Jacquemarts: Little Big Men StrikingBy: Marcus Hanke (registered) Friday, June 4th, 2010 - Photo Nav: View All 25 photo(s)
Jacquemarts: Little Big Men Striking
Marcus Hanke explores the history behind the tiny automatons on the dials of Ulysse Nardin's repeaters and hour strikers.
Marcus Hanke explores the history behind the tiny automatons on the dials of Ulysse Nardin's repeaters and hour strikers.
My research for this article started nearly nine years ago. Already the first Ulysse Nardin catalogue I held in my hands some twelve years ago, confronted me with the term "jacquemart". However, the reference works at my disposition were no help, even my Enyclopedia Britannica did not mention the term. Internet search engines like Webcrawler and Yahoo were barely known and not efficient, Google and the Wikipedia did not even exist. Therefore, my curiosity remained awake, but without satisfaction. In September 2001, during a visit to France, I happened to catch the word "jacquemart" written in a newspaper article, dealing with the touristical highlights of the region around Cambrai. I kept this article, and are happy being now able to ceremonially dispose it after this article is published. The next step was a short paragraph about the jacquemart of Dijon I found in a hundred years old book on watchmaking, and, finally, the reports on the progress of the restoration of Saint Mark's clock tower in Venice. Yet without the research possibilities offered by the current online tools, the material would still be but a collection of small fragments. I am happy to bring this chapter of my personal horological travel to an end.
"Ding! Ding! Ding!" A tiny hammer, held by a tiny hand that is part of an equally tiny human figure, strikes a metal bell. Around the scene stretches a wristwatch dial, with the hour and minute hands circling above the ensemble of finely chiselled figures and their instruments. This is how watch enthusiasts know - and love - the automatons animated by the mechanics of Ulysse Nardin's famous chiming repeaters.
In catalogues and press texts, Ulysse Nardin describes these figures as "jaquemarts", sometimes "jacquemarts" (with c), which is a designation that has become very rare in these times. So what are these jacquemarts, and where do they come from?
The roots of time display
To find the answer, we have to go back far in the history of measuring time, or better: of displaying the time. In early times, the daily passage of time was not so important for the majority of people: At sunrise, it was morning; time to go to the field, or whatever work was else necessary to be done. With the sun at its highest point in the zenith, it was noon: time for a rest and something to eat. Finally, at sunset, one returned to home. The first people who needed a more accurate knowledge of the current time were the monks and nuns living in monasteries. Most spiritual orders have a highly regulated and organised day, with prayers and services held at specific times of the day.
Consequently, it was the ecclesiastical sphere developing the first "timepieces" in Europe: calibrated candles burning down within a specified time lapse, or water dripping from one bottle into the another, sand trickling from one half of the hour glass into the other. But this was but one half of the "clock". Only few brothers or sisters had the time to keep an eye onto these appliances. The others had to be called from their cells, scriptoriums or fields in time for the service. For this purpose, bells were struck to signal the time.
It is thus not astonishing that the English term "clock" derives from the German word "Glocke", which means "bell". Some centuries later, the time signal became important also for the blossoming economy of the cities: the trade on the market was often interrupted during the church's services, so it was good to know when this would happen. In the evening, the cities' gates were closed, and all merchantmen who were neither citizens nor guests of the town had to leave. Here, too, the awareness of the current hour was important. Therefore, the mundane cities challenged the church's monopoly over time and established own devices: big bells, situated on bridges or fortifications. People specifically assigned with this task observed a water clock or hour glass, and struck the bells at each full hour.
The origin of the term "jacquemart"
Even before the advent of mechanical clocks based on the revolution of wheels, the middle-ages thus had their first "jacquemarts". In France, the guardians on the watch towers, who had to strike the bells in times of fire or attack, were called "Jacques-Marc", a French variation of "jaccomarchiadus", the armoured jacket worn by the cities' soldiers. So the first hour-striking "jacquemarts" were living men, not automated figures.
However, this is but one theory about the origin of the name. Another one combines the popular forename "Jacques" with "marteau", the French word for "hammer". And in his 1905 book on the history of watchmaking, the Benedictine monk Fintan Kindler quotes a certain "Jaques Marck", a 14th century clockmaker, as inventor of the first automated figure striking the hour on a bell. This latter explanation sounds a bit unreasonable to me, since there have clearly been living men as predecessors of automated figures, and these certainly already had their commonly used nickname, that was most probably adopted for their mechanical successors. In England, for example, these people were popularly called "Jack", which became in use for the mechanical bell strikers, too. Until today, though, the true origin of "jacquemart" is uncertain.
