Mechanical Wonders – the Collection

There are really no words to express the exquisite beauty and incredibly intricate craftsmanship of the Sandoz collection on exhibit at the A La Vieille Russie gallery in NYC. Once seen, it is easy to understand how Maurice Sandoz became intrigued with these treasures. The merging of the science of watchmaking with the art of jewelry design lend these objects a fascinating niche in the history of art and collectibles.

Sandoz collection at Mechanical Wonders at A La Vieille RussiePhotograph R. Sterchi

Although rudimentary examples existed as early as the third century BC, automatons didn’t come into their own until the second half of the 16th century with the invention of the mainspring in Germany. And then from the end of the eighteenth century through the beginning of the nineteenth, the time period of most of the pieces in the collection, the history of automatons is inexorably linked to watches and snuff boxes. The collection also includes animated human figures, such as the gilt copper version of Mother Shipton above, and animals and of course the impressive Fabergé pieces of which Sandoz was once Europe’s leading collector.

Sandoz collection at Mechanical Wonders at A La Vieille RussieThe exhibit comprises 50 pieces and while it is certainly not possible to show you all, I have selected several which I found particularly fascinating and/or beautiful. This exceptional Swiss hand mirror from 1800-1825 features a painted scene of the Bosphorous, indicating the mirror was most likely made to be sold in the Ottoman Empire. While beautiful in and of itself, the magic is in the rose at the top of the mirror that opens to reveal a mechanized bird which flaps its wings, turns and sings a whistled bird song!!

Sandoz collection at Mechanical Wonders at A La Vieille Russiephoto © FEMS, Pully

This snuffbox box, in the form of a book, is one of the most intriguing pieces. Made in Geneva at the beginning of the 19th century, the spine conceals three compartments: a tiny watch at the top, a spot for the key and  a box for perhaps smelling salts.

Sandoz collection at Mechanical Wonders at A La Vieille RussiePhotograph R. Sterchi

A painting of a tiger adorns the front yet when opened, a Roman temple is revealed. The columns, made of twisted glass, turn and change color and the doors open, revealing five figures appearing sequentially to two separate tunes. The back of the box is intended for tobacco.

Sandoz collection at Mechanical Wonders at A La Vieille RussiePhotograph R. Sterchi

Another piece that features a singing bird is this cane handle. When the lid is opened, the bird twirls, opens its beak, flaps its wings and flutters its tail, all while singing. I don’t think I could do that!

Sandoz collection at Mechanical Wonders at A La Vieille RussieSome of the most astounding and well know pieces are the jeweled pistols. When the trigger is pulled on this one, a bird emerges, pivots, turns its head, opens its beak, flaps its wings and tail, and of course sings!!

Sandoz collection at Mechanical Wonders at A La Vieille RussiePhotograph R. Sterchi

Another of the pistols is a “weapon of seduction.” Clearly made for a lady, its bullet is a lotus flower pomander which gives off a delightful scent. It’s a love gun!

Sandoz collection at Mechanical Wonders at A La Vieille Russie

Sandoz collection at Mechanical Wonders at A La Vieille RussiePhotographs above by R. Sterchi

Animals were also included in the mechanical depictions of our world.  This beautifully bejeweled automaton frog leaps forward and croaks before returning to his original position.

Sandoz collection at Mechanical Wonders at A La Vieille RussiePhotograph R. Sterchi

Even more amazing is this Ethiopian caterpillar. Constructed with eleven sections, its undulated movements propel it forward.

Sandoz collection at Mechanical Wonders at A La Vieille RussiePhotograph R. Sterchi

Sandoz collection at Mechanical Wonders at A La Vieille RussiePhotograph R. Sterchi

Of course the stars of the exhibit are the Fabergé eggs, the most impressive being the Imperial Peacock Egg. Presented to the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna by her son, Nicholas II at Easter in 1908, it is indescribably magnificent. The new Robert Massie book on Catherine the Great was already on my list but now I realize I really need to know more about this culture and era!

