Watches, Music, and a Little History
A musical mechanical watch is an extremely complex device. Musical clocks and watches have been popularised in pop culture, and are familiar in films, fairy tales, and literary works. However, if you set out to find a musical mechanical timepiece in the real world, it will turn out to be a daunting task.
In this age of technology, cheap electronic ‘toy’ watches with battery-powered microchips are becoming widespread. But these objects are very much outside the scope of interest to collectors of precision mechanics. What is much more interesting, is finding purely mechanical devices that continue the traditions of watchmaking, combining jewellery and decorative crafts going back to the Middle Ages.
From the 14th century, craftsmen have been creating clocks with a musical bell chime. These were called carillons, or chimes. Of course, these clocks were tower-sized, much bigger than we find today. The chimes on the Spasskaya Tower of the Moscow Kremlin are a good example of this.
Over the years, as clocks were made to be smaller and the details more miniaturised, clocks could fit into rooms, and eventually even on tables. Often, bell carillons were supplied with moving figures called automatons. From the 16th – 19th centuries, performance clocks were extremely popular, playing out an interesting scene to strike every hour. An example of such a clock is on the façade of the Moscow Puppet Theatre.
The process of further reducing carillons and musical mechanisms is very interesting. In the 18th century, pocket watch carillons with a ‘nest’ of bells mounted on a common axis began to appear.
Jacquet-Droz 5-bell carillon pocket watch, 1785.
Mechanical music was also understood as automatons built into the usual musical instruments – harpsichords, organs, and a few other wind and percussion instruments. The automatic cylinder organ was quite widespread in Catholic cathedrals.
But for miniature designs, an invention of the late 18th century is particularly noteworthy: a musical comb that plays sounds of different pitches when in contact with studs located on a rotating disc or cylinder. The comb device took up less space than bells and hammers, making it especially useful for miniaturist watchmakers.
“Musical bowl” by a Hungarian master of the second half of the 18th century.
From the beginning of the 19th century, watch manufacturers in France and Switzerland became particularly distinguished in the development of the production of pocket musical repeaters in gold cases. Their calibers can be considered the standard (to the extent that the concept of a standard is can be generally applied to musical watches).
These mechanisms became the pinnacle of the development of musical clocks. A cylinder escapement, a quarter repeater on 2 gongs, and a separate drum for the musical part were all typically used. The music is created on a flat disc with pins that interact with a dial comb made of free-standing steel plates, which plays a tune at the beginning of each hour.
A typical French musical repeater of the 1820’s.
Since the mid-19th century, miniature musical clocks have practically disappeared from the market. Only the master Charles Reuge makes individual copes on par with the famous musical boxes and hurdy-gurdies. The design of the music module is much more technologically advanced: instead of a disc, a drum is used, and instead of a typesetting the comb is made of a solid steel plate.
During the 20th century, desktop musical alarm clocks – massive Junghans, and even Soviet Niari – were industrially ‘stamped’.
Ch. Reuge watch movement, 1880.
Ch. Reuge pocket watch with automaton.
In the 1970’s and 1980’s the forgotten musical pocket watch began to make its way into the circle of luxury gifts, with the main driver of the renaissance being the hereditary Swiss manufacturer Lauge. Because of this we have seen a rise of several interesting models of pocket watches that are musical, with a repeater, and automatons that simulate various scenes on the watch face.
However, electronic watches with melodies (the notorious Montana, the American watches with Mickey Mouse, and even Soviet Electronics) became widespread during the 1970’s – 1980’s.
Currently, only two Swiss manufacturers produce miniature musical watch movements: Christophe Claret (wrist watches made to order) and Reuge (musical boxes and pocket watches).
Girard Perregaux, Jacquet-Droz, Arnex, Gruen, and Boegli are engaged in the manufacture and finishing of watches based on these mechanisms.
The movement of the Opera Three wristwatch by Girard Perregaux is based on the Christophe Claret movement.
Types of Musical Clocks
So, what can be found on the antique market of such rare mechanical musical watches? Due to the complexity and volume of the musical mechanism, pocket and wristwatches are extremely rare.
