Jehan Cremsdorff, A Masterful Watch of Light in Times of Darkness

By Christian House
When is a watch more than a timepiece? When does it transcend its status as a finely crafted object? Well, in an exceptional blue enamel and diamond verge pocket watch by the Parisian watchmaker Jehan Cremsdorff we discover a portal to the most refined artistry of the 17th century. Part of the magnificent Masterworks of Time Collection , it will be offered in the London Treasures auction on 3 July.

T he circa 1650 watch – to be offered in London in July – is enameled in the manner of the Paris school, combining techniques of champlevé, en relief and peinture en camaieu, an exquisite blend which creates a three dimensionality. The piece represents “a masterful combination of watchmaker, goldsmith, jeweller, and enameller,” observes Daryn Schnipper, Sotheby’s Chairman, International Watch Division.

Most likely commissioned for a Royal or Noble collector, Cremsdorff’s masterpiece is one of only a handful of comparable pieces in the world (examples sit in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum in New York and Victoria and the Albert Museum in London).

Little is known about its creator other than he worked in Paris in the mid to late-17th century, when the French capital – along with Blois and Lyon – was a centre for watchmaking. “The watchcases made by French enamel painters of the 17th century include some of the most magnificent examples of the art ever produced,” observe Clare Vincent and JH Leopold in their essay on European watchmaking of the period. “By 1627, Paris watchmakers had wrested the right to make gold and silver watchcases from the goldsmiths.” And by the middle of the century these watches began to glow with enamels and gems.

The figurative decorations of women on Cremsdorff’s watch are indicative of the mores of the period – three virtues represented by three virtuous women. The watch was created at a particularly Baroque intersection between progress and catastrophe. This was an era when the French mathematician and inventor Blaise Pascal – rather outlandishly – wore a watch on his wrist. Yet Europe was tormented by the plague and civil wars. Women were being burnt as witches. Change could be fast and slow.

Based on the engravings of Abraham Bosse, a prolific Huguenot artist, the virtues have been adapted by a talented but sadly unknown enamellist, most probably from Cremsdorff’s Parisian workshop. Bosse’s representations of Temperance, Hope and Charity are silhouetted against turquoise panels, three iridescent virtues in a time of – occasional – darkness. Paris was on the cusp of becoming the City of Light.

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