Sandoz collection at Mechanical Wonders at A La Vieille RussiePhotograph R. Sterchi

By pressing the concealed button on the stomach of the peacock, it then struts, turns it head and pauses before exposing its magnificent plumage. The crystal shell is engraved with the princess’ monogram.

Sandoz collection at Mechanical Wonders at A La Vieille RussiePhotograph R. Sterchi

Take a look at some of these amazing pieces in action. At the exhibit there are additional video installations that you can enjoy.

I’m thrilled to report that the exhibit has been extended to December 10th. If you live anywhere near NYC, this is certainly a show not to be missed. Tomorrow we’ll look at the watches and their inspiring influence on co-sponsor Parmigiani Fleurier’s collection.


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18 Responses to Mechanical Wonders – the Collection

  1. mel says:

    magnificent! thank you for the tip. i will be in the area tomorrow and will check them out.

  2. Incredible!! Such finesse and ingenuity combined. Thank you for including the video to see them in motion–it is hard to imagine otherwise. Actually, this makes me think of a video that Remi showed me last night: the military has built a big robot that I think they call “the dog” (?) that was scary to see. In the past, we created for beauty, now we create for destruction!

  3. Wow I am so going to this exhibit! My neighbor and I are going down to NYC this weekend and I’m dragging her to see this! Thanks!

  4. Paul Anater says:

    This is amazing Stacey, thanks for reporting on it.

  5. imperio jp says:

    BEE YOU TEA FULL and exquisite!! Am experiencing a glorious morning at a cafe in Buenos Aires of 78 degrees and blue skies after muggy hell this weekend, and this was the icing on my cake for a glorious start to the day – thank you Q!

  6. I love every single one! The love gun, the cane with the opening on top, and the tiny little book with a clock on the side. Why don’t we have things like this today? Where is the beauty and imagination of every day bobbles? Sigh…born in the wrong century.

  7. pretty pink tulips says:

    Gorgeous works of art and whimsy! Love the “lotus flower” gun for the lady. You can tell in addition to being talented, the artists had wonderful senses of humor!

  8. You’re right how to you put words to these items? I wish I could see it in person, the mirror alone would be worth the trip. Just incredible beauty and workmanship by spectaculary talented artisans!!!

  9. Fascinating and beautiful. The intricate detail is just amazing. The Imperial Peacock Egg is my favorite although each one is a wonder indeed!

  10. so many beautiful examples, I especially love the book one…and the peacock is incredible as well…wouldn’t it be fun to have a little collection of these too?…and a small fortune…?
    best,
    maureen

  11. Oh.My. Goodness! Can you imagine having one of these pieces under the tree. I am in awe.
    Thank you for sharing these gorgeous works, q. I am coming back during lunch to watch the video.
    Teresa
    xoxo

  12. Kelly Market says:

    WOW…!!! Really fascinating! That peacock is stunning – the colors are so intense. I wish I could see in person! xxKO

  13. This is truly “the bees knees”. Thank you for sharing as I’m not in NYC. You made me feel like I got to go to the exhibit.

  14. Incredible! I was wondering what Mother Shipton did then I watched the video – thank for you including it. The little figures playing the instruments were delightful.

  15. Stitchfork says:

    Wishing I could see these fascinating teasures in person! So glad you are sharing them with us!
    xo Cathy

  16. pve says:

    Stacey,
    What artisans. My son who is home from college and studying mechanical engineering will love this and then a trip to the other mechanical marvel, The Apple Store.
    pve

  17. What a WOW! I didn’t know about this exhibition and it is fascinating. I don’t know ifi could even choose my favorite piece they are all so wonderful (maybe the hand mirror). Thanks for sharing!
    Lynn

  18. oh my, what delights! That caterpillar? The pistols? So beautiful and whimisical. Thank you for sharing this!

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