The aisles were alive with the sound of music at the Baselworld watch fair this year. Minute repeaters chimed to the antics of jaquemarts and music boxes tinkled out tunes ranging from classical Bach to classic rock, adding a new sensory component to this annual carnival of watches. Some of these watches are actually tiny traditional music boxes that produce melodies by way of teeth lined up on a steel comb, which interact with pins strategically placed on a revolving cylinder. Recreating this mechanism in a watch movement is a complicated process of miniaturization, which is then harnessed to a mechanical watch movement. Energy to run the music box is derived from a coiled spring and transferred by a gear train, and the unwinding speed is carefully regulated.
The current fascination with singing watches is a promising departure from the tourbillon mania that has dominated timepieces for the past decade. It is also an abrupt contrast to the many classic watches we’re seeing now. One explanation for this is the emergence of a renewed focus on the habillage, or finish, of the outside case and dial of a watch, which calls for enameling, gemsetting, engraving, marquetry and other types of high-level adornment. For example the Geneva Seal, watchmaking’s most important hallmark, now stipulates a high-level exterior finish. We are entering a distinctively decorative age of watchmaking, one that calls for a complication that leaves a larger canvas on the dial. Sometimes there is just no room for a tourbillon window, and sometimes a classic watch is just too quiet.
Jaquet Droz, which has been known to display life-size automata at its booth at the Baselworld watch fair, has an impressive 275-year history of creating life-like objects that function with eerily realistic movements. The singing bird is something of a specialty for the company, and is reproduced here in miniature, after years of development, as a tribute to the watchmaker’s heritage. The result, as the title suggests, is charming. The life-like bird sings sweetly on demand thanks to a piston-driven bellows system. It also turns, flaps its wings, moves its head and tail, and opens its beak to chirp. It does this while perched on the dial at 6 o’clock under a glass dome, as if displayed in an 18th-century curiosity cabinet. The antique references end there, however. The bird is surrounded by an utterly contemporary open-worked movement finished in black and charcoal gray. It is limited to 28 pieces.
When a brand is credited with inventing the tourbillon and some of its most important recent variations, not to mention filing over 100 watchmaking patents in the last 10 years alone, there is little left to prove. Leave it to Breguet, then, to take a sidestep from traditional watchmaking and find a way for us to wake up in the morning to the civilized sound of Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Badinerie,” the final movement of his orchestral suite N°2 in B minor. La Musicale’s self-winding 777 movement, with silicon escapement and balance spring, drives a music box-like mechanism with teeth that interact with pins on a disk, rather than the traditional cylinder, playing the classical tune not just on demand but as an alarm. The dial is diamond-polished by hand to capture the light at different angles, and rotates when the music is playing. A patented metallic-glass membrane ensures the tune can be heard without sacrificing water resistance, allowing for openings in the caseback to broadcast the sound. A nice touch: the caseband is engraved with a musical score.
MB&F’s latest “machine” is not a timepiece but a music machine, one that resembles a space ship that plays the theme from Star Trek on demand. Made in partnership with Reuge, the Swiss company that pioneered the invention of music boxes 150 years ago and is still the world’s premier manufacturer, this special “blue” edition was custom made for Westime, the Southern California retailer that specializes in watches. The MB&F brand has long demonstrated its penchant for unusual objects of any kind, whether they can tell time or not, as evidenced by its M.A.D. gallery of “Mechanical Art Devices” in Geneva. On the inside, the MusicMachine is a traditional music box with pin-and-cylinder construction. The combs that interact with the pins are visible on the outside, as are the propellers that wind the two cylinders, each of which is driven by its own movement, including mainspring and winding propeller. The two cylinders play three tunes each. On one side: “May the Force be with you” from “Star Wars”; “Imperial March” from “The Empire Strikes Back”; and the theme from “Star Trek.” The other cylinder plays Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall”; Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water”; and John Lennon’s “Imagine.”
Commedia Dell ‘Arte was the original improv theatre – 16th century Italy’s answer to “Saturday Night Live.” It was unrehearsed and comprised mainly of comedy sketches featuring masked characters that represented types. The three most iconic of these characters, Brighella (a common protagonist), Pulcinella (a forerunner of the “Punch” of “Punch and Judy” in British theatre) and Harlequin (the colorful, nimble servant or clown) are depicted as jaquemarts on the dial of Bulgari’s Cathedral minute repeater, where they come alive when the cathedral gong is activated. The movement is based on a Christophe Claret caliber, with a striking mechanism developed by Bulgari that uses two gongs wrapped twice around the inside of the case for a richer sound. Commedia Dell ‘Arte sketches were usually performed on outdoor, impromptu stages, and the backdrop for this one is an Italian palazzo, which also serves as a tribute to Bulgari’s Italian roots. Dial treatments include miniature painting, engraving and chasing. There will be eight pieces in each of three versions, one for each character.
Ulysse Nardin has created the world’s first crooner watch. The Stranger contains a tiny music box that plays the 1966 Frank Sinatra hit “Strangers in the Night” on the hour or on demand. Ulysse Nardin, with a long history of creating striking watches, has taken the musical watch to the next level with this miniaturized music box wristwatch. The mechanism consists of a rotating disc and 10 blades. When it plays “Strangers in the Night,” you can see the mechanics in action through the sapphire crystal on the dial. The movement was developed by legendary watchmaker and longtime Ulysse Nardin collaborator Dr. Ludwig Oechslin, who incorporated silicium technology for the escapement and anchor of the UN-690 movement. The piece was inspired by musician Dieter Meier, who became an original shareholder of Ulysse Nardin when the company was revived by the late Rolf Schnyder in 1983. The watch will be made in a limited edition of 99 pieces.