The Tortoise Automaton of master watchmaker Raúl Pagès
The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed.
An art revived
Much ink has flowed over the work of master watchmaker Raúl Pagès — of the homonymous PAGÈS brand — and his tiny mechanical piece of genius that continues to fascinate and beguile. Made of 18k white gold, enamel, and a veritable constellation of sapphires and diamonds, The Tortoise Automaton crawls daintily, like clockwork, in a demonstration that brings an entire history back to life.
Practised as early as the 15th century when Leonardo Da Vinci created the fully functional Rosheim Knight, the art of automaton — mechanically driven animals or people — soared into popularity in the 19th century when wealthy patrons snapped up drastically refined specimens for entertainment. The period’s fascination with birds, insects, and creatures of all kind is evidenced as much in the butterflied gowns and feathered-trimmed bonnets of Jacques Doucet as it is in the lavish textile designs of William Morris. This was not lost on the aristocracy’s thirst for automata. Today, in the quest to redefine luxury, what has long been a lost art is in the throes of a renaissance.
One man’s dream
Raúl Pagès is the child of Watch Valley, and horology runs through his veins. He obtained his degree in watchmaking early on, and reinforced that with a dual specialization in restoration and horological complications and construction. “I love the tradition of horology,” he said, “and I am inspired while working with antique pieces.” His love for the genre led him to spend six years at Parmigiani Fleurier’s workshops, where he restored his first piece: a 19th century frog that hops and moves its hind legs. During that time, he also restored the unsigned Ethiopian Caterpillar from 1810 that can be attributed to Henri Maillardet and Jaquet Droz. But it was while working on the opulent Fabergé eggs that he fine-tuned his knowledge of automata.
Working independently today at his own PAGÈS workshop, the master watchmaker continues to pursue his love for historical automata, but not exclusively. His interest in both the scientific and artistic sides of the craft are what makes his work stand out. “I enjoy watchmaking,” he says, “and I do continue to develop products for other high-end brands. But I adore automata. Creating a mechanism that gives life to an animal or some moving thing is my passion; one gets the impression that it’s really alive. In a watch, that’s not the case.”
Slow and steady wins the race
The master watchmaker embarked on a journey of several years to create an entirely handmade and highly complicated mechanism composed of over 300 pieces that’s endearingly lifelike. A mechanism similar to a watch movement is what enables the tortoise to move forward on carefully crafted claws, and the piece is adorned with hand bevelling, guilloche work, and Côtes de Genève. Local craftsmen were called in to engrave and enamel the azure blue and white gold shell. A symbol of longevity, wisdom, and perseverance — values that not only speak to the watchmaker himself but which he seeks to express through his work — The Tortoise is the first in a limited series of pieces that promises to be unique and exclusive.
The greatest challenge faced by Pagès was making the piece completely by hand, from conception to construction. Divergent from watch mechanism design, were there isn’t a lot of freedom in how a mechanism is constructed, there are virtually no rules to follow on how to create a moving turtle. Pagès says it’s a lot of trial and error. “When I first finished the Tortoise, it moved too slowly.
I had to go back, modify the construction, and make some technical adjustments. Fortunately for me it didn’t take too much time.”
Its sweet shining gaze makes all other gazes shine
Something there is in every person that delights in mystery and wonder. Pagès tells us that in the days when he worked at Parmigiani, clients would come to see the caterpillar or frog they were working on. “You might be surprised but adults react to automata in much the same way children do! I would wind up one of the pieces with the key, and when I turned it on, all eyes lit up, all the faces were suddenly smiling. There is this strong feeling of delight that you don’t necessarily find in watchmaking.” He says it is what draws him to the craft. “With The Tortoise, the movement of the head is the thing that really makes it look alive,” says Pagès. “The feet move pretty rhythmically, but it’s the head that gives it that charm. It’s magical.” The Tortoise by Raúl Pagès has recently returned home after a long stay at the International Museum of Horology in La Chaud-de-Fonds, and is looking for a home.
Article by Allison Zurfluh