March 5, 2024

Whimsy, frivolity, playfulness: these are not adjectives one often hears used to describe haute horlogerie.

And yet these words accurately describe many watches or clocks built over the centuries. Since the beginning of horology, watch and clockmakers have been designing and making mechanisms displaying a less-than-serious side, providing an outlet for their creativity and creating a sense of playfulness.

Jaquet Droz's The Writer in operation at the Museum of Art and History in Neuchâtel

Jaquet Droz’s The Writer in operation at the Museum of Art and History in Neuchâtel

It began with automatons; mechanisms designed to mimic living things or carry out predetermined coded instructions. Some of the most famous examples were so complicated that they looked like children and wrote with quill and pad .

A rare gold, jewel and pearl set, caterpillar automaton circa 1815, attributed to Henri Maillardet

A rare jewel- and pearl-set caterpillar automaton in gold, circa 1815, attributed to Henri Maillardet (photo courtesy Sotheby’s)

Others resembled animals and mimicked biological processes like digestion. Seriously.

As time progressed, the mechanisms became smaller and were integrated into pocket watches and eventually wristwatches, all while expanding in scope and creativity. With modern watches and the freedom to create even more incredible and complex mechanisms, it is no surprise that the practice of making whimsical watches is as strong as ever.

I personally enjoy a watch that, instead of focusing on chronometry or mechanical exceptionality, focuses on creating an amusing and joyful experience for the wearer. There are many great examples, with certain brands showing strong inclinations to create such pieces.

So here are a few of my favorite whimsical timepieces.

Watches that inspire fantasy and romance

There are claims made by brands every year that their watches aimed at women are objects of desire and can transform the wearing time into a time of grand romance. While this might be true for some, it usually comes down to a marketing strategy designed to influence men and women to treat themselves to something special.

But sometimes a line of timepieces comes along that is indeed full of whimsy and displays of romance. The best examples of these come from the Van Cleef & Arpels Poetic Complications collection, which uses a variety of techniques and decoration to create watches that inspire wonder.

Even their most romantic and fantastic pieces combine images of Paris and lovers at night. The Poetic Wish, which comes in both sunset and midnight versions, displays a man or woman gazing out over the city of Paris in search of love.

The woman watches a kite fly by at sunset while standing near the Eiffel Tower (the kite is a retrograde hand that displays the minutes) and as the hours pass she slowly strolls forward. The man catches a glimpse of a shooting star (also the retrograde minute hand) while he strolls along a bridge at midnight.

These watches create a connection across the city and a whimsical story for the wearers to observe. Will they meet? Will they find true love?

Van Cleef & Arpels Pont des Amoureux

Van Cleef & Arpels Pont des Amoureux

The answer comes in the Lady Arpels Pont des Amoureux watch, which finds the two lovers meeting on a bridge, both figures acting as retrograde hour and minute hands as they inch closer together under the moonlight.

Clearly the romance of the pieces will touch any who witness their mechanical beauty – or will at the very least inspire them to check out the rest of the playful options in the Poetic Complications line like the Lady Arpels Ballerine Enchantée or the Lady Arpels Ronde des Papillons (see Whimsy And Fancy: Van Cleef & Arpels Lady Arpels Ronde Des Papillons).

Lady Arpels Ballerine Enchantée

Lady Arpels Ballerine Enchantée

Watches that turn love into a game

Perhaps seeking true love under the Parisian sky is a little too committed for you, and you are looking for something a bit more cheeky and innocent? Well Christophe Claret has you covered.

Christophe Claret Margot on the wrist

Christophe Claret Margot on the wrist

Claret has produced watches for innocent love and flirtation based on the childhood game “He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not.” The Christopher Claret Margot is a highly complicated watch designed with a woman’s playfulness in mind (see Christophe Claret In Bloom: Introducing Margot, His First Ladies Watch for more).

Using the push button at 2 o’clock the wearer can slowly “pluck” the petals off the mechanical daisy in the center, each time randomly changing the outcome of the phrase on the bottom of the dial. He may love you a little, a lot, passionately, madly, or not at all. Of course everyone will be crossing their fingers that it is one of the first four, but the game must stay true to fleeting young love.

