Heralding back to a time where automatons were a source of wonder, Jaquet Droz has continued to bring these marvels of engineering, and, it must be said, story telling, to the modern age. The Loving Butterfly Automaton may, at first, seem odd, but its story is taken straight out of the brand’s history books. Christian Lattmann talks about its inspiration, and the key aspects that are present in each timepiece that the brand’s artists develop each year.

Jaquet Droz’s highlight of this year is the Loving Butterfly Automaton, can you tell us about the concept andi its inspiration?

The concept is very simple. For Jaquet Droz, we have our concept of astonishment. It’s not a concept, in fact, it’s a philosophy. So what we try to do is to keep alive the spirit of Pierre and Henri-Louis Jaquet-Droz, the founders of the brand. What is this spirit? Astonishment is this feeling, this emotion you have when you are a child, when you’re discovering something, and you are not spoiled by religion, politics, or other problems, you keep your vision of beauty very pure.

What we try to do, thanks to the automaton, is to really come back to this pure emotion. St. Exupéry used to say, all adults have been children, but only a few remember it. That’s the reason why also our new leitmotiv is, some watches tell time, some tell a story, because we have a pure artistic approach in our creation, and the automaton is truly representative of what we do. With the Loving Butterfly Automaton, it’s a new development we have done after the Bird Repeater, which was a huge success in 2013, the Charming Bird, and the Lady 8 Flower; we try to always come back to this spirit which is so unique and so incredible.

Jaquet Droz Loving Butterfly Automaton
Jaquet Droz Loving Butterfly Automaton

Another dimension which makes the identity of Jaquet Droz is the craftsmanship, and in the Loving Butterfly Automaton, there is a very huge know-how in craftsmanship; engraving, playing with the relief, and this is very important. The story of design and inspiration for this new automaton comes from 1774 when Pierre Jaquet-Droz and Henri-Louis were working on the three automatons. One was a draughtsman, and the first sketch that this automaton was doing was this Loving Butterfly. This sketch is very simple, very easy, a little bit naive, so it was not so easy to work on it. What we wanted to do in the first interpretation was to paint it in enamel. The second step was to work on a relief, so we engraved some dials and worked on it.

This year, it’s a new step by working on an automaton. We really played on the optical illusion, so it looks like the wings of the butterfly are going out of the watch, which is just unique. It’s also a big know-how to play with the wings and to play with the crystal dome on the watch, and also the fact that on the chariot, some spokes are fixed and some are moving, giving the illusion that it will really move. It’s just an amazing piece. We say that also, when Henri-Louis Jaquet-Droz created the first sketch, he was in love; he was in love with his wife, so it’s an allegory of love and nature, because Jaquet Droz is also about nature. We always take, as Pierre Jaquet-Droz was doing, interpretation, inspiration from nature around us, trees, birds, flowers, and this is how we create our products.

Sketch by Henri-Louis Jaquet-Droz, 1774
Sketch by Henri-Louis Jaquet-Droz, 1774
Jaquet Droz Loving Butterfly Automaton

Were there any particular technical challenges to make it come to life?

The big challenge for us was really to play with the optical illusion; this is something new. When the engineer is preparing the concept, he has to think what will be the illusion when it’s working. So it’s not easy to understand and create this kind of product. Of course, all the mechanical aspect is, in itself, difficult, but there we have a long know-how. The big challenge here was really, which, I think, modestly, we achieved and reached to a unique level, is the optical illusion.

How has the response been so far?

It’s a limited edition of 28 pieces in rose gold, 28 pieces in white gold, and until now [at Baselworld], it’s a huge success. But for us, success is not only about selling the watches, it’s about telling our story. There is so much to say about Jaquet Droz; we don’t have an ambassador except our product. It’s our product that is taking all this history, all this know-how, all this experience, and it’s the result of all of this which is presented here at Basel. So it’s not only the orders that have been taken at the end of the day; finally, of course, we are a company and we also need to make money. Also, it’s the response from the press, from the clients, from all the collectors, it has been very positive. You were talking about challenge; the exercise, which was very difficult, is artistic. If you take only this drawing, it’s a little bit simple, I would say. The way we have made this interpretation was really artistic, really difficult. We play also with the levels; the trees are like they’re suspended, it was an incredible idea which has been patented. We are not surprised, but we are really happy with the result. It’s a first version, of course you’ll see that it will allow us to make others; it’s a base in terms of movements, and it’s a huge investment for us. Don’t forget that everybody is talking about the difficulties of the watchmaking industry, and you’ll see that, even in this difficult time, we continue to invest and we continue to be creative and innovative. What is important also with the automaton is that there is no other brand which has the history, the legitimacy and the know-how today to do such incredible automaton, which we have done already with the Bird Repeater, the Charming Bird, the Lady 8 Flower, and today, the Loving Butterfly Automaton.

