanging gifts is one of the most pleasant rituals associated with
the winter holidays. Finding the perfect gift for everyone on our list is
a challenge we meet with high hopes each year, bravely facing the crowds
in search of that "special something" to amuse and delight our
friends and families. Everywhere we turn, more tempting treasures vie for
attention. Jewelry is a great option and toys are wonderful attention-getters.
What could be better than a combination of the two? Precious jeweled boxes,
carvings and even whistles have long been considered unique gifts. Among
these precious objects, the most fascinating are those that incorporate
Automata are mechanical objects that are relatively self-operating after
they're set in motion. These magical moving figures have been a fascination
for humans since their invention. Clock mechanisms, developed in the 14th
century, were ideal for automata, and animated "Jacks" were devised
to hammer out the hours on a bell or anvil. Originally, close-to- life-size
automata were put on huge clocks in town squares and became tremendous crowd
pleasers. As they became more popular, they grew more complex, often with
groups of figures enacting allegorical scenes on the hour.
Time marched on and technology improved. When watches were developed
and refined to an exquisite level, automata also became smaller and more
intricate. By the late 18th century, watches were the most popular accessory
for the wealthy, and the most exceptional watch cases incorporated small
jeweled scenes that came to life children playing on a swing, boats
sailing across a tempestuous sea, fishermen pulling fish from a flowing
stream, musicians playing instruments and myriad other tableaux captivated
their audience. Automata were mostly placed in watch cases but also appeared
in snuff boxes, sweet boxes, cane heads, hand mirrors, pendants, bracelets
and even rings.
The most recent fashion for jeweled automata was during the highly prosperous
years at the end of the 19th century when gift-giving was an important social
function and novelty was paramount. Fabergé, court jeweler to the
czars of Russia, took automata to new heights. His automata were three-dimensional
as well as jeweled. Some of the unbelievably marvelous toys he made to enchant
the Imperial Russian family included a little silver elephant that walks
forward and sways its head from side to side, a minute platinum and gold
train (made to commemorate the completion of the Trans-Siberian Railroad)
that winds up and chugs forward and a platinum swan that arches its neck
and spreads its wings to display each feather.
Charismatic as they were, however, these jeweled toys had one disadvantage
they couldn't be worn like the adorable pendant pictured here. When
the piece is wound, a gold and silver sun with diamond-set rays watches
over a star-fringed heaven in which animated diamond-set stars whirl around
a quietly revolving central star. The unspoken meaning could well be "You
are the sun and the stars to me." A perfect gift indeed.
A heavenly automata pendant of rose-cut diamonds and pearls
set in gold and silver, enhanced with red champlevé enameling. Late
19th century. Courtesy of Diana Singer, D&E Singer Inc., New York City.
by Elise B. Misiorowski
Copyright © 1998 by Bond Communications.