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Movements and Complications

How Do Automaton Watches Work?

These mechanical marvels come to life at the push of a button.


Automaton watches are among the most captivating timepieces. With the push of a button, the scene on the watch dial springs to life. Butterflies flap their wings, flowers open and close, eggs crack open to reveal baby birds, and ballerinas dance in these fascinating watches. 

What Is an Automaton?

An automaton is a machine that moves in a sequence following a set of instructions. Think of them as the earliest robots, which had a limited range of functions. Automatons can be large or small, and the first automaton was created in 1737. The Flute Player from French engineer Jacques de Vaucanson could play 12 songs, and it captivated its audiences. Soon after the invention of the automaton, watchmakers found ways to shrink automatons from human-sized robots to include them in their creations. These automatons first appeared in clocks, then pocket watches, and finally wristwatches. By pressing a button, the automaton begins to follow a predetermined sequence of motion, sometimes accompanied by chimes. Miniaturizing these components is extremely complex and difficult. 

Who Makes the Best Automaton Watches?

Automaton watches are very rare in watchmaking; only a handful of brands make them. Jaquet Droz is revered for its automaton watches, which are an important part of the brand’s heritage. Its founder, Pierre Jaquet-Droz, began making automata in 1773. They were such a marvel that he traveled Europe and exhibited the automata at royal courts. Even today, Jaquet Droz is closely associated with automaton watches and produces some of the finest examples. 

Jaquet Droz Bird Repeater

The 300th Anniversary Edition of the Bird Repeater shows a pastoral scene with two red robins, two chicks, and an egg. When the automaton is activated, the birds open their wings, move their heads, and bend over to feed their baby birds, and the egg opens to reveal a chick. You can see a video of the Bird Repeater in action on the company’s website. Like many of Jaquet Droz’s automaton watches, it’s also a minute repeater that chimes the hours, quarter hours, and minutes. Putting aside the impressive combination of an automaton and chiming watch, the Bird Repeater is also a superb example of Jaquet Droz’s métiers d’art. The sculptural dial is a masterpiece in and of itself. The scene is hand-engraved from 18K red gold, then hand-painted in homage to La Chaux-de-fonds, the birthplace of Pierre Jaquet-Droz. It has a small off-centered onyx dial to tell the time. 

Van Cleef & Arpels Lady Arpels Papillon Automate

The Lady Arpels Papillon Automate from Van Cleef & Arpels perfectly combines the brand’s expertise in métiers d’arts and its exploration of horology’s most difficult complications. The automaton works in two ways. The blue butterfly comes to life and flaps its wings every few minutes in a seemingly random pattern, up to four times in a row. You can also activate the butterfly on demand by pressing the pusher. The wings are made with plique-à-jour enamel, a difficult art. The translucent enamel lets you admire the scene beneath. The butterfly sits in an enchanted forest crafted from glittering gemstones, mother-of-pearl, and more enamel, including plique-à-jour, champlevé, and miniature painting. A discreet off-center diamond dial is tucked in among the scenery between 2 and 3 o’clock. 

Andersen Genève x Konstantin Chaykin Joker 

Andersen Genève produces very complicated yet irreverent timepieces. In this collaboration with independent watchmaker Konstantin Chaykin, each watchmaker takes a side, combining two of their best-loved watches. You’ll certainly do a double take when looking at the “dial.” It’s a Joker-inspired watch, complete with eyes and a smiling mouth with a tongue sticking out. But it’s so much more than a funny face; it actually tells the time. The “eyes” are subdials that show hours on the left and minutes on the right. Instead of hands, the “pupils” move around the subdial to show the time. To make it even more interesting, the “mouth” is a moon phase.

When you flip the watch over to look at the caseback, you won’t see the movement. Instead, there’s a hand-painted scene of cartoon characters: the Joker, Poison Ivy, and the Penguin playing poker with a dog. By pushing the button at 8 o’clock, the scene comes to life for nearly two minutes. They play cards, place bets, steal chips, and move their eyes. The watch was nominated for the Mechanical Exception award at the prestigious Grand Prix d’Horlogerie, the industry’s highest honors. 

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