Mysterious Rochat Box Number “7.”

I have had the recent privilege of working on a very peculiar singing bird box by Rochat. So far my inquiries have not revealed any knowledge of this particular Rochat box.

mechanical singing bird, rochat, brittany cox, nico cox, nicole cox, automata, automaton, clockmaking, watchmaking, bellows, technology, conservation

Box lid closed & open

The 18k vari-coloured gold engine turned diamond adorned box houses three gilt mechanisms, including chain fusée and cylindrical bellows for the singing bird automaton, controlled by a stack of 8 cams, separate watch movement with centre-seconds, cylinder escapement, plain three arm balance, and musical pin barrel with a stack of seven vibrating steel plates, each with three tuned teeth. The front of the box displays the petite enamel watch dial enclosed by mineral glass and a split pearl bezel. The proper left side of the box opens to reveal the snuff compartment. A hinged panel located on the front of the box, when lifted reveals the watch face and five square arbors. A small pictorial engraving designates the function of each arbor. Levers on the front and back panels activate the singing bird and musical mechanisms. The box is complete with two gold engraved keys for operating and setting the complications. The lid bears the monogram of the 19th century Ottoman Prince Shehzade Mahmud Celaleddin Efendi (d. 1888), son of the Turkish Sultan Abdul Aziz.

The case was made by Jean Georges Rémond, an important case maker in Geneva, who supplied cases for Jaquet Droz, Rochat, and many other prominent automata makers of the period.

trade mark under front hinge sm

Trademarks under the front hinged panel

It seems possible to date the case based on the stamp of Rémond, as we know he was active from 1783 to 1815-20. He became a Master goldsmith on 22 December 1783, the first year during which he struck his Master mark. Seven years after, he appears to have formed a company: Georges Rémond & Cie., which eventually became Rémond, Mercier, Lamy & Cie. During the French occupation of Switzerland (1798-1815) by Napoléon, J.-G. Rémond’s recorded marks were in accordance with the laws of the newly formed Département of Léman. During this time his initials appear within a lozenge. From 1815 to 1820, the firm Lamy, Rémond, Mercier, Daniel Berton, used a similar mark, but no longer enclosed within a lozenge. It seems that Rémond must have either retired or died during this partnership, since in 1820 a new firm of Mercier, Blondel and Berton was formed. However this new company only lasted a further seven years, until 14 April 1827.

The stamp on this particular box is the four letters “GRCI” enclosed in a lozenge. Dating the box some time after 1798, but before 1815. Left of Rémond’s stamp appears the oval stamp of Freres Rochat “FR”.

Rochat box number “1.” is dated 1804 and there is some discrepancy about when exactly the Rochat family relocated to Geneva. Some sources maintain it was as early as 1803, others, as late as 1813. Either way, Rémond was supplying boxes to Jaquet Droz while the Rochats were under Droz’s employ. It is possible that even if the Rochat family were not yet in Geneva, a Rémond box could have been supplied for an early Rochat movement.

Box number "135."

Box number “135.”

The serial number on this box is found on the top plate. It is a singular “7.” unaccompanied by the Rochat stamp. It is very similar to other serial numbers by Rochat. If indeed this is number 7, the difference in style of the number could be accounted for as well as the missing Rochat stamp.

"7."

“7.”

Other characteristics of the mechanism, box, bird and layout lend themselves to the idea. The bird is oddly shaped when compared with other Rochat birds. He is quite plump, with a small short head, petite beak, and full chest. Don’t get me wrong, I find him to be truly lovely – one of the sweetest birds I have ever worked with, but he is certainly different.

Bird emerges sm

Little Pan (as I call him) emerging from the lid

Here are some other Rochat birds in cases made by Rémond. In my estimation, most of the Rochat birds look like these –  slimmer body, longer beak, longer head, thinner chest….

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I have found one other bird that is very close in style and appearance to Pan. The bird of Rochat box number “339.” The description of this box, written by the auction house that sold it, maintains that it is a very early Rochat, made sometime around 1810, but we know from the research of Sharon & Christian Bailly and Geoffrey Mayson, that box “339.” had to have been made after 1826. So if box number “7.” was made between 1789 and 1815, why are these birds so similar?

Box "339."

Box “339.”

In addition to these other oddities, the layout of the mechanism seems quite early compared with other Rochat boxes of equal complexity.

Box Panel Off sm

The closed front panel contains the watch and music box of box number “7.”

The watch & music mechanism

The watch & music mechanism

Other Rochat boxes with the same complications display a more elegant layout with a more robust musical barrel and striking watch work housed separately, the music in the main compartment and the watch under the front panel.

Singing_bird_box_by_Frères_Rochat,_circa_1820

A Rochat box with music and striking watch

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A Rochat box with music

You can also observe the difference here between Pan and these birds, though they are all three in cases by Rémond and have the same complications. These boxes are vaguely dated as well, circa 1810 or 1820. Unfortunately, there were no photographs posted of their serial number or makers marks for comparison with number “7.”

