Jacquemarts: Little Big Men Striking

Jun 05, 2010,09:48 AM

Marcus Hanke explores the history behind the tiny automatons on the dials of Ulysse Nardin's repeaters and hour strikers.

Jacquemarts: Little Big Men Striking

My research for this article started nearly nine years ago. Already the first Ulysse Nardin catalogue I held in my hands some twelve years ago, confronted me with the term "jacquemart". However, the reference works at my disposition were no help, even my Enyclopedia Britannica did not mention the term. Internet search engines like Webcrawler and Yahoo were barely known and not efficient, Google and the Wikipedia did not even exist. Therefore, my curiosity remained awake, but without satisfaction. In September 2001, during a visit to France, I happened to catch the word "jacquemart" written in a newspaper article, dealing with the touristical highlights of the region around Cambrai. I kept this article, and are happy being now able to ceremonially dispose it after this article is published. The next step was a short paragraph about the jacquemart of Dijon I found in a hundred years old book on watchmaking, and, finally, the reports on the progress of the restoration of Saint Mark's clock tower in Venice. Yet without the research possibilities offered by the current online tools, the material would still be but a collection of small fragments. I am happy to bring this chapter of my personal horological travel to an end.

(c) Ulysse Nardin

Hourstriker (Sonnerie en passant), blue enamel dial (c) Ulysse Nardin

"Ding! Ding! Ding!" A tiny hammer, held by a tiny hand that is part of an equally tiny human figure, strikes a metal bell. Around the scene stretches a wristwatch dial, with the hour and minute hands circling above the ensemble of finely chiselled figures and their instruments. This is how watch enthusiasts know - and love - the automatons animated by the mechanics of Ulysse Nardin's famous chiming repeaters.

In catalogues and press texts, Ulysse Nardin describes these figures as "jaquemarts", sometimes "jacquemarts" (with c), which is a designation that has become very rare in these times. So what are these jacquemarts, and where do they come from?

The roots of time display

To find the answer, we have to go back far in the history of measuring time, or better: of displaying the time. In early times, the daily passage of time was not so important for the majority of people: At sunrise, it was morning; time to go to the field, or whatever work was else necessary to be done. With the sun at its highest point in the zenith, it was noon: time for a rest and something to eat. Finally, at sunset, one returned to home. The first people who needed a more accurate knowledge of the current time were the monks and nuns living in monasteries. Most spiritual orders have a highly regulated and organised day, with prayers and services held at specific times of the day.

Consequently, it was the ecclesiastical sphere developing the first "timepieces" in Europe: calibrated candles burning down within a specified time lapse, or water dripping from one bottle into the another, sand trickling from one half of the hour glass into the other. But this was but one half of the "clock". Only few brothers or sisters had the time to keep an eye onto these appliances. The others had to be called from their cells, scriptoriums or fields in time for the service. For this purpose, bells were struck to signal the time.

It is thus not astonishing that the English term "clock" derives from the German word "Glocke", which means "bell". Some centuries later, the time signal became important also for the blossoming economy of the cities: the trade on the market was often interrupted during the church's services, so it was good to know when this would happen. In the evening, the cities' gates were closed, and all merchantmen who were neither citizens nor guests of the town had to leave. Here, too, the awareness of the current hour was important. Therefore, the mundane cities challenged the church's monopoly over time and established own devices: big bells, situated on bridges or fortifications. People specifically assigned with this task observed a water clock or hour glass, and struck the bells at each full hour.

The origin of the term "jacquemart"

Even before the advent of mechanical clocks based on the revolution of wheels, the middle-ages thus had their first "jacquemarts". In France, the guardians on the watch towers, who had to strike the bells in times of fire or attack, were called "Jacques-Marc", a French variation of "jaccomarchiadus", the armoured jacket worn by the cities' soldiers. So the first hour-striking "jacquemarts" were living men, not automated figures.