So let us try to define what a jacquemart is: An automated figure of - remotely at least - humanoid shape, that indicates the time acoustically by striking a bell or other, similar device. This definition leaves out the hammers of grandfather clocks, striking on bells, coils or tubes, since they have a shape dictated by technical necessity, and do not try to copy a humane activity.
In minute repeaters or Sonneries, the striking sound is not caused by the small figures hitting a tone-creating device, like a bell. Rather its source are hammers hidden in the watch case, striking metal coils. Strictly spoken, the automatons on the dial are no real jacquemarts at all, they are "playback jacquemarts" at best. Other dial automatons, that do not show activities normally causing a tone, such as animals moving, or persons dancing, do not even meet the most basic criteria for true jacquemarts. They are mechanical automatons, following an entirely different tradition.
(c) M. Hanke
(c) Ulysse Nardin
Breathtakingly beautiful, but no jacquemarts: the automatons of the minute repeaters "Circus" (top) and "Safari" (bottom)
Another picture of the "Circus", because it is so attractive: white gold case with aventurine dial; (c) Ulysse Nardin
(c) Ulysse Nardin
The mighty "Genghis Khan", Westminster carillon minute repeater with tourbillon. There are no bells or anvils on the dial, but the figurines act in a way that would cause a striking sound in reality: Let's award them a status of "jacquemarts honoris causa"
The moors of Venice
Ulysse Nardin credits one of world's most famous clock towers to have inspired the jacquemart on the marvellous "Hourstriker", or "Sonnerie en passant": Saint Mark's clock tower in Venice, which not only houses a true miracle of an astronomic clock, a manifold of automatons moving around the dial, but also a large bell on its top, struck every hour by two large figures. By the way, this astonishing masterpiece of historical clock making and the tower it is housed in was completely restored under the sponsorship of Piaget some ten years ago.
1896 photograph of the Saint Mark's clock tower, Source: Alberto Peratoner, the clock's last custodian
Result of a less than optimum research, Ulysse Nardin in its instruction manual and early catalogues not only credited the wrong artists with the execution of the original figures, but also dated the two big jacquemarts on the tower no less than five hundred years too early. In fact, they were cast and erected in 1497. Yet it seems that nobody cared about these minor details; nobody but me, that is.
Popularly dubbed "moors", because of their bronze's black patina, some historians claim the jacquemarts of Venice to personate shepherds. However, I seriously doubt this, since to my eyes, these two bearded and bare-headed figures, clad in animal skin, are clearly "wild men".
Source: Alberto Peratoner
Mechanical scheme of the clock system, drawn by its last custodian, Alberto Peratoner Source: Alberto Peratoner
A rare sight: Venice and its moors covered with snow; Picture: Alberto Peratoner
The legends and myths of "wild men" are a global phenomenon. Already the Gilgamesh epic mentioned a tall and wild individual named Enkidu, who, while basically of human nature, nevertheless had supernatural strength. "Wild men", living in barely accessible places are popular myths even today, we just have to think of the Yeti or Bigfoot. In the middle ages, "wild men" were commonly used in arts and heraldry, so it is not astonishing that those who ordered the Saint Mark's clock deliberately used the symbol of strength and savagery, but also of innocence and simplicity.
Only three years after the clock tower's completion, Giacomo de Barbari cut its outlines in 1500; Source: Alberto Peratoner
In his 1520 atlas, Xenodocos of Corfu emphasized the jacquemarts' fame by clearly showing it in the center of his symbolic depicttion of Venice; Source: Alberto Peratoner
Unfortunately, my ground braking discovery of the two moors' real nature will fail to shake the world of historical science: During my research for this article I stumbled over Michelangelo Muraro's great essay on "The Moors of the Clock Tower of Venice and Their Sculptor", published more than 25 years ago:
But it is nice to see that my initial reaction upon seeing the figures was correct. Anyway, the "moors" are among the finest examples of functional monumental sculpture in the early Renaissance, and it is thus a wonderful tribute to the artist, that Ulysse Nardin faithfully reproduced one of the "wild men" on the dial of its Hourstriker, and even both on the minute repeater "Jacquemart" - although their hammers have shrunk a bit ...
