Mysterious historical parallels: Konstantin Chaykin’s Mystery 1000 Jewels and the pocket watch Mystérieuse of Armand Schwob et Frère

Could watches invented by different watchmakers in different eras share similar fates? Alexey Kutkovoy doesn’t believe in fate, but sometimes you have to admit the obvious…

The first clock entirely designed and manufactured by Konstantin Chaykin was his Foundation Tourbillon Clock. He worked on that project from the end of 2003 through the first half of 2004, and upon its completion he began to develop other table clocks, both complex, with a tourbillon and calendar functions, and relatively simple, with just a tourbillon. There were a few attempts to develop wristwatches, mainly for private orders, however they can best be described as a test of strength in the possibility of heading in this direction of making timepieces in future.

He gave his first serious thoughts to making his own wristwatches in 2007. It came about, as often happens, by chance. From 16th to 19th October the Moscow Watch Salon exhibition was held in Moscow, where Konstantin brought several copies of his newly-developed small tourbillon clocks, including his Ant’s Tourbillon Sapphire Clock with transparent sapphire bridges (it’s worth noting that it was the world’s first table clock with sapphire bridges and the most compact table clock with a tourbillon), as well as his second computus clock. Along with the aforementioned clocks, he also took to the exhibition a mockup prototype wristwatch with perpetual calendar and Orthodox Easter date indication. However, the project didn’t go further than this model and the computus wristwatch was never made, largely due to the fact that both the development and manufacture of such a super-complicated wristwatch would have required significant funding. Nevertheless, participating in the exhibition offered him a different opportunity.

Perpetual calendar showing the date of Orthodox Easter by Konstantin Chaikin
2007. A mockup prototype of a wristwatch with perpetual calendar and Orthodox Easter date indicator by Konstantin Chaykin.

German Polosin, a collector and specialist in the restoration of antique timepieces, introduced Konstantin to Ilya Gelfman, an aspiring collector who was inspired by the idea of organising the production of high-quality mechanical watches in Russia. Clearly, Chaykin’s ability to not only create complex watch mechanics but also to design movements and invent his own complex functions meant he was a promising partner for Gelfman, who had gone to the exhibition with a specific idea in mind, inspired by a recently acquired ‘mystery’ watch recommended to him by Polosin. This was an antique pocket watch by the Armand Schwob company, Armand Schwob et Frère Mystérieuse, made around 1890 in La Chaux-de-Fonds. Gelfman’s idea was a wristwatch with a mysterious time indication, only without the metallic central axis featured in the transparent dial of the Armand Schwob watch.

Armand Schwob & Frère Mystérieuse pocket watch circa 1890
Mystérieuse pocket watch by Armand Schwob et Frère, circa 1890. Photo – Antiquorum.

It is worth noting here that from the point of view of true compliance with the execution of a ‘mystery’ watch with a transparent dial, there are criticisms of Armand Schwob’s Mystérieuse. The brand’s dial was not nearly as transparent as one would like. In the centre one can find a starry or floral décor, designed to disguise the miniature clockwork used to drive the hour hand, with the periphery overwhelmed with hour markers in the form of Arabic or Roman numerals, as well as a minute scale with 5-minute markers in Arabic numbers. 

model of the watch mechanism "Mystery of 1000 stones".
The three-dimensional computer model of Konstantin Chaykin’s Mystery 1000 Jewels watch movement.

Konstantin Chaykin was truly inspired by the idea, especially since he would have the opportunity to create his own version of the classic design – in the form of a wristwatch. He made the project even more complex by adding, using the same principles as the mysterious time indicator, a planisphere with a map of the starry sky over St. Petersburg and an annual calendar. The ‘mysterious’ indicators were supplemented by the usual opaque moonphase indicator, equation of time, and power reserve. And yes, he got rid of the central metal axis which had so annoyed Gelfman. In order to achieve this, he decided to mount the rotating sapphire discs of the transparent dial on peripheral ball bearings he had made himself, the balls being miniature spherical ruby jewels. The final version of the watch contained a total of 1020 jewels, with 954 in the ‘mysterious’ indicator and 66 ordinary jewels in the movement. And this, by the way, is the origin of the name Mystery 1000 Jewels.

Watch "Mystery of 1000 stones"
Mystery 1000 Jewels

The single finished copy of the Mystery 1000 Jewels had a sad fate awaiting it – the watch was stolen from a hotel room. Ilya Gelfman recalls: “In April 2009, the auction house Sotheby’s held a charity ball and an exhibition at the Louvre, and I planned to present my watch there. Unfortunately, I couldn’t go, so I cancelled at the last minute and got a friend to stand in for me. The event went as planned, with a ball, dinner and the presentation. My friend went back to her room at 1am, put the watch on the table and went to bed. When she woke up in the morning, it was gone. We studied the CCTV footage but found nothing. It seems that someone used the hotel card, entered the room, and left with the watch. About three months later we received a message inviting us to buy the watch for 25 thousand euros. We went to the police but they couldn’t find anything and we never saw the watch again.”

"Mystery of 1000 Stones", view from the reverse side.
Mystery 1000 Jewels, view from the reverse side

The mysterious disappearance of a ‘mystery’ watch – one would think this would be the only such sad event in the history of watchmaking. However, this is not the case. Imagine my surprise when, in a text titled “The first transparent watch” by Juan F. Déniz, published in Antiquarian Horology magazine in 2018, I found mention of the theft of a ‘mystery’ watch at the 1889 World Fair, held in Paris from 6th May to 31st October. Once again, the mysterious disappearance of a ‘mystery’ watch, and again in Paris! I dived into the archives of Parisian newspapers of that year and finally found what I was looking for. On 1st November, 1889, the day after the closing of the exhibition, issue 10405 of the Parisian newspaper Le Temps, reported in its article “Chronicle of the Exhibition: Assorted News” that (translated from French): “Yesterday, it was discovered that a valuable watch called ‘mystery’, owing to a special design of the mechanism, disappeared from its showcase [of the collective exhibition of the watches of French companies], while the lock remained intact. A representative of the brand suffering the loss lodged a complaint regarding the mysterious theft”

Clipping from the newspaper Le Temps, number 10405 about the mysterious loss of the hour
Le Temps, issue 10405, text about the mysterious theft of the ‘mystery watch’ highlighted by the author

Still think mysterious coincidences don’t happen?

Canadian patent
Illustration of Hugues Rime’s Canadian patent

P.S. The idea of a ‘mystery’ watch has been realized several times by various watchmakers and companies, in particular in the ‘mystery’ pocket watches of Armand Schwob et Frère, founded in Paris by the brothers Armand and Abraham Schwob, who first used this time indication in a pocket watch. It was produced using the patent of the French watchmaker Hugues Rime from 1888 to 1892, most likely in the Swiss city of La Chaux-de-Fonds, where Armand Schwob et Frère maintained an office. In 1892, Armand Schwob et Frère went bankrupt. According to the numbering of their watches and mechanisms, only a few thousand copies were made, probably 3000 at most. The movement of the watch used components of the calibers of women’s pocket watches (pendant watches) on a cylinder escapement: the main gear, the barrel and winding gear, and the escapement.

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