Scene Maker

December 1998

From the Vault

Scene Maker

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.

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.


 

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