Current version of the Hourstriker, with larger case. White gold and onyx dial; note the finer execution of the jacquemart, compared with the older version; (c) Ulysse Nardin
Minute repeater "Jaquemart", white gold, blue enamel dial; this watch is out of production (c) Ulysse Nardin
Foundation of a family in Burgundy
While the moors of Venice (of course, Shakespeare's famous piece on Othello has nothing to do with the mechanical figures on St. Mark's tower. But then, nothing is impossible ...) are still the most impressive jacquemarts surviving from the old times, they are by no means the oldest: Around 1320, the first clocks striking the hours were built and installed in England, Italy and France. And the the city of Courtray in Flanders possessed a widely famed and valuable tower clock with a jacquemart, when it fell to the troops of Philipp the Bold, duke of Burgundy, in 1382. While the city burned down, Philippe ordered to save the most valuable prey, the clock, its bell and jacquemart, and to deliver it to the city of Dijon, as a reward for the military support it had given him in the campaign.
Of course yours truly, always eager to retrieve historical jewels so that they can be presented to this most illustrious community, grasped the opportunity to visit Dijon, now mainly known for its mustard production. The jacquemart can be found on top of a smaller tower of the beautiful Gothic cathedral Nôtre Dame. To my astonishment, I did not find a single figure, but a whole family assembled aside three bells.
The Gothic cathedral "Nôtre Dame" and its southern tower, which supports the bells and jacquemarts; (c) M. Hanke
Only the male figure is the original jacquemart, brought from Courtray, together with the clock. While at first, the people of Dijon simply called it "the man who strikes the bell with his hammer", they later grew more amiable, dubbing him "Jaquemart" - without c, as it is still written in the brochures of Ulysse Nardin. As the legend goes, Jacquemart (meanwhile with c) forgot to strike the bell on one day in the seventeenth century. A well-known poet credited this mishap to the figure's loneliness, so the city council decided to add a second mechanical figure in 1651. This was modelled with female attributes, and was immediately named "Jacqueline". A more probable reason for the mechanical problem was that the original figure had struck the bell from the same side, on the same spot for nearly three hundred years, creating one-sided wear of the mechanical system. Now Jacqueline assisted him by striking the bell from the other side every second hour.
In 1714, the couple got a child, "Jacquelinet", striking every quarter hour on a smaller bell, and in 1884, a small girl, "Jacquelinette", was added to strike the quarter hours alternately with her brother.
While this kind of familiar growth over the centuries is an exception, it was not that uncommon to add mechanical spouses to jacquemarts, or to even employ a couple from the start, as the famous example of Martin and Martine, the two jacquemarts of Cambrai, illustrates. They were made in 1512.
Switzerland, "nation of time", has a few old jacquemarts, too. One of them complements the country's oldest astronomical timepiece, the "Zytglogge" in Bern. After a devastating city fire, Bern received a new clock with a large bell, striking the hours, in 1405. Soon it received the name "time bell" ("Zytglogge" in Swiss German), since - as was common at that time - the clock had no dials; the bell served as only time-telling device. At least sixty years later, around 1470, the bearded and armour-clad figure of what today is dubbed "Hans von der Thann" was added. Since then, it has been frequently replaced, the current figure being a copy of the baroque "Hans". Interestingly, "Hans" is not a true jacquemart, since he does not strike the bell, but his mechanism only pretends this action. The bell itself is still struck by a massive hammer, hidden behind the gold-plated man.
Not only the times are gone ...
Unfortunately, not many of these old figures remained intact, or survived at all. In the early times, they were considered precious treasures, and frequently taken away as prestigious prey, as the example of Dijon's "Jacquemart" shows. Centuries of war and unrest made their traces vanish. The destructions during the terrible wars of the twentieth century caused the disappearance of many. Others, finally, became inoperative, were disassembled, or simply thrown away. Therefore, it is the merit of a watch manufacturing company like Ulysse Nardin, to keep the memory about these "big men" alive, by making them little, and giving them a home on the dials of its magnificent sonneries and repeaters.
Minute repeater "Triple Jack", paying tribute to the English name for jacquemarts; current version in pink gold and black onyx dial; (c) Ulysse Nardin
Copyright June 2010 - Marcus Hanke & PuristSPro.com - all rights reserved
For Marcus' original post in UN forum, please CLICK HERE