However, this is but one theory about the origin of the name. Another one combines the popular forename "Jacques" with "marteau", the French word for "hammer". And in his 1905 book on the history of watchmaking, the Benedictine monk Fintan Kindler quotes a certain "Jaques Marck", a 14th century clockmaker, as inventor of the first automated figure striking the hour on a bell. This latter explanation sounds a bit unreasonable to me, since there have clearly been living men as predecessors of automated figures, and these certainly already had their commonly used nickname, that was most probably adopted for their mechanical successors. In England, for example, these people were popularly called "Jack", which became in use for the mechanical bell strikers, too. Until today, though, the true origin of "jacquemart" is uncertain.

A definition

So let us try to define what a jacquemart is: An automated figure of - remotely at least - humanoid shape, that indicates the time acoustically by striking a bell or other, similar device. This definition leaves out the hammers of grandfather clocks, striking on bells, coils or tubes, since they have a shape dictated by technical necessity, and do not try to copy a humane activity.

In minute repeaters or Sonneries, the striking sound is not caused by the small figures hitting a tone-creating device, like a bell. Rather its source are hammers hidden in the watch case, striking metal coils. Strictly spoken, the automatons on the dial are no real jacquemarts at all, they are "playback jacquemarts" at best. Other dial automatons, that do not show activities normally causing a tone, such as animals moving, or persons dancing, do not even meet the most basic criteria for true jacquemarts. They are mechanical automatons, following an entirely different tradition.

(c) M. Hanke

(c) M. Hanke

(c) Ulysse Nardin

(c) Ulysse Nardin

Breathtakingly beautiful, but no jacquemarts: the automatons of the minute repeaters "Circus" (top) and "Safari" (bottom)

(c) Ulysse Nardin

Another picture of the "Circus", because it is so attractive: white gold case with aventurine dial; (c) Ulysse Nardin

(c) Ulysse Nardin

(c) Ulysse Nardin

The mighty "Genghis Khan", Westminster carillon minute repeater with tourbillon. There are no bells or anvils on the dial, but the figurines act in a way that would cause a striking sound in reality: Let's award them a status of "jacquemarts honoris causa"

(c) Ulysse Nardin

(c) Ulysse Nardin

The moors of Venice

Ulysse Nardin credits one of world's most famous clock towers to have inspired the jacquemart on the marvellous "Hourstriker", or "Sonnerie en passant": Saint Mark's clock tower in Venice, which not only houses a true miracle of an astronomic clock, a manifold of automatons moving around the dial, but also a large bell on its top, struck every hour by two large figures. By the way, this astonishing masterpiece of historical clock making and the tower it is housed in was completely restored under the sponsorship of Piaget some ten years ago.

Source: Alberto Peratoner

1896 photograph of the Saint Mark's clock tower, Source: Alberto Peratoner, the clock's last custodian

Result of a less than optimum research, Ulysse Nardin in its instruction manual and early catalogues not only credited the wrong artists with the execution of the original figures, but also dated the two big jacquemarts on the tower no less than five hundred years too early. In fact, they were cast and erected in 1497. Yet it seems that nobody cared about these minor details; nobody but me, that is.

Popularly dubbed "moors", because of their bronze's black patina, some historians claim the jacquemarts of Venice to personate shepherds. However, I seriously doubt this, since to my eyes, these two bearded and bare-headed figures, clad in animal skin, are clearly "wild men".

Source: Alberto Peratoner

Source: Alberto Peratoner

Source: Alberto Peratoner

Mechanical scheme of the clock system, drawn by its last custodian, Alberto Peratoner Source: Alberto Peratoner

Source: Alberto Peratoner

A rare sight: Venice and its moors covered with snow; Picture: Alberto Peratoner

The legends and myths of "wild men" are a global phenomenon. Already the Gilgamesh epic mentioned a tall and wild individual named Enkidu, who, while basically of human nature, nevertheless had supernatural strength. "Wild men", living in barely accessible places are popular myths even today, we just have to think of the Yeti or Bigfoot. In the middle ages, "wild men" were commonly used in arts and heraldry, so it is not astonishing that those who ordered the Saint Mark's clock deliberately used the symbol of strength and savagery, but also of innocence and simplicity.

