Analysing The Inexplicable Mechanism Of Rotonde de Cartier Skeleton Mysterious Hour

The watch that keeps its secrets.

BY Teo van den Broeke | Sep 29, 2017 | Feature

42mm palladium on black alligator strap. POA.

Best known for the royalty-wooing jewellery it produces—Edward VII referred to it as “the jeweller of kings, and the king of jewellers”; Kate Middleton loves her Ballon Bleu timepiece—Cartier also designs unimpeachably elegant men’s dress watches. The Drive de Cartier Extra-Flat, released earlier this year, is the latest addition to the brand’s dazzling line-up, one which already includes the Panthère and countless iterations of the groundbreaking, rectangular-faced Tank. Over the past few years though, Cartier has been making its mark in the world of haute horlogerie.

In 1912, Parisian clockmaker Maurice Couët designed the first “Pendule Mystérieuses” (“mystery clock”) for Cartier. Inspired by the work of the 19th-century French magician and clockmaker Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin (who later inspired Harry Houdini’s stage name), Couët’s “Model A” carriage clock featured rotating crystal discs to which the hour and minute hands were mounted. The rock crystal allowed the viewer to see straight through the clock: the hands appeared untethered, with no perceptible means of moving. In fact, the mechanism moving the crystal discs was hidden in the clock’s frame, while the base concealed the main body of the mechanical movement. Cost and complexity has meant that relatively few mystery clocks have ever been made—in 2013, the Model A was sold for SGD710,000 at an auction in New York.

A century on from Couët’s original design, Cartier introduced its first Mysterious Double Tourbillon wrist-watch for men in 2013, an extraordinary feat of horological engineering which featured a tourbillon movement seemingly suspended at the heart of the timepiece. Three years later, Cartier released an open-worked version, providing a full view of the skeleton movement. And now, for 2017, Cartier has unveiled two new models to the masculine branch of the Mysterious family—the gloriously complex Cartier Rotonde de Cartier Minute Repeater Mysterious Double Tourbillon and this, the marginally modest, in title at least, Rotonde de Cartier Skeleton Mysterious Hour.

Housed in an impressively thin 11.9mm and 42mm diameter palladium case (palladium, first introduced into jewellery-making in the ’30s, is favoured by watchmakers for its lightness and bright, silver-white finish), the round dial—the hallmark of the Rotonde range—is exposed to reveal Cartier’s extensively skeletonised calibre 9983 MC hand-wound movement.

Though the skeletonised, expanding Roman numerals—a patented Cartier signature since 2009, when the design was introduced—are impressive, it’s the outsized sub-dial at 9 o’clock, finished with the mysterious floating hands first introduced in 1912, that’s the true star of this show.

The mysterious hour dial works thus: two separate transparent sapphire discs are fitted with sword-shaped, rhodium-finish steel hour and minute hands. The tooth-rimmed discs are then placed on top of one another, so they are able to move independently, and they are then operated by gears concealed around the edge of the dial, which are in turn powered by the movement within.

Though Cartier has remained relatively tight-lipped about the finer details of the mysterious mechanism in order not to ruin the magic (makes sense), what we can be sure of is the quality of the finished product, as it was overseen by Carole Forestier-Kasapi, Cartier’s director of movement creation.

“For the first time by Cartier, skeleton work and a mysterious movement—two of the maison’s iconic fine watchmaking signatures—come together in the same watch,” says Forestier-Kasapi. “Asymmetrical and structured, this two-sided movement exploits the visible and invisible with a stylistic audacity which is an essential component of Cartier’s design tradition.”

It’s a sentiment mirrored by Cartier’s managing director in the UK, Laurent Feniou. “The Rotonde de Cartier Skeleton Mysterious Hour incorporates a mysterious movement, an in-house complication that was introduced more than a century ago with the first mystery clocks in 1912,” he says. “Their mechanisms rely on an ingenious concept which Cartier has successfully transposed to the wrist. Then there is the skeleton work, the product of a long Cartier tradition that began in the ’30s. This creation is a true masterpiece.”

The cherry on this showstopper? Cartier’s classic sapphire cabouchon crown and a black alligator strap, two details which serve as a reminder of the marque’s unerring dedication to elegance as much as engineering.

This article was first published in the print edition of Esquire Singapore, September 2017.