What’s Houdini got to do with timepieces? Plenty as it turns out. Not Harry Houdini himself, but the original artist and watch inventor who he took his stage name from. That man is Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin, the man who designed the mystery clock. Houdin was a self-taught magician and engineer who was fascinated by the idea of the disappearing act and sleight of hand tricks. His work involved the use of transparent glass displays and hidden mechanisms that connected to the display of the clocks he built, and won renown for its inventiveness. Many of his clocks involved hiding the gear train within the clock base, which was then connected via a rod or serrated glass or crystal dial to the display, creating the illusion that the clock ran without any additional wheels. During the 19th and early 20th century, mystery clocks were highly popular among the elite, who found it a fascinating design.
Cartier was one of the key watchmakers to create mystery clocks. With their expertise as a jeweller, creating the mystery movement via rock crystal dials and wheels was something that amalgamated the luxury maison’s skills as a clockmaker as well as a jeweller. These table clocks were frequently decorated with jewels as well as unique displays such as rotating hour dials. Over the years, as wristwatches became more popular, the mystery clock faded into Cartier’s history, as part of its heritage. However this year, it revived the tradition of the mystery clock, albeit in the wristwatch.
Mystery watches aren’t unique to Cartier; several other watchmakers have created their own mystery movement. Thanks to the ease of manufacturing sapphire crystal in very thin layers, it has become a unique calling card for some watch brands. Most use a sapphire crystal painted with hands to indicate the time, and the sapphire crystals are serrated, that link to a gear train around the case and display. Cleverly hidden, the mystery watch is a feat of micro-engineering that, when executed well, makes for some truly unique watch displays.
In its Les Heures Mysterieuses collection presented this year in the Rotonde de Cartier line, the watchmaker wanted to include real hands with the Mystery watch. This required a new movement design to enable the hands to turn on fine pivots that connect to the hour wheel. The benefits are less inertia in the movement, thus improving the power resource of the watch. At the same time the crystals are grown in three dimensions using DRIE (Deep Reactive Ion Etching) to create a gear wheel with a sapphire crystal centre, making it appear as if there is a floating time display. The calibre 9981MC it used in the Mystery watch has a modular design, with the gear train occupying a crescent-shaped baseplate while the display module is presented on a subdial, with four layered sapphire crystals in an anti-reflective finish for legibility. On the dial side, the aesthetic style of Cartier once again emerges with Art Deco inspired Roman numeral indices on a guilloche base and a minute track around the time display.
It’s taken a century for Cartier to pay tribute to its history and heritage in building mystery clocks, to translate it on the wrist. There’s no disappointment here. But we’ll update this story with more on the Mystery Double Tourbillon, the feat of high watchmaking that Carole Forestier-Kasapi has achieved with a wristwatch.