Automatons: The Magic of Mechanical Arts

11 May 2023 - By Justine Lamarre

What if mechanical arts signalled the revival of exceptional jewellery-making?
Cast aside for many decades by contemporary creators, automatons are again taking centre stage. 
From Mauboussin to Van Cleef & Arpels, the finest jewellery creators no longer have any hesitation in calling upon the greatest master automaton-makers to breathe life into their creations, thus confirming the revival of this majestic art form.


The art of the automaton


To François Junod, the automaton is a mechanical creature as fascinating as it is intriguing, and at once mysterious and magical. Potently combining technology with poetry, its only goal is to “spark wonder” in its beholder. For this world-renowned automaton-maker based in Sainte-Croix since 1984, there are two distinguishable types of automatons: those with bewildering technology, and those which fascinate through the poetry they express. François Junod, in his certainty that the most spectacular productions are those which aptly combine mechanics with enchantment, follows this principle to bring to life objects which “carry us into another world.”


While the first automatons appeared in Ancient Greece, it was only in the 18th century, at the same time as horology came into prominence, that the automaton maker trade would be codified. The automaton maker is an artisan of mechanics, well-versed in the science of cogs and gears, who programs objects so that they perform a particular movement completely on their own. The automaton maker was therefore, so to speak, the inventor of the first modern robots. Automaton-maker creations, taking either animal or human forms, would be miniaturised towards the end of the eighteenth century, and would be hidden inside a music box or watch. Automatons, as extraordinary objects intended to amuse, would fascinate and be emulated across all the royal courts and in all aristocratic salons.


For over two hundred years, the automaton has taken many forms as an objet d’art, from Fabergé’s musical eggs to Jacquet Droz’s animated dolls. In the twentieth century, inspiring the greatest artists of the post-war era, it would manifest itself as kinetic sculptures, such as those created by Swiss artist Jean Tinguely. In our contemporary age, movement seems to be what best defines the automaton. This is the point of view held by restorers Aline Michel and Zoé Snijders. To them, each automaton is the incarnation of a rare form of expertise: the re-transcribing and staging of the movement of life.


Mechanical arts and Luxury Jewellery


For the past few years, great jewellery creators have increasingly drawn from the talents of artisan automaton makers of renown, to produce ground-breaking creations. Accordingly, François Junod has collaborated with historic creators such as Mauboussin and Vacheron Constantin, to design unique pieces and special commissions for prestigious clients.

For the past fifteen years, the automaton maker deemed to be the world’s finest, has produced remarkable pieces for jewellery maker Van Cleef & Arpels. Among these extraordinary pieces La fée Ondine, created in 2006, is one piece which best exemplifies this fusion between mechanical arts and jewellery making. This utterly poetic creation was seven years in the making. It is one of the most complex jewellery pieces, of any kind, to have been created.

Depicting a scene Laurence Bodenmann, Heritage Director, Zénith with a fairy, a butterfly and a water lily, this automaton provides an overview of new creative opportunities arising from integrating mechanical arts into the world of luxury jewellery.


While these collaborative works offer unrivalled visibility to the work of the automaton maker, they also enable the automaton maker to experiment with new materials such as gold, platinum, mother-of-pearl or gemstones. These are “hard” materials, contrasting with those typically used, as “traditional” automatons are never fully revealed to their viewers. Hands and faces are often the only visible parts of the automatons, clothes being used to hide the machinery. However, in the world of jewellery, this fabric, which afforded the automaton maker extraordinary freedom, does not exist. To use the expression of gemmologist and historian Nathalie Marielloni, gems offer “nothing to hide behind.” Gemstones are intransigent and tolerate no errors: quality, size and inclusions must be perfectly judged.


La Fée Ondine, with a faceted aquamarine for a face, bears testimony to this demanding nature, as it is the stone, and how the stone is worked, which allow for facial expressions to be created. In other words, all that cannot be re-transcribed through movement is suggested through jewellery craft. This collusion between the gemmologist and the automaton maker is thus the sine qua non requirement for animated jewels to be created.


From preservation to conservation


As with any horology creation, a mechanism which does not move is a mechanism which inevitably deteriorates. All automatons require constant care and maintenance. Yet, there are only two ways of preserving an automaton: making it work regularly or accepting that it can no longer be worked. When the second option is the only means of preserving the materials used in the work, the object of curiosity becomes a museum piece. But what would be the point or the purpose of an automaton that never moved? This, to be sure, is the most pressing issue to be resolved by jewellers and automaton makers together, to continue to make pieces which remain this breathtaking.



Laurence Bodenmann

Nathalie Marielloni

Aline Michel

Zoé Snijders

François Junod