It’s relatively easy to find a simple pocket watch with a built-in musical box that plays a melody when you press a dedicated button. These are made by the firms Gruen, Boegli, and Reuge, and they usually cost around $1500. The toys can be funny and charming, but I find the lack of interconnection between the musical and watch mechanisms to be somewhat disappointing.
What is much more valuable is a watch in which the function of music is a harmonious continuation of any other special functions in the clockwork device. Moreover, the more additional functions added to a pocket watch (in addition to the music), the more complex and expensive the watch will be:
- Striking Pocket Watch
The clock strikes the time by itself, just like a wall or tower clock. Music is included in addition to the self-striking.
By pressing a special button on the main body of the device, the repeater will beat the number of hours and quarter hours. The melody is played every half-hour, or whenever a button is pressed.
- Alarm Clock
Music plays when the alarm goes off, until the winding spring of the musical mechanism ends.
In addition to music, it also contains moving figures on the dial that imitate a scene. It is usually turned on by a button or by an alarm.
All of these types of watches are very rare, and it is incredibly lucky to find one. The rarest musical clock is an old ‘theatre clock’, a pocket-sized object in which a striking device, a repeater, a musical box, and several figurines are combined, each hour performing a simple dance to the music.
The production of musical clocks flourished in the first half of the 19th century. But today, it is too expensive a pleasure and pastime. However, I did manage to find something…
Miniature Musical Watch
This miniature Bueche-Girod musical alarm clock was made in Switzerland around the 1970’s. During the period of the electronic-quartz crisis, luxury items as expensive as mechanical musical timepieces were clearly only intended for the very rich.
The clock can be used in two different ways – as a pocket watch or as a table clock. The object is small, stylish, and fits nicely in your hand – it is quite heavy with a diameter of less than three centimetres.
Miniature Mechanical Alarm Clock with Music from Bueche-Girod
- Gold-plated body, covered with natural snakeskin
- Two crowns and one musical box key
- Back cover with holes for better sounding melody
- Unusual dial with gold leaves and black Roman numerals
- Convex mineral glass
- Black patterned hands
- Suede pouch for carrying as a pocket watch
- The diameter of the watch is only 29.7 mm!
Dial with gold patterns. Black and gold is a rich and traditional combination.
Shield Movement with Alarm Function
- Anchor escapement, balance with adjustable screws
- Balance staff with shock absorber
- Additional overhead jewels for the pinions of the escapement wheel and intermediate wheel
- The alarm clock function has been improved: the rod that starts the alarm clock has been lengthened and unnecessary elements have been removed
The mechanism is quite typical for its kind.
Built-in Musical Mechanism from the Swiss Company Reuge
- Music starts when the alarm goes off
- The mechanism is simple, but neat
- Steel musical comb, 17-note polyphony
- The melody is programmed on the musical cylinder with pins
- Centrifugal retarder to equalise the speed of rotation of the musical cylinder (similar to those used in old repeaters)
According to Reuge this is the world’s smallest mechanism, and perhaps this is not far from the truth. Compare the size of the mechanism with an ordinary match.
The Swiss Company Bueche-Girod
The story of the company started in 1937, when it was founded by A. Bueche. It was engaged in carrying out small orders for automobile companies, and also produced jewellery watches, including white gold watches which were rare at the time.
In the 1970’s. Bueche-Girod became a designed watch brand focused on the luxury, high priced market sector and minor editions. They mainly produced jewellery watches in gold and precious stones, and used predominantly high-quality mechanisms. An example of this is a gold watch with a super-thin movement housed inside an original gold dollar coin from the early 20th century.
1951 Bueche-Girod advertising poster.
How Do They Sound?
A musical clock review would be incomplete without a demo of the melodies they can produce. Click here to listen.
The ability to listen to the melody of this miniature on a desktop allows one to favourably edit the sound quality. Due to the resonance on a wooden or glass surface, the sound is amplified several times.
Two crowns: one for the movement and one for the alarm. They can be used as legs for keeping the clock on the table.
The combination of a mechanism from a wristwatch and a miniature musical box was a harmonious creation from the Swiss craftsmen. It should be noted that this miniature is much smaller in size than all those found in catalogues or usually seen today.