Not-So-Haute Horlogerie

Posted by: on Jun 3, 2011 | No Comments

While digging through piles of books and magazines on antiques at Lyrical Ballad the other day I stumbled upon a lone volume from the Encyclopédie that just so happened to be the volume on Horlogerie. For those of you unfamiliar with the Encyclopédie, it was the first encyclopedia, cobbled together during the later half of the eighteenth century by a surprising cadre of the greatest minds in France – Diderot and D’Alembert declared themselves editors, but Montesquieu, Rousseau, and Voltaire were among the other luminaries who contributed articles.

But back to this volume.  With all the buzz going around in the watch world about haute horlogerie, people pushing the boundaries of what constitutes a timepiece and how many complications can be crammed into a device on a strap, it’s good to get back to basics.

The volume consists largely of diagrams and composites like the ones here, which are then explained and expanded upon in dense sections of prose.  Now my French is so poor as to be non-existent, but between my Latin and Italian I can get a basic sense of what’s going on.  First the basic components of what constitutes horlogerie are laid out, the fabrication of these technical parts explained, and then finally their assembly into all manners of clocks, watches, astrolabes, and other devices detailed.  There are also sections dedicated to the tools necessary for clock manufacture and the various qualities and requirements of these tools.

Particularly interesting to me was the way the diagrams seemed to “peel back” the layers of the clocks, progressively getting closer and closer to their basic parts.  I find this to be one of the greatest charms of clocks and watches – an elegant, cohesively designed presentation gives way to endless complexity and technology below the surface.  Without the surface the interior’s workings and purpose would be unintelligible to most, and without the interior the face would be useless.  But, I digress.

Overall, even if one is confined to the diagrams and muddled non-translations, Horlogerie is an amazing glimpse back at the state of a craft in the eighteenth century.  And even as watchmaking moves forward in leaps and bounds, I’m no expert, but I would imagine the mechanical groundwork remains much the same.  Either way, it’s worth a look.

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