This is just a summary of a few facets of a truly complicated and rich story behind box number “7.” If it truly is box number “7.” it was made between 1804 and 1805. If anyone has any ideas, I’d love to know. You can always reach me via email at bcox@mechanicalcurios.com

Now for your viewing pleasure – here is box number “7.” running after a long three weeks worth of work – don’t be fooled though, there is still more work to be done. And a lucky someone will have the privilege of listening to little Pan every day if they want to – as he will soon be up for sale in the upcoming December auction at Bonhams in New York.

The Silver Swan

Nico Cox Brittany Cox clockmaking watchmaking automata Hugo The Silver Swan Automaton The Bowes Museum

The Swan – case removed

My favourite object in the world is called The Silver Swan automaton. I learned about it when my (then future) tutor Matthew Read was leading and overseeing a host of conservation works being performed on it. I had the opportunity to assist him with some regular maintenance to this amazing object – as well as in the assessment of other automata in the collection – during a week long work placement at the Bowes Museum.

Nico Cox Brittany Cox clockmaking watchmaking automata Hugo The Silver Swan

Working at the Bowes Museum

What I love perhaps most about this particular automaton is the grace with which it captivates its audience. It conveys vulnerability while embodying the strength and beauty of a living swan.

It is thought that real swans were used to model each piece of the automaton’s intricate body. Each silver feather is hand chased with the detail one would find if analyzing a real swan feather.

The Swan’s perfectly articulated neck has 113 silver rings that move in fluid motion with the fusee chain/pulley system underneath, the look of which might remind one of  the links in a modern metal watch band.

Swimming between contra rotating twisted glass rods simulating water (operated by small brass pinions fixed to the end of each rod) are small silver fish – some of which are original and made during the Swan’s initial construction. These fish swim up and down through the “water” as the Swan preens its feathers and cranes its neck to catch one.

Silver swan automaton

The twisted glass and silver fish

Three clock mechanisms operate the Swan and a carillon of bells from which eight tunes can be chosen to accompany the Swan’s performance.

What a privilege it was to be so close to the product of such ingenuity and an example of the best of human endeavor!

Bowes Museum Nico Cox Brittany Cox clockmaking automata automaton

The Swan

To listen to an interview with Matthew Read about the works to the Swan click here.

The week by week summary of the conservation works performed can be found here.

The Swan’s performance can be seen here.

Matthew recently returned to the Swan at the Bowes Museum, read about it here.

The Gentleman Smoker- The Mechanism

The mechanism of the Smoker is rather simple.

Automaton Smoker Hugo Clocks watch watchmaking clockmaking

Bellows and mechanism

The train is driven by a single spring driven barrel. Attached to the barrel is a series of cams that control the motions of the Smoker – the movement of the head, the opening and closing of the mouth, and the lifting of the hands. The barrel also drives an intermediate wheel and fly – controlling the speed of the motions, the blinking of the eyes, and the inhalation and exhalation of the smoke into the bellows.

Hugo Cabaret automata michael and maria start

Cams

The mechanism had been worked on before, as someone scratched words onto the components detailing which cam corresponds to which motion. This is not something that as I conservator I would remove – but would preserve as part of the object’s past. It is also something I strongly discourage. A good conservator should not leave their own fingerprints (literally and figuratively), but preserve those of the past.*

Traces of the past

Traces of the past

The largest problem with smoking automata, are the problems that arise with the bellows system and not so much with the mechanism. The bellows coverings are the first thing to break down, as they are made of organic materials that are directly in contact with cigarette smoke – a highly toxic and corrosive substance.

Effects of long term cigarette smoke exposure

Effects of long term smoke exposure

This is a serious issue for this type of automaton as every time the bellows system needs repair, the figure must be undressed and the paper mache body opened. Collateral damage to these materials is inevitable when the mechanism is in need of repair. This was the focus of my MA studies. I wanted to identify a modern material that could stand up to long term exposure to smoke and its effects, while still serving the functions of a bellows covering material.

The functions of the bellows valve system must be checked for proper action before the bellows frame is recovered.

Vichy smoker automaton bellows system

Internal valve system

The valve lever rivet must be free enough on the frame to allow the blued steel spring to move the brass valve disc from the inhalation to the exhalation pipe, but be tight enough to keep the disc in tension against the frame so it doesn’t drop off.

Brittany Cox Nico Cox MA west dean college

Smoking bellows

After preliminary tests were carried out for my MA, I recovered the bellows with Tyvek coated in a pH neutral acrylic medium to ensure airtightness. I talk about recovering bellows here. This material proved to be the most reliable and stable over time.  The tubing for the smoke transference was replaced with a material used in the medical industry, as the original tubing of volcanized rubber had severely degraded, becoming brittle and fractured.

hugo automata michael and maria start

Original smoke transference tubing

After the bellows system was restored, all the proper checks were carried out, and the mechanism was overhauled the Smoker was ready for its first cigarette in a long time. You will be invited to join him in a subsequent post.

Hugo Cabaret Vichy Smoker automaton

Mechanism and bellows after conservation

*not in all cases – for example a carriage clock where the plates are visible and are beautifully bright, but are etched with a dark fingerprint – this is something that would require consideration and likely removal.