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Coal Mine Canary

  • Jonathon Keats

In 18th-century Europe, stylish aristocrats taught their pet canaries to sing tunes with a device called a serinette. An automated pipe organ, the serinette repeatedly cranked out the same sequence of notes until the canary memorized them. The Swiss watchmaker Pierre Jaquet Droz had a better idea. Starting in the 1770s, he built serinettes housing mechanical birds—with cogs to open their beaks and flutter their wings—eliminating the trouble of training live creatures.

His singing-bird automata grew increasingly lavish over the following decades. He built the birds into clocks resembling gilded cages, as well as in pocket watches and snuff boxes. He also replaced the serinette’s pipes with a whistle that realistically imitated canaries, finches, and nightingales. Together with his human automata—including a boy that could write with a quill—the singing birds made Pierre Jaquet Droz famous.

When Nicolas Hayek Sr., then-chairman of the Swatch Group, revived the Jaquet Droz watch brand in the 21st century, he was determined to revisit the company namesake’s genius. In 2009, the Jaquet Droz manufacture in La Chaux-de-Fonds built the Time Writing Machine, a device the size of a laser printer that used some 1,200 cogs and gears to inscribe the time on a slip of paper. But Hayek’s ultimate dream was to make automata small enough to be wearable. Three years after his death, his son Marc has directed the production of the Charming Bird, the first three-dimensional automaton wristwatch.

Miniaturizing Pierre Jaquet Droz’s singing birds meant that practically every mechanism had to be reimagined, so Marc enlisted the help of François Junod, a modern-day expert with automata and one of the few men with enough experience to understand what needed changing. Junod began with the bird itself. His craftsman fabricated a blue tit, a species local to Neuchâtel, in brass. (Pierre Jaquet Droz’s birds were often made with natural bone.) The tit’s beak and wings are fully ­articulated—operated by springs as small as several ­millimeters—and the bird is also geared to turn on its perch while it sings.

Yet producing the song was the greatest challenge. According to a source inside the development team, the air cannot be pumped by a bellows system as it was in Jaquet Droz’s automata, because the mechanism would take up too much space and require too much energy to operate. “In the Charming Bird, for the first time, a piston system is used for pumping the air and stocking it as well as producing the bird sound,” he says. The tubes are made of clear sapphire, which is highly resistant to wear, and the pistons are made of a special graphite carbon that can slide with minimal friction while sustaining an airtight seal.

Supplying the mechanism with sufficient air has required unconventional materials as well. “We knew from the beginning that we were not going to make a waterproof watch,” says the company source, “but we still had to find a way to let the air circulate and the sound escape without letting in dust.” To let the automaton breathe freely, Jaquet Droz developed a nano-pierced silicon membrane.

Rather than trying to disguise these new materials, the brand designed the watch to show off the technology, setting the classically decorated bird under a sapphire glass dome atop a nest of silver and black machinery. “It was important for us to show how it works, revealing how we’re reinterpreting Jaquet Droz history,” the company source explains. “But perhaps in two or three years we’ll produce a more traditional version. We think there’s great potential for future development of automata at Jaquet Droz.” 

Jaquet Droz, 888.866.0059, www.jaquet-droz.com