If you are hesitant to take the risk that he might not love you at all, Claret offers Marguerite, which lets the buyer customize a secret message that will be revealed only at the push of a button. The casual observer is still able to enjoy the butterflies flitting around the dial pointing to the minutes and hours.

Christophe Claret Marguerite in pink gold with champagne-set diamonds (bubbling up)

Christophe Claret Marguerite in pink gold with champagne-set diamonds (bubbling up)

But we all know that it’s still sometimes fun to play the game, therefore the rear of the watch has a simple yes or no version of “He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not,” which can be played with the winding rotor and a little flick of the watch. Shining rubies on the rotor help to determine the answer.

Whimsical nature

Sometimes we like to look to nature for our fun and playfulness, especially since animals play freely with no day jobs to get in their way. Jaquet Droz is a leading producer of nature-based mechanical whimsy. With a strong history in automatons, Jaquet Droz is uniquely poised to provide a glimpse into the animal world. The best example of this is the incredible Bird Repeater.

Bird Repeater with automaton by Jaquet Droz

Bird Repeater with automaton by Jaquet Droz

Beside boasting a lovely sounding repeater, it features an automaton animation that goes along with the repeating mechanism displaying the avian kingdom in action: two adult birds feed their young, with the young birds chirping and straining to get at the food. All of a sudden an egg bursts open and a third baby bird joins the family. The animation truly creates a sense of life, and the repeating mechanism lends music to the event. There is even a waterfall in the background showing the passing of seconds.

If you want a more realistic bird sound, there is always the Jaquet Droz Charming Bird, which uses a very interesting system of bellows and crystal tubes to make rather realistic bird chirps.

If birds aren’t your thing then Jaquet Droz can offer playful flora in the Lady 8 Flower, which features an animated flower that opens up to reveal a stunning diamond or ruby briolette. If the refined elegance of Jaquet Droz isn’t your thing either, Richard Mille might serve with its own version of the blooming flower nestled within a tourbillon.

The Richard Mille RM 19-02 Tourbillon Fleur

The Richard Mille RM 19-02 Tourbillon Fleur (flower closed)

The Richard Mille RM 19-02 Tourbillon Fleur is a very complicated mechanism featuring a magnolia flower opening every five minutes, or on demand via a push button at 9 o’clock. The magnolia slowly opens and “blooms” for ten seconds while the flying tourbillon underneath rises to meet the sunshine. The flower stays open for ten seconds before taking another ten to close, all to begin again five minutes later. It really highlights the cycles of nature, albeit on a much more compressed scale (see SIHH 2015 Photo Essay: Richard Mille).

Movies, games, and something naughty. Oh my!

Looking for something completely different?

Wonderboy watchmaker Konstantin Chaykin enters the fray with a fabulously fun film feature called the Cinema (see Why Independent Russian Watchmaker Konstantin Chaykin Is A Movie Star).

Konstantin Chaykin Cinema watch

Konstantin Chaykin Cinema watch

It makes for a playful addition to your wrist by featuring a 20-second miniature film based on an 1879 invention called the zoopraxiscope by Eadweard Muybridge.

By pressing a shutter release button at 9 o’clock, a 12 frame-per-second animation of a galloping horse flickers to life. The integration of such a fun, non-time-related or watch-specific mechanism is a fantastic way to make sure your watch isn’t mistaken as boring or predictable.

An even better way to kick up the fun and whimsy meter is to just simply add games to wristwatches. There are more than a few complicated watches that have had mechanical games added to them from the likes of Azimuth, Franck Muller, and Girard Perregaux, but no one can dethrone the king of watch games, Christophe Claret.

Creating watches featuring fully functioning casino games like poker, baccarat, blackjack, dice, and roulette (seriously), Claret has obviously understood that watches are objects to be enjoyed and to inspire whimsy. Having games built right in is a genius move (see Christophe Claret: Poker Face).