Jaquet Droz Loving Butterfly Automaton in red gold case and black rolled-edge hand-made alligator strap
Jaquet Droz Loving Butterfly Automaton in red gold case and black rolled-edge hand-made alligator strap
Jaquet Droz Loving Butterfly Automaton in white gold case and black rolled-edge hand-made alligator strap
Jaquet Droz Loving Butterfly Automaton in white gold case and black rolled-edge hand-made alligator strap

Given that history, would there be an opportunity to apply this knowledge to something other than a watch, say a table clock?

Yes, absolutely, it’s a good question; we have some requests from clients who have asked us to make something bigger. Of course, you were talking about challenges, to make very small, to miniaturize is a challenge. In the past, it was table clocks and big automatons, but today, to have it in a wristwatch is a real challenge. To make it bigger it would be very interesting, but also one of the challenges would be to work on the sound. It’s another dimension in an automaton; the movement, the animation is very interesting, but I would also like to increase our innovation in sound. So for a table clock, for example, you’ll see in the future that it’s a direction we’re going to develop.

Going back to the response we were talking about earlier; the last couple of years have been difficult for the industry, how has this affected Jaquet Droz?

I would say that our first market was Hong Kong, Of course, Hong Kong has suffered a lot, so we have changed our positioning as we are now stronger in China, but Hong Kong remains a very important market. We have suffered, but some other markets have compensated for this; we are very strong in Switzerland, we have good positioning with our retailer and our boutique in Geneva. We have worked well; I would say that we also have a special positioning because we are doing such exceptional pieces at a very high price, which means we are touching another level of clients. I must add that we are more and more doing what we call the philosophy of the unique; it is a way, a concept of customizing our watches, it’s the ultimate luxury, and a lot of people are asking more and more to make special products for them. It’s interesting for us because we have seven artists in-house, we go fast to make proposals internally. It’s very interesting also because we have a direct link with the final customer who can ask for a special sketch or a special automaton with a special setting of diamonds, or a special landscape, etc. There, also, we see that there are more and more requests. For example, last year, even if normal business was more difficult, for exceptional pieces we still have a very high demand.

Christian Lattmann, CEO of Jaquet Droz
Christian Lattmann, CEO of Jaquet Droz

I think it’s been seen, not only for you, but people want the uniqueness and exclusivity, and they can afford it; if you can cater to that, all the better.

What we need, is to increase our awareness, because Jaquet Droz is a niche brand, as you know. But the people who are discovering the brand, they love the brand. So what we need now, it’s very important for us, we really absolutely need is to be more present in media, in social media, so the public is discovering more and more our brand, and after that we’ll really reach another level.

In terms of that, I noticed that the vast majority of your boutiques are in Asia; why has that market responded so well to the brand?

Historically, we have been the first ever brand imported into the Forbidden City, in the 18th century. Emperor Qianlong was collecting Jaquet Droz clocks, and still today, there is an important collection in the Forbidden City, so historically, we have been present in China. Of course, the brand was sleeping for a long time, but it’s been kept in the mind of people that the brand is there. Of course, the Swatch Group is very strong in China, and in Asia, so thanks to all the distribution we have there, it’s an important market for us. I must say also, that all the symbolism behind our watches is well appreciated by Asian people.

The Writer Clock that Jaquet Droz made for the Chinese Emperor Qianlong
The Writer Clock that Jaquet Droz made for the Chinese Emperor Qianlong
Instead of writing in alphabet, this automata writing in Chinese
Instead of writing in alphabet, this automaton writes in Chinese

How do you see the brand evolving?

Next year, it’s our 280th anniversary, so we are one of the oldest Swiss watchmaking brands. For us, the future will be long, the watches we are producing today will be in collections of tomorrow, private or museum, so it’s a piece of art. We see that we’re going to be a bit bigger, but not very big; we’ll stay a niche brand, doing exclusive and fantastic pieces. The people who love Jaquet Droz are people who love style, they love art, they love the different ways we have to approach people. What I think is the most important, if we talk about watchmaking, is to bring our know-how in automatons, because there, there is what I explained, is the astonishment. For us, this is like a drug, when you see the face of a client being astonished, when we show the Lady 8 Flower, the face is like, “Wow!” We have a program of five years, creating fantastic pieces, and I’m very excited to see you again next year, to present you what we are going to do; we have so many ideas, we have to find the right people to be able to create the things, and we need the funds to follow this challenge, so if people buy, we can continue to develop!