Watches and clocks for the Chinese market
I cannot believe that 11 years have passed since I wrote this article about watches made for the Chinese market for the Wall Street Journal – tempus really does fugit.
The article was a pleasure to write because it touches on the importance of religion and culture to the history of timepieces – all subjects that interest me.
By now many of the prices mentioned are out of date but the other facts are still relevant.
Watches And Clocks For The Chinese Market
In 1601, during reign of the Chinese Emperor Wanli there appeared at court in Beijing an extraordinary visitor. His name was Matteo Ricci, a tall, bearded Italian Jesuit, dressed in the black silk robes of a Chinese scholar and able to converse with the emperor’s courtiers in perfect Mandarin.
Ricci presented the emperor with a caravan’s worth of gifts: paintings revealing European perspective techniques, a clavichord, hourglasses, glass prisms, maps and Western scientific texts in Chinese.
But the gifts that caused Ricci’s hosts to gasp with wonder, because China had no equivalents, were two ornate mechanical clocks that the chimed the hours.
Ricci’s arrival at court sparked a long and passionate love affair between the Chinese and western clocks and pocket watches. The affair begins with the zeal to spread a religion and encompasses tales of cross border commercial co-operation and rivalry, changing consumer tastes, and the triumph of a business model based on market research and lower wages.
The story continues but with a twist on the usual globalisation paradigm. Today, when so much of what we buy bears the words, ‘Made In China’, dealers, auctioneers, collectors and curators scour the world for clocks and watches which were: Made for the Chinese Market. And, just as the growing affluence of the Chinese is affecting the price for oil, the growing number of Chinese collectors is accelerating interest in these highly prized clocks and watches.
Ricci hoped to do more than dazzle the Emperor; employing a ‘top down’ strategy he wanted to convert the Chinese elite to Roman Catholicism believing the rest of the population would follow. Only moderately successful as a missionary, Ricci succeeded in turning Wanli, his successors and the upper crust of Chinese society into avid lovers of European clocks and watches.
According to Professor Catherine Pagani of the University of Alabama, author of Eastern Magnificence and European Ingenuity: Clocks of Late Imperial China, by 1725 the emperors owned thousands of clocks and watches and nearly all of them, rang out every hour on the hour. Several emperors, like true lovers, wrote poems celebrating the attributes of their beloved, ‘self-sounding bells’ or zimingzhong in Chinese. And, throughout the eighteenth century, watches and clocks were depicted in paintings of court figures and mentioned in novels.
On the phone from her office in Alabama, Pagani explains that while China was rich and powerful, its own timekeeping was based on low-tech water clocks. “Still”, she says, “the emperors weren’t thinking, ‘Now that I have these western clocks I can call my meetings on time.’ It wasn’t about timekeeping it was about status and power and control of an exotic, imported, advanced technology.”
The watches and clocks the emperors and others doted on during the 18th century had several distinguishing characteristics and the most surprising one is their country of origin: England. Brendon Thomas, a director and horological expert at specialist auction house Antiquorum explains: “At that time, the English occupied the same position in the world that the Swiss do now: they were the undisputed masters of watchmaking. The Chinese appreciated English workmanship above anything else. England was the centre of refinement, as far as the Chinese were concerned, and the finest watches and clocks in the world were made there.”
The refinement the Chinese so valued included the English vogue for pocket watches with elaborately decorated gold cases, encrusted with pearls, gold and semi precious stones combined with delicate enamel paintings. Inside the watches and clocks were complex mechanisms that struck gongs or imitated the sounds of animals. Other popular features were music boxes and automata; mechanical devices that simulated the movement of people, animals or water.
The Chinese also appreciated the English habit of setting watches into everyday objects.
James Cox, the most fashionable English watchmaker of the late 18th century produced a hand fan, which opened to reveal two enamel paintings, a Greek mythology scene on one side and an
idyllic rural scene on the reverse. The ‘sticks’ that hold the fan together are made from 20k gold, silver, and ivory and decorated with rubies and emeralds. Set into the pivot, the device that allows the fan to open and close, is a tiny gold watch. In 1765 the British Ambassador to China presented the fan to the Imperial family. In 2005 Antiquorum in Geneva sold the fan to a collector for 115,000 CHF.
