• the case of flattened pear form, one side with white enamel dial below an oscillating diamond-set balance, the other with a recessed richly painted singing bird perched on a leafy branch against a background of translucent pink enamel, bezels and borders of alternating rubies and half pearls, all surrounded by Renaissance-style gold paillon arabesques with birds and grotesques and urns of fruit over a translucent blue ground, the sides chased with similar ornament, partly enameled and set with rubies, emeralds, diamonds and sapphires, the top scent compartment with stopper combined with a watch key, enameled on both sides en suite, the stopper base stamped PG below a crown, the base with hinged mirror-lined compartment
The Bird and Serinette
• the bird [12 mm high] produces its song via a six pipe organ composed of two groups of three pipes following the curves of the case, the song is conveyed via metal tubes with compressed air from the bellows to the pipes and distributed by a pinned cylinder operating six valves; when activated, by a small gold button, the bird realistically sings, opens and closes his beak, swivels his body whilst his tail moves up and down
• gilt brass verge movement with fusee, white enamel dial, Roman numerals, gold hands, the timepiece and balance mounted on a shaped foliate scroll engraved cartouche plate, winding arbor below the dial at 5 o'clock, the dial and balance visible through glazed apertures on the hinged covering panel
The Maurice Sandoz Collection, 1942-1957, purchased for US $2997
American Collection 1958 until present
Montres et Bijoux, Geneva, 1952, no. 257
Musée du Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers, Paris, 1954, no. 139
Alfred Chapuis, Edmund Droz, Automata, pp. 199-200, fig. 244, 1958
Bernard Pin, Watches & Automata, The Maurice Sandoz Collection, vol. III, pp. 204-205, 2011.
“The playthings of Kings,” is how distinguished horological author Alfred Chapuis described late 18th century singing bird automatons in his 1958 benchmark book Automata. Chapuis writes, “only for the princely clients of former days could such richly produced objets d’arts be made for the decoration of the boxes was in the same class as the mechanism.“
In writing this passage, Chapuis could have easily been referring to the present singing bird scent bottle. It is clear that Chapuis carefully chose the finest examples for his book. In post-war Switzerland, Chapuis, already a prolific author on the subject of horology, had garnered tremendous respect and had entrée into the finest collections in Europe, such as those belonging to Gustave Loup, Maurice Sandoz and Sir David Salomons.
Most unusually for an object of this date, the early history of this scent bottle has been recorded. On February 16th, 1787, Jean-Frederic Leschot (1746-1824) sent from Geneva to James Cox in London two identical scent flacons, each with serinette, singing bird and watch. The bottles had been ordered by James Cox in London and were described and listed in the account ledger as No. 1-2 scent flacons enameled in blue with applied rings and flowers in pearls and rubies with sapphires, watch with the balance set with diamonds, a serinette with bird placed on a tree trunk (in a medallion), which moves its beak and tail. The cost for the two pieces was listed as £235.18 (pounds sterling).
The Jaquet-Droz and Leschot account books record a second similarly-designed set of scent bottles sold to James Cox in London for £226.8 (pounds sterling). The second set also described with serinettes, singing birds and watches were sent on April 26th and 27th of the same year; however, unlike the first two bottles, they were recorded as a pair. For an illustration of this pair see: Simon Harcourt-Smith, A catalogue of various clocks, watches, automata, and other miscellaneous objects of European workmanship dating from the XVIIIth and the early XIXth centuries, in the Palace Museum and the Wu Ying Tien, Peiping, 1933, W.Y.T No.653, p.6, pl. II.
A fifth scent bottle of slightly different shape and designed with the singing bird in a covered compartment, is in the L.A. Mayer Collection in Jerusalem, formerly the Sir David Salomons Collection. This fifth bottle, of slightly later date, carries the innovation which Leschot writes about to Duval in London in 1792: "Two pairs of mechanism for bottles with a watch, the same as those sent to you recently. I hope to succeed in adding something different, whereby the medallion, which in the previous ones remained open after the bird's song, will close itself."
The letter mentioned above is part of a large body of Leschot's correspondence preserved today. Through these letters, much insight into his business and its practices has been gained; the letters cover a range of topics from the difficulties Leschot suffered with certain personalities he encountered, to his fear of trade secrets being shared with the wrong parties.
Bernard Pin, author of Watches & Automata, The Maurice Sandoz Collection, writes about the decorative elegance of the present bottle: "we should venture to say that the ingenuity with which the singing bird's mechanism has been integrated is also worthy of praise. For in this piece, the song is obtained by the use of a tiny bird organ." The organ would gradually be replaced by a system of whistle and sliding piston, less visually interesting but more compact.
Historians acknowledge that Jaquet-Droz & Leschot, along with Jacob Frisard were the earliest makers to develop singing birds in small formatted objects such as scent bottles, watches, and snuff boxes see: Alfred Chapuis, Automata, pp. 194-195.
The birds were fashioned to imitate the live canary, which had become popular in 18th century European society. The canary, beloved for its melodic sounds, became an obsession to train the canaries to sing. In this process, the serinette was a useful tool.
Canaries were introduced by the Spanish (who conquered the Canary Islands in the late 15th century) to Europe. Canaries were so enthusiastically bred that 29 distinct varieties existed by the beginning of the 18th century.
The process of education was described by Professor Hervieux de Chanteloup, author of the 18th century book "New Treatise of Canary Birds," and an authority on training Canaries in the 1740s. He stated, “As to the manner of proceeding, at each lesson one must repeat nine or ten times the tunes one wants to teach them; & those tunes must be played without repeating the beginning twice." See: Sharon Bailly and Christian Bailly's, Flights of Fancy, p. 42. For a full discussion on the Canary and its popularity, see Ibid, pp. 32-53.
