In numerous conversations over the years since I first became interested in watches, I’ve heard the same lament over and over from eminent collectors, watch company presidents, and various other individuals who for various reasons deplore the fact that in the USA it’s not unusual for an affluent individual with a few $300,000 cars and a $30,000,000 yacht to wear a $30 watch: that watch culture in the United States is virtually non-existent.  Watches for most Americans are not the essential personal accessory and expression of personal style that they are in much of the rest of the world; as a rule, in America we expect a watch to be cheap, durable, accurate, and that’s it.

There are however some conspicuous exceptions to the rule, and one of these was the collector Winthrop Kellogg Edey.  Two years after his death in 1999, he was remembered in an article by Wendy Moonan for the New York Times.  Moonan wrote:

“Collectors can be wonderfully eccentric.  Winthrop Kellog Edey, a renowned clock collector who lived in Manhattan and died in 1999 at 61, stayed up all night and slept all day . . . Mr. Edey was a grandson of Morris W. Kellogg, an engineer who made a fortune designing and building oil refineries and atomic bomb plants (!).  Mr. Edy’s  wealth gave him time to pursue his three passions: timepieces, photography, and Egyptology.  He lived in a 19th century brownstone on West 83rd Street that retained its original working gas jets . . . Mr. Edey was incredibly frugal.  He wore a Timex watch, and kept a Big Ben alarm clock from his childhood on his night table.”

Edey spent virtually his entire life acquiring progressively more important clocks and watches –often de-aquisitioning lesser for more important ones –and upon his death in 1999, bequeathed his entire collection to the Frick Collection, which is housed in the enormously opulent Gilded Age mansion of Henry Clay Frick (1849-1919) on Fifth Avenue.

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The exhibition, “Precision and Splendor: Clocks and Watches at the Frick Collection,” has Montres Breguet as a major sponsor, and thanks to Breguet, as well as the very courteous permission of the exhibition’s curator, Ms. Charlotte Vignon, as well as Ms. Heidi Rosenau, the Frick’s media relations director, I was given the extremely unusual opportunity to not only visit the collection during hours it is not usually open to the public, but also to photograph the exhibit, which includes a large number of priceless treasures from the Edey Collection, as well as an additional number of clocks lent by collector Horace Wood Brock.  Mr. Brock, a world -renowned collector and expert in Old Master art and European antiques, is the founder and president of Strategic Economc Decisions, a New York risk-assessment company.

MASTERPIECES FROM THE EXHIBITION

Watchmaking’s origins are obscure.  To have a portable clock or watch, a power source is needed; the first European clocks relied on falling weights, but for a watch, a coiled spring is used as a power source.  No one knows who first used a coiled spring in a watch–the earliest extant is German, by Peter Henlein, and was made in 1505, but there were almost certainly earlier watches which have either not been discovered or have not survived.

One of the most important, as well as the oldest, clocks in the exhibition is by the well known French watchmaker, Pierre de Fobis (1506-1575) who was active in Aix-en-Provence.  Edey, in his book French Clocks in North American Collections, wrote, “Pierre de Fobis was one of the best clock makers working during the earliest period of the spring driven clock, before 1550.  Perhaps 12 clocks by him survive, more than by any of his contemporaries and more than by any other French maker before the second half of the 17th century.”

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The clock, like many of its time, was designed in a tower-like shape and the gilded case is fantastically elaborate –reflecting the fact that clocks and watches of the day were as much mechanical amusements for the extremely affluent as they were practical timekeepers.  Indeed, the Fobis clock would not have been a precision timekeeper –it predates by more than a century the first use of the balance spring (1675, by Huygens and Hooke) and it uses the only known escapement at the time, which is the verge.  The great English watchmaker, George Daniels, characterized non-balance spring verge clocks and watches as “villanously bad timekeepers,” and the Fobis clock was, like all watches and clocks of its time, primarily a curiosity (though it does incorporate an alarm, which interestingly is settable not for waking the sleeper at a certain time, but for after a certain number of hours have passed.)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAVerge escapement; the clock has no balance wheel. The bar-shaped foliot is visible to the right of the crown wheel.

