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Our visit to the Ateliers Jaquet Droz

Pierre Jaquet-Droz founded its clockmaking workshop in 1738. He quickly became worldwide famous for its watches, singing birds and automata.

Kings and courts of all Europe were amazed by his creations ordering more and more pieces and making him very rich.

280 years later, the brand Jaquet Droz is still the recognised master in the creation of timepieces that combine haute horlogerie, artistic crafts, and mechanical automation.

Visiting the Ateliers Jaquet Droz is a unique experience, an immersion in the world of fine watchmaking, but not only. In fact, the Atelier de Haute Horlogerie is closely integrated, under the same roof, with the Atelier d’Arts, Atelier Automates and Atelier de Restauration. We will describe each of them later in the article.

The Ateliers Jaquet Droz are located in La Chaux-de-Fonds, in the Jura mountains, at an altitude of 1,000 metres, a few kilometres south of the French border. With a bit less than 40,000 inhabitants, La Chaux-de-Fonds is the third largest city of the Romandie, the French-speaking part of Switzerland. Founded in 1656, it is the most important centre of the watch making industry in the area known as the Watch Valley.

Our Jaquet Droz tour started with a visit to the Art and History Museum in Neuchâtel, 20 kilometres east of La Chaux-de-Fonds.

Located just a few steps from the lake and opened in 1885, this Museum hosts three famous automata created by Pierre Jaquet-Droz presented to the public in 1774: the Musician, the Draughtsman and the Writer.

The automaton "Writer" — a 70 cm tall boy sitting on a stool at the table of mahogany — is probably the most surprising. Its mechanism consists of over 6 thousand (!) parts, and it is the most complex of the three earlier mentioned automata. It can be programmed to write any text of 40 characters, ranging in three lines. It dunks the quill in the inkwell with his right hand, turns his eyes toward the pen, shakes his head and begins to write a text on a moving piece of paper. After almost 250 years, it still works fine. The genius of Pierre Jaquet-Droz is clearly evident while you see this automaton in action, which many consider an ancestor of modern computers.

Automata are still one of the three pillars of the current Jaquet Droz production, the other two being the Ateliers d’Art and the Grande Seconde, the brand’s most successful timepiece based on the original design invented by Pierre Jaquet-Droz in 1785.

Back to the factory now. Inaugurated in 2010, this modern building in La Chaux-de-Fonds covers a surface of around 2,500 square metres. More than 50 highly skilled employees work here, distributed on three floors.

Image courtesy of atelier oï - © Yves Andre

The North and South facades of the company headquarters are made of “structural glazing”. This solution reduces solar gain while enhancing thermal insulation. Moreover, since the outer panes have a metallic coating which gives the glass a mirror shine, the building beautifully integrates in the landscape by reflecting the nature around it.

Above and below, images courtesy of atelier oï - © Yves Andre

Given the exclusivity of its creations, Jaquet Droz produces less than 3,000 timepieces per year, all of them assembled in this facility. All pieces are individually numbered and some of the models are produced in limited series of 1, 8, 28 or 88 units.

The Grande Seconde model is the most recognisable watch of the brand and several variations have been developed around this model. The watch was introduced in 2002 inspired to the design of a pocket watch created by Pierre Jaquet-Droz in 1784 with hours and minutes counter at 12 o’clock, with indexes alternating between Roman and Arabic numerals, and a larger seconds counter at 6 o’clock to create the signature Jaquet Droz figure “8”.

The pocket watch created by Pierre Jaquet-Droz in 1784

All Jaquet Droz watches have a distinctive style with dials that transform wristwatches into art pieces.

Moving from the Atelier de Haute Horlogerie to the Ateliers d’Art, it is possible to appreciate master craftsmen while they express their skills using several techniques like the ones that we describe below.

Ultra-fine powders and precision kilns are used to obtain dials whose colours and graining are unalterable. After undergoing several successive firings at at temperatures of between 780 and 800 degrees Celsius, the enamel will retain its beauty and gloss for centuries. Jaquet Droz often uses the Champlevé enameling technique in which cells are carved and filled with vitreous enamel.

The painter does everything by hand, with the aid of a microscope; it takes at least one week to produce each one-of-a-kind piece.

Paillonné Enamelling
Paillonné is a method of enamelling that involves covering ornamental paillons (tiny motifs or paillettes, cut from gold leaf) with fondant (translucent enamel). It is a technique central to Jaquet Droz’s traditional expertise.

Sculpted and Engraved Ornamentation
Motifs, molded then sculpted, create the impression of relief. Also reflecting the trademark excellence of Jaquet Droz are the minutely worked hand-engraved designs, painted or left as they are, that take full advantage of the space on the mineral or gold dial.