As mentioned earlier, a large body of Leschot’s correspondence is preserved. The scent bottles are referred to in various letters from 1791 to 1793, after the passing of both father and son Jaquet-Droz. Now with the firm under the control of Jean-Frédéric Leschot, Leschot writes to MM. Duval of London in 1792, "These various pieces with mechanical birds embodied many trade secrets." See: Alfred Chapuis, Automata, p. 200. Chapuis quotes from a letter dated 2nd November 1793 from Jean Frédéric Leschot to his associate Henri Maillardet in London, "My friend M. Frisard like myself thoroughly agrees with you that the smallest number of people possible should be told how these things work, apart from relatives who are close by one in the workshop and whom we can trust not to turn their knowledge to our disadvantage."
In another letter, dated February 1793, Leschot informs Louis George in Berlin: "As for the singing bird snuffbox which you have seen, this mechanical piece certainly comes from our workshop. I had the honor to inform you a few years ago that we do this sort of work putting a mechanical bird into a jeweled object such as a snuff box or scent bottle."
For further references to these singing bird flasks by this maker, see Alfred Chapuis and Edouard Gelis, Le Monde Des Automates, pp. 120-121, fig. 397, vol. II, 1928; the same piece illustrated in color, The Art of Time, The Sir David Salomons Collection of Watches and Clocks, LA. Mayer Museum, Jerusalem, pp. 68-69, 2009; Guo Fu Xiang & Guan Xue Ling, ‘Les collections de Jaquet-Droz au Musée de la Cité Interdite’, in the exhibition catalogue, Automates & Merveilles, Musée Internationale d’Horlogerie, La Chaux-de-Fonds, 2012, pp. 46-47; Osvaldo Patrizzi, "Arts of Asia," March-April 1980, "The Watch Market in China," p.71.
The case is stamped with the mark PG crowned, probably that of the workshop of Philippe Gervais (1734-1796), bijoutier, son of André, who came from Hanau in Germany, to Geneva and was registered as a resident on 7 September 1761. Two years later he was received as a master under the usual restrictions imposed on foreigners and presented as his masterpiece ‘a most acceptable gold and enamel snuff box set with diamonds.' On 26 February 1764, he married a local woman, Gabrielle Rey, with whom he had three children. Gervais died in Geneva on 19 August 1796. (Archives d’Etat, Geneva, Registres du conseil, RC 262, p. 402; Elections des jurés et réception à la maîtrise, p. 79, no. 676).
The mark PG crowned incuse is usually found on objects of vertu combined with watches, such as a diamond-set, two-color gold and enamel chatelaine (Sotheby’s Olympia, 24 October 2002, lot 140) and colored gold snuff boxes set with watches (Sotheby’s Geneva, 15 May 1996; Christie’s Geneva, 15 May 1990, lot 81 and 14 May 1991, lot 1). For another elaborately executed scent bottle by this maker, see Terence Camerer Cuss, The Sandberg Watch Collection, pp. 386-387.
Jacob Frisard, an inventive and innovative mechanical genius, is credited with many of the advances which brought Swiss automata and singing bird boxes to their apex at the beginning of the 19th century. Jacob, son of Louis Frisard and his wife, Marie-Madelaine Bourquin, was born in January 1753, in the village of Villeret, near Berne, in the Swiss Jura. Following family tradition, he served his apprenticeship as a clockmaker in La Chaux-de-Fonds. According to Sharon Bailly, [Flights of Fancy, Geneva, 2001] he then worked for clockmakers in Turin for around 12 years from 1772, marrying there Catherine Vastapani in 1778. The couple were to produce at least 14 children and concern for his numerous progeny seems to have influenced many of Frisard's work decisions, leading him to flee Geneva for Bienne in 1792, under threat of the French invasion of Savoy. Earlier, the couple had moved to Carouge, outside the city of Geneva, around 1784. Frisard was making watches at this time as well as working closely on mechanical inventions with Jaquet-Droz and their associate Frédéric Leschot. The Frisard family apparently did not return to Geneva until the turn of the century and it is from the surviving letters Leschot wrote to Frisard during the Bienne years that much of the information we have about Jacob's working life, skills and character has been gleaned. There is no doubt that he was a mécanicien of utmost ability and he has been credited with inventing the mechanism that enabled the lids of singing bird boxes to close smoothly after the bird itself has slipped back into its nest. He himself felt that his talents had been somewhat over-shadowed by the fame of the Jaquet-Droz and Leschot name, endeavoring in later years to promote his own more elaborate creations by travelling in the way that they had done. Indeed, it was on the return from a visit to Constantinople that Frisard died in a small town in Bulgaria in 1810.
James Cox was the leading eighteenth-century retailer of jeweled automata and ‘toys’, and as such, his name has become indelibly linked with these objects. Born in London in about 1723, he was apprenticed in 1738 to Humphrey Pugh of Fleet Street, a silver spinner in business as a toyman. Thus, although Cox was described as a goldsmith when he became free of the London Goldsmiths’ Company in 1745 and years later registered a mark as such, any skills as a craftsman were always secondary to his inventiveness and marketing abilities.
His career was tumultuous. After an inauspicious start followed by an early bankruptcy, he began anew on a grander scale, focusing his attention on exporting his increasingly fanciful objects to the Far East, where they were called ‘sing-songs.’ When the inherently risky Chinese market waned, he opened a museum in Spring Gardens to display his wares, famously dispersed by lottery in 1775. Although the lottery was profitable, and despite significant sales to Catherine the Great, Cox declared bankruptcy again in 1778. He continued trading as a jeweler until he retired and moved to Watford in 1795.
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