Peepshow through the display back of the Svend Andersen

Peepshow through the display back of the Svend Andersen Eros erotic automaton

If these are just not edgy enough, then maybe erotic-themed watches are up your alley? Many brands and watchmakers have created sexy automatons in watches for at least the last couple centuries. They usually feature carved figures engaging in passionate acts, chiefly driven by a repeater mechanism. Not for the prudish or faint of heart, these pieces are certainly playful and more than a bit naughty. We’ll leave further discovery of those up to individual discretion.

Whimsical tradition

It is not surprising when talking about mechanical creations intended for play and frivolity that clock automatons come into the picture. The cuckoo clock is one of the best examples from history of clockmakers creating an irresistibly fun way to be alerted to the time.

Chiming clocks had been around for a while before someone had the grand idea to add figures, but cuckoo clocks are probably the origin of time-based automatons used for indication or alarm. Their history goes all the way back to the early part of the seventeenth century with an unbroken period of creation through to the modern day. People everywhere love the whimsical nature of the cuckoo clock, and it has inspired countless artists and engineers for a multitude of reasons.

Parmigiani Hippologia

Parmigiani Hippologia

The result is, of course, that other people made their own automatons and pushed the boundaries even further. One of the most spectastical examples was just released by Parmigiani as the Fleurier Hippologia (see Equus Forma Mechanica: The Parmigiani Fleurier Hippologia).

It comprises a pair of horses, mother and foal, trotting and cantering around a Lalique cabinet housing the automaton, clock movement, and mechanical alarm. The two horses move in different ways due to different gaits, making the design and construction of the Hippologia mechanism much more complicated from the outset.

The engineering and craftsmanship that went into the Hippologia is mind-blowing, but the effect of watching the gracefully running horses is entirely satisfying and the perfect evolution of the whimsical automaton in a timepiece.

Too much whimsy, is it possible?

How can I possibly top such a culminating piece?

How about by showing you what happens when whimsy gets out of control and you just have too much. I know you are thinking, “How can you have too much whimsy?” It’s possible.

When engineering and ambition meet, it can be a beautiful thing and wonders can be realized. But when ambition overreaches the technology by just a little bit, great hopes can be raised and dashed all in the same conversation. A few years ago an incredible concept was introduced to the Harry Winston Opus series (see The Harry Winston Opus Series: A Complete Overview From Opus 1 Through Opus 13).

Harry Winston Opus 11 by Denis Giguet/MCT

Opus 11 by Denis Giguet/MCT

This series always brings out the best in watchmakers, and this was no different for the Opus 11. Denis Giguet, designer of the Opus 11, created a movement that broke the laws of physics and maxed out the scale for whimsy.

The Harry Winston Opus 11 featured an exploding display that shattered and whirled in chaos before returning to an organized display of the current time. It was superbly imagined and a delight to behold.

But it suffered from one fatal flaw: it flew too close to the sun in search of ultimate whimsy. It sought to be the most whimsical and fun time display ever created and it succeeded in those goals. But the dream was just a little out of reach; engineering and materials weren’t up to the task just yet.

The watch is still not yet in production as testing and refinement continues, a possible pause that might last a while. As new production techniques become available and the project gets life breathed back into it, the Opus 11 will stand poised to become the most whimsical watch in existence, if not by sheer awesomeness then by the force of persistence and will behind it for these many years.

Whimsy and horology

It almost seems that with all these great examples and the multitude of pieces I haven’t discussed that the concept of whimsy and play is alive and well in the horological industry. Most watch enthusiasts will probably still focus on traditional horology avenues, but those who see the possibilities of frivolity will continue to yearn for more pieces like the ones discussed.

The Harry Winston Opus 14 showing its customizable aesthetic disc

The Harry Winston Opus 14 showing its customizable aesthetic disc

It really makes your day a bit brighter to look down at your wrist and have something mechanical whose only goal is to make you smile or chuckle just a little bit more every day. Be it butterflies, flowers, horses, Parisian lovers, or miniaturized casino games, there is always a place for whimsy in our lives, and now you know there are watches that can help you find it.

Stay whimsical, my friends.