Thin 0.8 mm slices of precious stones — aventurine, bronzite, imperial jasper, lapis lazuli, meteorite, mother-of-pearl, onyx, ruby heart, spectrolite — are used to decorate dials and create one-of-a-kind watches.

In the Ateliers d’Art, it was also amazing to learn more about the eggshell mosaic technique. This ancestral form of mosaic artwork, originating in Vietnam, uses duck eggshell pieces but, for its Petite Heure Minute Elephant Mosaic timepiece, Jaquet Droz artists decided to use quail versus duck eggshells, thanks to the thinner shell, a requirement for a miniature space like a watch dial. Around 2,000 "cracked" pieces of quail bird eggshells of different tones were hand-selected and arranged to form an image of an elephant with accompanying scenery, a work which required no less than 200 hours of work of a master miniature mosaic artist.

To offer even more exclusivity and true uniqueness while continuing a tradition, Jaquet Droz offers its clients the possibility to customise the dial of their timepiece to suit their taste. Two to six months are required to complete the work, depending on the techniques chosen. For sure, the possibility to collaborate with the artisans through the various production stages of your future, one-of-a-kind timepiece is a special privilege.

And then we have the workshop dedicated to the automata in the Atelier Automates. Jaquet Droz creates jaw-dropping masterpieces of precision mechanics which perpetuate the secular heritage.

It was amazing to have the possibility to admire some of the original pieces created by the founder like the impressive Singing Bird Cage (1780), a fine gilt brass and enamel hanging cage with a clock striking hours and quarters and two birds singing in duets, or the sophisticated Singing Bird Snuff Box (1790), an oval-shaped box made of gold-plated silver decorated with a floral design using a champlevé enamelling technique which reveals a bird whose lovely singing is produced by small bellows controlled by a wheel located behind the movement.

The Singing Bird Cage - 1780

The Singing Bird Snuff Box - 1790

It is thanks to the Atelier de Restauration that we can still admire and see in action these historic creations. Here the craftsmen at Jaquet Droz express their passion for their work by accurately restoring centuries-old movements and components.

Jaquet Droz’s modern automata bring together all the expertise and creativity of the brand by combining haute horlogerie, artistic crafts, and mechanical automation. Just consider pieces which required several years of research like the Charming Bird presented in 2013, the first singing bird automaton ever created on a wristwatch, or the Parrot Repeater Pocket Watch unveiled at Baselworld 2018, a work of art representing the entire spectrum of Jaquet Droz craftsmanship in a single timepiece.

The artisan of the Jaquet Droz Ateliers d'Art spend over twenty hours fashioning each songbird. First the feathers, head and tail are engraved with absolute accuracy, then the painter adds the final touch with colours that nicely contrast with the other elements of the dial.

The bellow system used for the Charming bird had to be miniaturised to fit into a wristwatch.The tubes are made of sapphire for its exceptional resistance to wear and tear while carbon was used for the pistons to limit friction. The tiny pistons pump the air, store it and produce the sound, which depends on the speed of the piston and the shape of the bellow opening.

Of course, artistic crafts and modern technologies coexist to guarantee products of the utmost quality and precision. In Jaquet Droz’s design department, advanced CAD (Computer Aided Design) software as well as 3D scanners and printers are used for product development. Wax models in various sizes are created to fully evaluate projects during their stages.

Taking advantages of the synergies within the Swatch Group, the components of all Jaquet Droz movements are produced in the Blancpain manufacturing site in Le Sentier while all mechanical self-winding and hand-wound movements are assembled and finished by hand at the Jaquet Droz site before being engraved with a cloverleaf, the secret signature of the manufacture's founder. 

Since 2014 Jaquet Droz movements are equipped with silicon balance spring and inversed horns on the pallets fork. Silicon can withstand shock and variations in temperature or pressure, and has properties that leave it unaffected by magnetic fields and capable of maintaining perfect stability over time.

Visiting the Ateliers Jaquet Droz was an elevating experience. Thanks to a rare blend of a constantly renewed creativity, technical audacity and a relentless quest for excellence, Jaquet Droz manufactures timepieces that are still capable of creating genuine astonishment.

Lovers of beauty and arts can be grateful to Jaquet Droz for its commitment to perpetuating and spreading centuries-old artistic crafts that bring emotion and poetry into the watchmaking art. jaquet-droz.com

Image courtesy of atelier oï - © Yves Andre


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Time and Watches | The watch blog: Our visit to the Ateliers Jaquet Droz
Our visit to the Ateliers Jaquet Droz
Visiting the Jaquet Droz factory in La Chaux-de-Fonds, was an immersion in the world of fine watchmaking. Under the same roof Atelier d’Arts, Atelier Automates and Atelier de Restoration.
Time and Watches | The watch blog
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