As the verge is extremely sensitive to variations in rate (especially absent a balance spring) the Fobis clock is fitted with a (very tall) fusee, which is wound onto the mainspring barrel not by a chain, but by catgut.

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Fusée with gut cord; note the very tall thin form of the fusée relative to those used in later periods.

The clock was housed in a very elaborately pierced and engraved case, a work of art in itself –though at this period in time, the value of the movement would have almost certainly been vastly greater than that of the case.

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Detail, dome of the case of Pierre de Fobis’ clock of 1530

Another masterpiece is a gilt-brass and silver table clock, made by David Weber in or around 1653.  Weber is thought to have made it as, literally, a “masterpiece” –that is, as a demonstration of his skill intended to gain him admission to the clockmaker’s guild in Augsburg.  At almost two feet high, it’s topped with a figure of Fortuna, and is both aesthetically and technically something of a last word in the state of the art in clockmaking at the time.  With no fewer than seven dials, one of the highlights is the elaborate astrolabe dial on the front of the clock –the astrolabe has 21 pointers showing the position of certain major stars relative to the sky, and among other things the astrolabe can be used to observe the rising and setting of these stars as the rete (the rotating disk carrying the star pointers) rotates.

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David Weber, Augsburg “Masterpiece” clock, 1653.  Allegorical figure of Fortuna; the base representing the Four Elements; front dial fitted with astrolabe.

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Detail, astrolabe dial, Weber clock

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Weber clock, dial detail

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Weber clock, detail, case and dial

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWeber clock, case detail

 

One of the most astonishing pieces in the collection is the “Dance of Time: Three Nymphs Supporting A Clock By Lepaute,” which was a collaboration between the French sculptor Claude Michel (known as Clodion) and the famous French watchmaking house of Lepaute.  The three terra-cotta nymphs support an incredibly exquisite glass globe, containing a clock with gridiron temperature compensated pendulum, anchor escapement, an annular display of the time, and a two-bell striking mechanism.  The clock is running and visitors to the exhibition can have the pleasure of hearing the clock strike.  The clock was completed in 1788, and was the first clock by Lepaute designed to be displayed in a glass globe –this particular example is the only one in which the original glass globe survives.

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Visible: the gridiron pendulum bob and bells for the chiming works

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Bells and gongs, with inadvertent self portrait

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Annuular display of the minutes (above) and hours (below); also visible, the gridiron pendulum crutch and anchor escapement

Of course, the work of Abraham Louis Breguet is represented as well.  One of the most beautiful watches in the collection was made by Breguet and sold in 1822; it is Breguet no. 3204, a garde-temps tourbillon pocket watch of beautifully austere and tasteful design.  The clean geometry of the dial contrasts beautifully with the rich guillochage of the dial; inside is a one minute tourbillon which is mentioned in George Daniels’ The Art of Breguet, where it’s singled out for the somewhat unusual arrangement of the fork and impulse roller.

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Gold Pocket Watch with Tourbillon, c. 1822 (detail)

These are just a few of the horological treasures in the exhibit, which runs through February of 2014.  It’s a must-see for any serious lover of watches and clocks, obviously, but it’s also an endlessly fascinating look at the unique convergence of mechanics and the decorative arts which European watch and clock-making represents, and in its scope is unprecedented.  From one of the earliest spring-powered clocks ever made in Europe to the amazing fusion of high art and precision timekeeping represented by the Clodion-Lepaute clock, it’s an exhibit that will reward serious study and multiple visits and which –I hope –will go a long way towards helping even those who consider themselves serious watch enthusiasts realize just how deep the heritage and history of watchmaking really is.

My sincerest thanks to Liliana Chen of Montres Breguet, and to Ms. Charlotte Vignon and Ms. Heidi Rosenau for their kind assistance and hospitality, and especially for extending special permission for photography at the exhibit.  We hope to bring you further highlights from the exhibition in coming weeks. . . but, really, you should just go see it.  More than once.

 

 

For information on the exhibition, location, and visiting hours visit the Frick Collection online.

For information on the current collection of watches and clocks by the exhibition’s major sponsor, visit Montres Breguet online.

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