Erotic Fiction

In 1688, the publisher of The School of Venus (translated from L’Escole des Filles) was fined 40 shillings at The Guildhall for publishing what the diarist Samuel Pepys called a “mighty lewd book”. Its subject was the instruction of a young woman by an older one, more skilled in the ars amatoria. This was a recurrent design motif in erotic watches.

So too was the sexually ambitious nun who appears in Venus dans le Cloître, a book of 1683 intended to subvert the Church by acknowledging the sexual turbulence beneath a nun’s chaste habit. At an adultery trial of 1796, a Mrs Errington admitted showing copies of John Cleland’s Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, better known as Fanny Hill, to her friends. I wonder whether Mrs Errington owned a watch with similarly provocative content.

Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies began publication in 1757 and continued for nearly 40 years as an annual list of loose women, a sort of Baedeker of bawdiness. An entry in Harris’s List refers to a woman who enjoys, and shares with her clients, “an extraordinary titillation in all her members”. Subscribers to Harris’s List would surely have been customers for erotic watches? Certainly, a 2011 Antiquorum sale in Geneva included a single London-made James Cox erotic watch of 1780 showing a woman spying on a pair of lovers. If there was one, there might have been many.

Typical is a watch by the Geneva maker Henry Capt. A secret scene is revealed in gold and enamel. Two gentlemen and a woman are in an interior and about to do what two gentlemen and a woman might most feel inclined when each is expecting a ménage à trois. The action is activated via a steel cam and, as the decisive moment looms, music plays. The technical description of the mechanism sounds like a parody of sex: full-plate double-train movement with cylindrical pillars, going barrel and polished end-piece, activated by twisting the pendant.

Erotic Dials Collage

Clockwise from top left: An erotic caseback by Chopard, sold by Christies in 2007; Svend Andersen’s Eros 69, sold by Antiquorum in 2013; the limited edition Swatch Kamasutra watch; Antoine Preziuso’s Sailing Dream, sold by Antiquorum in 2007; Roger Dubuis’ MuchMore – Cerotique sold by Antiquorum in 2005

Hidden desires 

Although the production of erotic watches was always necessarily covert, it was commerce that reached a significant volume. So much so that, in 1817, the Consistoire de Geneve had to issue a critical edict to the watchmakers of La Chaux-de-Fonds.

“Obscene jewelry has long been manufactured in your Canton!” the Calvinists nagged. The popular “lewd scenes” appalled the Consistoire. And it was not only watchmakers. The depraved craftsmen of the Swiss Jura were also busily decorating snuff boxes and signet rings with scenes of lust.

There was a demand to stop this “wretched commerce” so as to protect the reputation of Switzerland abroad. Instead of gratifying lustful tastes, craftsmen were ordered to return to Calvinist principles. Because of legal compulsion or changes in taste, production of erotic watches began to decline. Now, quietly, the Enlightenment tradition of erotic watches is being revived. What effect this has on Switzerland’s international standing is yet to be seen.

A spectrum of fantasies

Jacob & Co.’s Caligula is claimed by its manufacturer to be the “most erotic timepiece ever made”. It promises “a scene reminiscent of any man’s greatest fantasy… revealed every hour”. The menu includes dial scene options, ranging from “boat, beach, or city backdrop with blonde, brunette, red, black female hair”. The syntax is certainly less promising than the product it describes. Caligula’s erotic dial is either revealed or hidden, according to circumstances and need, by a crown at four o’clock. There is no mention of a drop-down menu, but perhaps such a thing would be appropriate.

Concealment and display are part of the theaters of an erotic watch. That your elegant Blancpain face successfully disguises a secret, erotic interior world is doubly pleasing. Seduction, too, works like clockwork. To animate the little amorous figures, the Blancpain Libertine adds wheels and cams to what is already a complicated repeater mechanism. As in sex, no friction or play can be tolerated.

Hidden Desires Collage

From left: A unique Blancpain Carrousel Répétition Minutes with engraving on caseback; the Jacob & Co. Caligula with rotating dial

Timetable of Passion

Again, time is an ever-present question in any discussion of sex, whether personal or horological. What is a quickie other than a bargain between passing time, opportunity and desire?

Many other vernacular descriptions of sex also involve a suggestion of time. There is, for example, the French institution of the cinq à sept: that hiatus in the day, between office and home, when a man so inclined might visit his mistress. The French precision and bureaucracy indicated by the start time of five and the hard-stop of seven are charming, as if the waves of desire work to a timetable. Of course, he would need a reliable watch to make it on time.

Who buys erotic watches today? Elton John “fidèle à ses goûts”, a French report says, owns a “montre libertine” with two men “en train de faire l’amour observé par un chien”. I presume Elton is not alone in his taste for wearable porn. But the fascination of the subject is that we will really never know.

[Excerpted from an article by Stephen Bayley, first published in July 2015]

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