Icons & Innovators: Cartier: An Uncompromising Position

  • Siegelson’s Cartier Model A clock, circa 1915.
<< Back to Robb Report, January 2006
  • Lee Siegelson

Challenging the absence of soul, detail, and uniqueness in mass-produced adornments that flooded the market after the industrial revolution, Cartier returned artistic spirit to its métier by encouraging creative freedom unencumbered by marketing or manufacturing efficiency concerns. Thus the house established a legacy of Art Deco masterpieces unrivaled in both depth and caliber of work.

The Model A mystery clock, the original and most sought-after of all the mystery clocks, was the defining objet d’art in and of its time. The Model A represented a departure from traditional timepieces with its revolutionary design and futuristic concept, articulated in bold geometric forms. In contrast to the Model T, Henry Ford’s 1908 automobile that symbolized the efficacy of mechanized mass production by assembly line, each Model A was produced entirely by hand by a team of master artisans—watchmaker, designer, goldsmith, enameler, lapidary, gem setter, engraver, and polisher—and required as long as a year to make.

The clock’s unorthodox design creates an optical illusion, with the hands appearing unattached to the body and floating at the center of a translucent dial. The illusion, or mystery, was achieved by affixing the hands onto separate crystal disks, with toothed metal rims driven by gears that are concealed in the clock’s frame and attached to the movement in the case.
 
Maurice Couet, a technically skilled and imaginative 28-year-old clock maker who had studied the creations of French magician and clock maker Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin, designed these intriguing timepieces. More than intellectual statements addressing society’s obsession with the intangibility of time, these clocks remain potent symbols of Cartier, which made some 90 one-of-a-kind Model As, primarily from 1913 to 1930.
 
At Siegelson, where we purvey rare jewelry and artifacts, one of our most treasured possessions is an early Model A (below) that once belonged to William Andrews Clark, U.S. senator and copper magnate. This circa 1915 piece—made of rock crystal, mother-of-pearl, nephrite, and diamonds—is nearly identical to the first Model A created in 1913, which was sold to J. Pierpont Morgan, the financier and art collector. Queen Mary of England, Queen Victoria Eugenia of Spain, and King Farouk of Egypt were among the other notable figures who possessed Model As. Joseph Stalin received
a Model A as a gift from General Charles de Gaulle.

The Art Deco period at Cartier was a time of inventiveness, when design broke free from established paradigms. Today, the Model A stands as a defining moment in the company’s esteemed history.

 

Lee Siegelson
is the third-generation owner of Siegelson, a dealer of fine diamonds and gemstones, special jewelry, and objets d’art that serves high-end
international retailers.
 

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