PROPERTY OF AN OVERSEAS CORPORATION
• the body realistically designed to represent a silkworm comprising eleven jointed ring segments, framed by seed pearls, and decorated with translucent red enamel over an engine-turned ground, studded overall with gold-set rubies, turquoise, emeralds, and diamonds • the underside decorated with champlevé black enamel • when the automaton movement is engaged, the silkworm crawls realistically, its body moving up and down simulating the undulations of a silkworm by means of a set of gilt-metal knurled wheels, the automata work composed of a barrel, cam and two leavers all working together to create the crawling motion • fitted with the original tooled red leather presentation box
The present lot, the 'Chinese Silkworm', derives its name from the author and horological scholar Catherine Cardinale, in her 1993 book Musée du Locle et de la Chaux de Fonds referred to the caterpillar as the "Vers de Soie", or silkworm, which gave a more Orientalist character to the piece. The silkworm is a more apt description, as the plump body and distinctive head bears a much greater resemblance to the anatomy of a silkworm, as opposed to the longer, thinner body of a caterpillar.
In retrospect, one could further deduce that this title paid homage to the trade with China along the Silk Trade Route. Given the prominence in China of pieces produced by Maillardet and Jaquet Droz, the selection of a silkworm seems particularly apt. It is therefore easy to imagine that the silkworm (caterpillar) was destined for the court of Qianlong. There, it would undoubtedly have been a favorite toy, meant to astonish and entertain with its lifelike movements. Today, its ingenious mechanism, mimicking perfectly the undulating movements of a crawling silkworm, continues to amuse and surprise the beholder.
To date, only six automated caterpillars or silkworms are known, each with slight decorative variations. Two from this group are studded solely with turquoise and seed pearls, and are part of the Sandoz collection, Musée d'Horlogerie du Locle, and the Patek Philippe Museum. Sotheby's New York sold a similar example bejewelled with diamonds, emeralds and rubies in 2006. Another articulated caterpillar or silkworm was in the Ikle collection, Saint-Gall. The present example and a second caterpillar or silkworm in the Sandoz collection, formerly in the Franck Collection, appear to be the only two known studded with diamonds, emeralds, rubies and turquoise.
The caterpillar or silkworm is part of a select group of small utomated animals made in early 19th century in Switzerland. Included in this group were a lizard, a mouse, and a frog. Unsigned, these amusing objects are attributed to Henri Maillardet, who worked at Fontaines in Switzerland. In Automata, the authors Alfred Chapuis and Edmond Droz inquire "whether all these [automaton animals] could have come from the workshops of Henri Maillardet, the associate
of Jaquet-Droz in London." Of the Ikle example, they write "the crawling motion of the little creature is excellently produced by a series of rings jointed one into the next; the front lifts itself slowly, and then the rest of the body follows. The very natural movement is started by a little catch, which is hardly visible, in
the middle of the body" (ibid., p. 243) Maillardet, in partnership with Jaquet Droz, was based in London. In 1811, he organized an exhibition to show off his menagerie of miniaturized automata.
The exhibition took place in London's Haymarket Gothic hall and dazzled the public. The exhibition was captured in a print done of the exhibition. Maillardet added to the exotic nature of the event by naming his machines in a way that would conjure up thoughts of far-flung ports of call and heighten a sense of curiosity among his visitors. It was here that the caterpillar was first titled "The Ethiopian Caterpillar", the lizard, "The Egyptian Lizard" and the mouse dubbed "The Siberian Mouse". It should be noted that the exhibition poster was so detailed that the caterpillar was distinctly visible.
Works cited: Alfred Chapuis and Edmond Droz, Automata, fig. 294, p. 243 Alfred Chapuis and Edouard Gélis, Le Monde des Automates, p. 254, fig. 427 Antique Automatons Exhibition catalogue, November
3-December 5 1950, A La Vieille Russie, New York p. 32 fig. 15.
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