Sex is something not usually associated with fastidious watchmakers. Nevertheless, sex—in lurid, sometimes shockingly graphic detail—has a place in traditional Swiss watchmaking right alongside time-honored complications such as the chronograph. Erotic watches possess a similarly long history and level of mechanical sophistication, and their makers belong on a roster of prestigious manufacturers. The most typical examples, some of which date to the 18th century, are distinguished by a carnal scene whimsically played out on the dial or caseback by a pair of mechanical figures known as automatons.
In the days before the Internet, the centerfold, and the singles bar, an erotic watch might have been a source of ribald humor between men, or, when discreetly revealed in mixed company, a not-so-subtle proposition. Apparently, those who flaunt their enormous, macho watches as a modern courting display could instead be taking a far more direct approach.
Modern mores have not diminished the appeal of these specialty items, which constitute a sort of shadow market for some of the renowned watch companies. The firms do not publicize that they make them and rarely discuss them except with a select, in-the-know clientele. Despite the veil drawn around these pieces, they are nevertheless complicated wristwatches and bear an accordant level of price and prestige. Because automatons require their own source of power, erotic watches are often combined with the complex and costly minute repeater complication, making them veritable X-rated cuckoo clocks—unique and, for that matter, uniquely Swiss timepieces.
The two-sided nature of the erotic watch is aptly illustrated by Blancpain, one of the most stolidly conservative Swiss manufacturers and also one of the leading makers of the traditional erotic automaton watch. For $160,000, you can purchase a classic Villeret minute repeater with your choice of erotic scene underneath the sapphire caseback. Because each is built to the owner’s specifications—and proclivities, presumably—it is a personalized pièce unique. Blancpain’s artisans work out the angles, so to speak, with the available pivot points on the movement, and a master engraver details the automatons and the background. Blancpain recently completed a piece that included a detailed likeness of the customer’s family dog, which, the company firmly insists, is only watching.
Automaton watches are produced by a variety of other companies, including Ulysse Nardin and independent watchmaker Svend Andersen. Ulysse Nardin also employs another traditional technique, cloisonné enamel, in a similar way. It builds these pieces to the customer’s specification, and personal, or even humorous subjects (Bill Clinton’s Oval Office antics, for instance), can be executed on command.
Erotic watches may be regarded as provocative, funny, or somewhat vulgar, but however the Swiss and their representations of sex are perceived, you must acknowledge that they have the mechanical aspects down cold.