Source: Alberto Peratoner

Only three years after the clock tower's completion, Giacomo de Barbari cut its outlines in 1500; Source: Alberto Peratoner

Source: Alberto Peratoner

In his 1520 atlas, Xenodocos of Corfu emphasized the jacquemarts' fame by clearly showing it in the center of his symbolic depicttion of Venice; Source: Alberto Peratoner

Unfortunately, my ground braking discovery of the two moors' real nature will fail to shake the world of historical science: During my research for this article I stumbled over Michelangelo Muraro's great essay on "The Moors of the Clock Tower of Venice and Their Sculptor", published more than 25 years ago:

But it is nice to see that my initial reaction upon seeing the figures was correct. Anyway, the "moors" are among the finest examples of functional monumental sculpture in the early Renaissance, and it is thus a wonderful tribute to the artist, that Ulysse Nardin faithfully reproduced one of the "wild men" on the dial of its Hourstriker, and even both on the minute repeater "Jacquemart" - although their hammers have shrunk a bit ...

(c) M. Hanke

Ulysse Nardin Hourstriker (Sonnerie en passant), pink gold with blue enamel dial;  (c) M. Hanke

(c) Ulysse Nardin

Current version of the Hourstriker, with larger case. White gold and onyx dial; note the finer execution of the jacquemart, compared with the older version; (c) Ulysse Nardin

(c) Ulysse Nardin

Minute repeater "Jaquemart", white gold, blue enamel dial; this watch is out of production (c) Ulysse Nardin

(c) Ulysse Nardin

Handwinding movement of the minute repeater "Jaquemart"; (c) Ulysse Nardin

Foundation of a family in Burgundy

While the moors of Venice (of course, Shakespeare's famous piece on Othello has nothing to do with the mechanical figures on St. Mark's tower. But then, nothing is impossible ...) are still the most impressive jacquemarts surviving from the old times, they are by no means the oldest:  Around 1320, the first clocks striking the hours were built and installed in England, Italy and France. And the the city of Courtray in Flanders possessed a widely famed and valuable tower clock with a jacquemart, when it fell to the troops of Philipp the Bold, duke of Burgundy, in 1382. While the city burned down, Philippe ordered to save the most valuable prey, the clock, its bell and jacquemart, and to deliver it to the city of Dijon, as a reward for the military support it had given him in the campaign.

Of course yours truly, always eager to retrieve historical jewels so that they can be presented to this most illustrious community, grasped the opportunity to visit Dijon, now mainly known for its mustard production. The jacquemart can be found on top of a smaller tower of the beautiful Gothic cathedral Nôtre Dame. To my astonishment, I did not find a single figure, but a whole family assembled aside three bells.

(c) M. Hanke

The Gothic cathedral "Nôtre Dame" and its southern tower, which supports the bells and jacquemarts; (c) M. Hanke

(c) M. Hanke

Let me introduce you to the family: Jacquemart (left), the original figure from the 14th century, "Jacqueline" (right), and the children "Jacquelinet" (lower left) and "Jacquelinette" (lower right); (c) M. Hanke

Only the male figure is the original jacquemart, brought from Courtray, together with the clock. While at first, the people of Dijon simply called it "the man who strikes the bell with his hammer", they later grew more amiable, dubbing him "Jaquemart" - without c, as it is still written in the brochures of Ulysse Nardin. As the legend goes, Jacquemart (meanwhile with c) forgot to strike the bell on one day in the seventeenth century. A well-known poet credited this mishap to the figure's loneliness, so the city council decided to add a second mechanical figure in 1651. This was modelled with female attributes, and was immediately named "Jacqueline". A more probable reason for the mechanical problem was that the original figure had struck the bell from the same side, on the same spot for nearly three hundred years, creating one-sided wear of the mechanical system. Now Jacqueline assisted him by striking the bell from the other side every second hour.

In 1714, the couple got a child, "Jacquelinet", striking every quarter hour on a smaller bell, and in 1884, a small girl, "Jacquelinette", was added to strike the quarter hours alternately with her brother.

