MYKU TRAVEL TALES - Ancient China’s obsession with luxury watchmaking

MYKU TRAVEL TALES - Ancient China’s obsession with luxury watchmaking

On a recent trip to China, we took some time to discover time. More exactly, the fascinating ways how China’s emperors measured time in the Forbidden City and their obsession with clocks.

One of Beijing’s most photographed sights is without a doubt the Forbidden City, the palatial home to 24 of China’s emperors for almost 500 years. While the UNESCO world-heritage site (since 1987) itself is fascinating in its flawless infrastructure, strictly adhering to spiritual and philosophical principles, today’s feature will take you into the breathtaking collection of more than 1000 exquisite clocks and watches, collected by China’s imperial court throughout the 17thand 18th centuries. 

The collection itself had an adventurous story throughout tumultuous times, threatened by fires, plundering and the abdication of the last emperor. Since 1925, the Palace Museum is in charge of the extensive collection of artworks and artifacts accumulated by the courts of the Ming and Qing Dynasties.

A great part of the cultural wealth of the Forbidden City can be found in the Fengxian Palace, now known as the hall of the clocks.

Originally, this palace was built as a place for the emperor to offer sacrifices to ancestors. Over time, the palace was repurposed as a gallery of hundreds of exquisite clocks and watches collected during the 17th and 18th centuries. Many of the Ming and Qing emperors were fascinated by chiming clocks especially, a complete novelty to the Chinese court, presented by Western missionaries. Wasting no time to develop their own, first Chinese chiming clocks were created as early as 1644.  Europeans were asked to share their mechanical horology skills to improve the quality of Chinese-made clocks.

Clock Museum China Beijing Photo by tredychris on flickr

Photo by tredychris on flickr

Before mechanical clocks were used as trusted timekeepers, the palace relied on the water clock, which still can be found today in the Forbidden City (build in 1745) This remarkable technology was developed 2,500 years and its simplicity, yet precision, it can be considered one of China’s greatest inventions.

With the palace in full fascination for clocks, Emperor Kangxi established the Bureau of Clockmaking in 1671, dedicated to the conservation, repair and manufacturing of clocks.  Notes left by missionaries in the 1730s indicate that more than one hundred craftsmen, specialized in horology were hired to make clocks for court. 

In fact, the 18th century was the golden era for the Chinese imperial clocks, often elaborate in design and setting, including chiming, artistic, musical clocks and fob watches. Almost all works featured expensive materials such as gold, jade, ivory combined with exquisite metalwork and gunsmithing. Elaborate in complications and design, these projects could take years to complete.

Amongst all these breathtaking pieces, the most interesting clock was the Geng clock. Invented by the French monk Valentin Chalier, it displays the western time in periods of 12 and 24 hours. It also included the Chinese divisions of the night known as five Geng. The length of each Geng varies according to the length of the night, corresponding to the 24 solar periods of the traditional Chinese calendar. Striking not only in design, this clock is a mesmerizing setting of complications, a true testimony to the genius of its creator.

Today, the hall of clocks counts an estimated 1,600 timepieces in its collection. Beyond the 200 pieces displayed on the ground floor, a large amount of the collection is safely kept in the basement. A group of artisans is responsible for taking care and repairing these antiques.  The techniques possessed by these artisans are listed as a national intangible cultural heritage since 2014 as many technology are no longer in use in today’s watchmaking.

Solar clock in the Forbidden City, Beijing, China

Solar Clock in the Forbidden City, Beijing, China.

Beyond their stunning appearance, these timepieces are a true testimony to the scientific and mechanical mastery of their makers centuries ago.

Today’s center of fine watchmaking is undoubtedly Switzerland, known for its craftsmanship used throughout watches, including MYKU. Few know about China’s artistry and expertise in this field centuries ago. One could only guess how their skills could have been mastered if China would have continued making exquisite timepieces, Chinese watchmaking could have been the finest today.

Celebrating the Chinese New Year, MYKU has combined the best of both, bringing together Swiss-made timekeeping set with a Sartonyx, a stunning red stone, symbolizing luck and prosperity in Chinese culture.

MYKU Sardonyx onyx gold watch chinese new year

Inspired by Chalier’s Geng clock, we strive to respect the true character of each stone used in our timepieces, paired with finest craftsmanship. Discover the full Sartonyx collection here.