Do you recognize the name Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin? He is the man who designed the mystery clock. He is also the man that Harry Houdini took his stage name from. Houdin was a self taught magician and engineer who was fascinated by the idea of the disappearing act and sleight of hand tricks. He created the art of using transparent glass displays armed with hidden mechanisms that connected to clock bases he built. He was THE inventor for this unique field of time pieces. Many of his clocks hid the gear train within the clock base, which was then connected via a rod or serrated glass or crystal dial to the display, creating the illusion that the clock ran without any additional wheels. Mystery clocks were very popular with the wealthy during the 19th and early 20th century.
Inspired by Houdin, the first Mystery Clocks built for (Louis) Cartier in 1913, were designed by Maurice Couet. They were known as the “Model A”. They featured rotating rock crystal disks to which hands were mounted to indicate the hours and minutes. The rock crystal allowed the viewer to see right through the clock, which appeared to have no means for the hands to move. The gears were hidden in the frame of the clock, like Houdin and the base of the clock concealed the main body of the mechanical movement. They were very expensive to make due to the complexity of each creation. As a result, the clocks still achieve astronomical prices every time one comes to auction. In the 1920’s Maurice Couet developed several versions of the mystery clock, including 12 with Chinese origins and 6 with the Portique structure. The Mystery Clocks have remained the most expensive decorative objects every produced by Cartier.
Large Portique Mystery Clock, circa 1923, photo courtesy of Cartier.
Rare Cartier Art Deco citrine, ebonite, diamond and enamel Mystery Clock, sold for $710,500 in 2010. Photo courtesy of Christie’s.
Cartier lapis lazuli, rock crystal and diamond Mystery Clock, made circa 1990, photo courtesy of Sotheby’s Hong Kong.
Cartier jade, coral, onyx, mother of pearl and rock crystal Mystery Clock, circa 1980, photo courtesy of Sotheby’s Hong Kong.
Cartier Model A Mystery Clock, circa 1914, photo courtesy of Cartier.
Cartier Chimera Mystery Clock, circa 1926, photo courtesy of Cartier.
Cartier workshop while the Chimera clock was being made, circa 1926, photo courtesy of Cartier.
Cartier Mystery Clock with single axle, circa 1927, photo courtesy of Cartier.
Cartier plate mystery clock, circa 1953, photo courtesy of Cartier.
The clocks were more than time pieces, they were decorative objects, mantle show pieces made of gemstones, gold and platinum. At the height of their popularity they took three to twelve months to complete and as many as six or seven skilled craftsmen. The Mystery Clocks were probably at the peak of their ingenuity and construction during the 1920’s and 1930’s. They continue to be made today.
Cartier Mystery Clocks, 2013, drawings courtesy of Cartier.