While this kind of familiar growth over the centuries is an exception, it was not that uncommon to add mechanical spouses to jacquemarts, or to even employ a couple from the start, as the famous example of Martin and Martine, the two jacquemarts of Cambrai, illustrates. They were made in 1512.

source: Wikipedia

"Martine" (left) and her spouse "Martin" (right) on the townhall of Cambrai; source: Wikipedia

Switzerland, "nation of time", has a few old jacquemarts, too. One of them complements the country's oldest astronomical timepiece, the "Zytglogge" in Bern. After a devastating city fire, Bern received a new clock with a large bell, striking the hours, in 1405. Soon it received the name "time bell" ("Zytglogge" in Swiss German), since - as was common at that time - the clock had no dials; the bell served as only time-telling device. At least sixty years later, around 1470, the bearded and armour-clad figure of what today is dubbed "Hans von der Thann" was added. Since then, it has been frequently replaced, the current figure being a copy of the baroque "Hans". Interestingly, "Hans" is not a true jacquemart, since he does not strike the bell, but his mechanism only pretends this action. The bell itself is still struck by a massive hammer, hidden behind the gold-plated man.

Source: Wikipedia

"Hans von der Thann" on the "Zytglogge" clock tower in Bern; Source: Wikipedia

Not only the times are gone ...

Unfortunately, not many of these old figures remained intact, or survived at all. In the early times, they were considered precious treasures, and frequently taken away as prestigious prey, as the example of Dijon's "Jacquemart" shows. Centuries of war and unrest made their traces vanish. The destructions during the terrible wars of the twentieth century caused the disappearance of many. Others, finally, became inoperative, were disassembled, or simply thrown away. Therefore, it is the merit of a watch manufacturing company like Ulysse Nardin, to keep the memory about these "big men" alive, by making them little, and giving them a home on the dials of its magnificent sonneries and repeaters.

(c) Ulysse Nardin

Minute repeater "Forgerons" (blacksmiths), older variant with blue enamel dial; (c) Ulysse Nardin

(c) Ulysse Nardin

Minute repeater "Triple Jack", paying tribute to the English name for jacquemarts; current version in pink gold and black onyx dial; (c) Ulysse Nardin

Copyright June 2010 - Marcus Hanke & PuristSPro.com - all rights reserved

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Comments, suggestions, and corrections to this article are welcome.   

This message has been edited by AnthonyTsai on 2010-06-05 11:07:26

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There is more to the little guys

 By: MTF : June 5th, 2010-11:35
than I thought. Thanks Marcus for the historic traipse through striking time. If production is low ( I am only assuming it is as these things are prohibitively expensive and there can't be a troupe of buyers out there!), how does UN maintain 'expertise pr... 

I think it is Christophe Claret who gives his expertise ....

 By: Marcus Hanke : June 5th, 2010-11:53
... since he is one of the most competent experts on musical watches, repeaters and automatons. Regards, Marcus

Thanks for the great write-up Marcus . . . Claret is a genius!!!

 By: Craig LA : June 5th, 2010-12:51
Claret is, without question, one of the greatest watch makers of all time!!! Craig

Thanks for posting

 By: aldossari_faisal : June 5th, 2010-13:10
informative, emotional, and eye opener. Faisal

Such an interesting read!

 By: dxboon : June 5th, 2010-15:24
Thanks, Marcus, for all the effort and research you put into this. I have found the UN watches with jacquesmarts to be interesting novelties that are great little miniaturizations capturing the spirit of historical clocks (I remember reading about the San... 

Great stuff. Not so much about stroking of bells but isn;t there

 By: ArthurSG : June 5th, 2010-20:35
an Erotica edition of this from UN as well?

*hum* please follow me into the adult section ...

 By: Marcus Hanke : June 5th, 2010-23:54
... yes, there is an erotica version of the Hourstriker, but since the activities shown by the figures are lacking that distinguishing metallic sound as a result ..... *blush* .... You find it in our UN gallery of enamel watches: ulyssenardin.watchpro... 

Since you asked :-)

 By: Kong : June 7th, 2010-00:22
and Marcus has provided the write-up and pics, here's one in action with sound .... make sure you are over '18' before clicking here Kong

Great post...