In 1770, Cox’s workshop turn out a small brass telescope embellished with gold braid, blue enamel paintings of animals and, at the large end, a built-in watch with a ring of rubies around the dial and diamond studded hands. A rare find, the telescope recently sold for 658,000HK$. (US$49,000)
Cox also indulged another Chinese preference – to buy watches in pairs. Why did the Chinese like to buy two identical pocket watches? Arnaud Tellier, director of the Patek Philippe museum in Geneva the location of one of the finest collections of Chinese market watches in Europe, offers a few explanations. “It may have been a commercial consideration, selling two watches meant more money for the watchmaker. If a customer had to send the watch to London or Switzerland to be fixed, it could take years, so he had another one to wear.”
Tellier also believes that cultural issues influenced Chinese buying habits. The Chinese saw pairs as a part of the natural order of things: we have two eyes, arms, a man and a woman make a pair, as does the sky and the earth.
One antique watch dealer, London based George Somlo, who has been selling Chinese market watches since the 1970s, believes that the Chinese predilection for pairs also an attraction for collectors. “Some collectors see one beautiful watch made for the Chinese market and know that there is probably another one just like it out there somewhere. Knowing you might find the missing one of a pair inspires people to keep looking.”
Cox reflects this attraction to pairs in two 20k gold watches decorated with blue enamel elephants. The watch mechanism is engraved with pairs of scrolls and it chimes the hours and minutes. Two identical watches, which would have been sold to the same person in the 18th century command excellent prices today. Cox’s elephants went under the hammer at Antiquorum in Geneva for 163,000 CHF.
While the English dominated the market place, Europe’s rising watch making power, Switzerland, developed several strategies for overcoming their rival. According to Tellier, the Swiss had one major advantage, lower wage costs: a Swiss watchmaker was paid far less than his English counterpart. To compensate for Switzerland’s less prestigious standing versus England, some Swiss companies set up offices in London where they imported and assembled Swiss parts into watches that could legally be classified as made in London.
Eventually, English watchmakers imported Swiss watches stamping them with their own names but, by about 1820, nearly all timepieces bound for China, regardless of whose named appeared on them, were made by the Swiss.
Professor Pagani points out that the Swiss employed another weapon: market research. “The English had a lock on sales to the imperial court so the Swiss looked at what other people in China, mostly rich merchants, wanted and adapted their watches to those tastes. When court tastes changed the market for the English makers disappeared. To be closer to their customers some Swiss makers even set up shop in China.”
Even after the change in court taste watches held a fascination for ordinary Chinese. Captains of western ships soon learned that if they wanted to unload their cargo and quickly return home a bribe of a pair of watches to a harbour master helped.
Serving the huge, varied and affluent Chinese market brought out the creative side of Swiss watchmaking.
In 1820, Swiss watchmakers Piguet & Meylan produced an 18k gold pocket watch known as “Barking Dog with Cat”. On the front of the watch is an unusually small dial set over a scene of a chasing a cat. Press a button on the crown of the watch and you will hear the hour, but not as chimes. Instead, a tiny bellow inside the watch imitates a barking dog. In another touch, beloved by the Chinese, the dog moves its head with each yelp. The back of the watch features an enamel painting of musical instruments, surrounded by a ring of pearls. Sold in Geneva for 63,250 CHF in 2005.
Painting with enamels had long been a Swiss speciality and for the pairs of pocket watches aimed at the Chinese market they devised a clever innovation: mirror images. Traditionally, enamel figures on the backs of watches were identical. Swiss enamel painters the figure on the back of one watch looking right and the other looking left.
An example is a pair of silver pocket watches sold at Antiquroum in Hong Kong in July of 2005 for 109,250 HKD. Made by Leo Juvet in 1875 and sold complete with a box, the watches are named for the two “Romantic Ladies” who stare, in different directions from the back of the watch cases.
A stunning display of Swiss watchmaking for the Chinese market is a pair of gold flintlock pistols decorated with pearls and blue enamel. Watches are concealed in each pistol’s handle behind a cover embellished with a ring of pearls. Each pistol is also a perfume sprinkler. Pull the trigger and at the end of the barrel a gold lotus flower opens and an atomiser sprays a splash of perfume. The pistols fetched 429,750 CHF in October of 2005.
At Christies in London, Ben Wright International Director of the Clock Department says that the Chinese liked their clocks even more elaborate than their watches: “Clockmakers had to employ many different skills from several different craftsmen; enamel painters, gold and silversmiths and jewellers. They had to make glitzy clocks to be successful with the Chinese.”
