Perhaps one of the greatest thinkers of the 18th century was Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a native of Geneva. He fought for Democracy and freedom as well as personal responsibility and education. His politics and writings impacted the French Revolution and set the path for modern political thought. Ironically, he spent his life with an illiterate servant and supposedly fathered five children with her but didn’t take responsibility for any of them. Despite his personal failings, Rousseau inspired many and stands as one of the greatest influencers of the 18th century.
On the occasion of the 300th anniversary of Rousseau’s birth, the city of Geneva has arranged a celebration called “2012 Rousseau pour Tous” (Rousseau for All).
Rousseau himself was not a watchmaker but he comes from a watchmaking family spanning four generations. His father worked for royalty as the “watchmaker to the Sultan”. It might be said that Rousseau’s methodical thought resulted from the observation of his grandfather David in his workshop “reasoning” with his hands, because watchmaking requires precision and a structural approach.
In honor of Rousseau’s horologic lineage, the Patek Philippe Museum and the Comité Européen Jean-Jacques Rousseau have put together a fantastic exhibition displaying “Timepieces Signed Rousseau” starting from the 17th century. Together with archival documents the exhibit showcases the Geneva Fabrique, an organization of craftsmen and women residing in Saint-Gervais. Within this group were jewelry and watchmaking industries, including goldsmiths, enamellers and engravers comprised of independent workshops working under the apprentice system. There are over 20 pieces directly signed by a Rousseau along with others made by watchmakers trained by a Rousseau.
While I was in Geneva, I had the opportunity to visit the Patek Philippe Museum and take some live pictures of the watches, including a wooden watch that was thought to belong to Jean-Jacques Rousseau. You can really see the high craftsmanship practiced by the watchmakers and the pride they took in their creations. They are not only technically accomplished but also aesthetically beautiful from the cases to the movements. In the collection are sophisticated complications like chiming watches and cases decorated by the accomplished enameller Jean-Pierre Huaud. The memento-mori (skull) and cross-shaped watches reveal what was on people’s minds at the time.
In addition to the Rousseau exhibit, the museum has over 2000 watches on display. It’s an amazing experience to see the evolution of watchmaking over five centuries. While there is an entire floor devoted to Patek Philippe’s watches, which is incredible, there are other watchmakers’ work represented such as Antide Janvier and Abraham-Louis Breguet. The automata in the back room are truly stunning.
If you are in or near Geneva, I highly recommend a trip to the Patek Philippe Museum. There is so much to take in that breaking it into two trips might be the way to go.
The Rousseau exhibit runs from May 11-October 13, 2012.