 By: Dave G : June 6th, 2010-05:03
Makes me appreciate mine all the more.... Dave This message has been edited by Dave G on 2010-06-06 05:05:51...  

Wow! How's the sound? [nt]

 By: EJames : June 6th, 2010-17:17
No message body

Great post. Very informative.

 By: VMM : June 6th, 2010-07:24
Always have loved those UN repeaters, found them very interesting and spectacular. Art works. Thanks for sharing. Vte

When I heard " Jacquemarts ",

 By: amanico : June 6th, 2010-10:56
2 words, or better, 2 names immediately came to my mind: La Torre dell Orologio and ... Ulysse Nardin. Indeed, for every U.N Lover, a pilgrimage to Venezia is a must. For every Jacquemarts Lover, UN is a must. What other brand offers such a diversity in t... 

Thanks for this bit of history Marcus...

 By: DonCorson : June 6th, 2010-12:12
It is a big jump from tower clocks, the pride of the up and coming bourgeois towns of the 14th and 15th centuries, to modern wristwatches with striking automatons, the pride of some lucky bourgeois in our days. Fascinating, Don

Triple Fabulous!

 By: Mr Green : June 6th, 2010-15:37
Thank you dr. Hanke for this wonder of post If I may, and I hope that you'll not hold it against me, I would like to take this opportunity and present most famous Jacquemarts from my country The Green Man of Dubrovnik. These are the Renaissance bronze sta...  

Hi Damian, thanks for that wonderful addition!! ...

 By: Marcus Hanke : June 7th, 2010-01:47
... so I assume the original figures have been replaced by copies? Are these functional, so that they strike the hour? Sorry, I have never heard the version that "Jacuemart" means "Jacues and brother", so I can neither confirm nor outrule it. Best regards... 


 By: Mr Green : June 7th, 2010-03:38
original figures are replaced by exact replicas. Originals are in Rector's palace today (next to tower where they were striking hours for centuries) restored to original state as pictured in my first post. Replicas are fully functional I'll try to make vi...  

Thank you for a great article

 By: EJames : June 6th, 2010-17:15
Thank you Sir. This is one of the most educating and interesting horological articles I have read -- beating everything I have read in any watch magazine. I hope a major watch magazine will pay you handsomely to publish it. At one time I owned a UN GMT Bi... 

Thanks for the educational post !

 By: Kong : June 7th, 2010-00:19
Thanks for the tour with views of the marvellous ancient Jacquemarts above various buildings. Prefer the Ulysse Nardin Hourstriker in pink gold with blue enamel dial to the current version in White gold and onyx dial, as it is more real, with the 'hans-ha... 

Thanks! Regarding the small hourg lass on the dial ....

 By: Marcus Hanke : June 7th, 2010-01:51
... it is a symbol that the sonnerie mechanism is active and every hour (and half hour) is struck. With a pusher on the case you can silence the mechanism, and the small hand would point away from the hour glass. "Jacqueline" is rather the female of "Jacq... 

Thank you

 By: respo : June 7th, 2010-07:16
These pieces are just amazing to se in photographs so I can only imagine seeing and hearing them in the metal. Wow! respo

Excellent write-up! [nt]

 By: jjsmithi : June 7th, 2010-09:33
No message body

Nine years...

 By: patrick_y : June 8th, 2010-00:52
First of all, let me congratulate you Marcus for writing such a fantastic review. This is a cumulation of a large amount of information that I, as a reader, will take time to appreciate. Personally, I have not seen the Ulysse Nardin Jacquemart timepieces ... 

I have seen such jacquemart mantle or wall clocks before ....

 By: Marcus Hanke : June 8th, 2010-01:05
... but they seem to be very rare. the oldest one I saw in a book, with a central bronze figurine striking on two bells dates from the early 17th century. It would certainly be rewarding to find one in good and working condition at an auction. thanks a lo... 

Any chance of hearing these guys?

 By: gazoz : June 9th, 2010-05:06
maybe someone can post it here for us please, thanks for the post Marcus im intrigued by these guys