Mr Wright also confirms that while many clocks that go under the hammer are of museum quality buyers are often private collectors and, as with watches, the Chinese have entered the fray.
Clocks for the Chinese market, frequently resemble western wedding cakes with tier upon tier of gold and intricate decorative motifs.
One of the most elaborate went under the hammer at Christies in London in June 2003 and sold for £565,250. Made in London, with the help of Swiss artisans, the five-tier and clock stands 117cm (46in) high.
Each tier is octagonal in shape. The base tier has panels of blue enamel embellished with gold lattice and floral designs. The front panel contains a Catherine wheel that spins in time to a music box hidden inside.
The next tier boasts sea serpents and dolphins, which in imitation of a fountain, spout jets of water simulated by glass rods.
In the third tier sits the clock with a white enamel dial and solid gold hands. The clock chimes the hours and sports a knob that starts the music box and the fountain.
Tier four, also in blue enamel revolves in time with the music while tiny whirligigs spin on each of the eight panels.
The top tier features a large central column and four smaller columns, one at each corner and each one set with paste gems. The columns rotate and occasionally the central column opens to reveal floral designs in gold.
Surmounting the top tier is an opening and closing, 13 point, enamel and paste gem starburst.
Two years earlier, in July of 2001 Christies in London sold two exceptional Chinese market clocks.
Shorter than the one sold in 2003 they are no less elaborate and both were made in London in the late 18th or early 19h century. Both probably received the attention of Swiss watchmakers as well.
One clock has a place in diplomatic history, as it was part of a collection of gifts presented to the Chinese court by a British Ambassador expelled soon after arriving. But, the emperor kept the clock.
Standing 79cm (11in) high the clock’s decoration is an orgy of gold, and enamel in the shape and colours of peacock feathers, lions’ heads, birds and floral patterns with a spinning Catherine’s wheel on top. On the front, just below the white enamel clock face is a sliding panel that when pulled back reveals an ingenious automata of tiny metal ships moving through a sea of moving glass waves. All the movement is accompanied by tunes played on a hidden music box. Incongruously a waterfall, also simulated with moving glass rods plunges directly into the sea. The clock strikes the hours and quarter hours.
The clock, which the emperor preferred to the ambassador who accompanied it sold for £223,750.
The third clock has three tiers and reaches a height of 37cm (34in). The base tier, rectangular in shape and made of gold, enamel and red and white paste gems holds the clock, which has a large white enamel face and chimes the hours and quarter hours.
The middle tier is an automaton of a glass waterfall. On top of the waterfall spins a Catherine’s wheel. On top of the Catherine’s wheel is a gold scent bottle with a revolving pineapple for a lid.
The scent bottle could be removed at any time so that the owner could apply a splash of perfume. The clock fetched £234,750.
How did these highly prized watches and clocks find their way to the west? That is a sad story, complete with wars, revolutions and fleeing refugees.
Arnaud Tellier explains: “In the 19th and 20th century invading armies from the west and from Japan looted palaces of the imperial family and homes of wealthy people in China. Soldiers took the watches and the clocks are brought them home. Many of the objects taken by the Japanese were removed from Japan by American troops after the Second World War.
After the takeover of China my Mao Tse Tong in 1949 many refugees who fled to Hong Kong used the watches to bribe border guards.”
Finally, Tellier mentions that after the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s the Chinese government regularly invited a select group of western antique dealers to Beijing. These secretive dealers, even now the names of many are not known, bought thousands of 18th and 19th century watches and clocks which were confiscated from ordinary citizens.
A commonplace among watch and clock collectors is the saying: “Buy a watch or clock and you buy a piece of history.” An old saying that is never more accurate than when applied to clocks and watches: Made for the Chinese Market.
If acquiring a Chinese Market watch or clock sounds appealing here’s some expert advice. George Somlo says: “Do some research. Visit dealers, go to auction houses to and check prices past sales. See what you like. If you like enamel paintings study the techniques. You’ll enjoy your purchase more the more you know about it.”
Ben Wright at Christie’s chimes in with: “Don’t buy purely for investment purposes, not everything will go up in price. Buy what you like and what you will enjoy.”
Pointing out that repairs are expensive, Brendan Thomas from Antiquorum ads: “The first time buyer should try to buy a timepiece that works or can be easily repaired. I would also say make sure that what ever you buy is in the best condition possible. If you have a set amount of money to spend it is better to buy one excellent example rather than three or four lesser examples.”