Automata & Music Exhibition featuring Geneva’s Museum of Art and History (MAH) Objet d’Art Collection

Automaton clocks. Guangzhou (China), London, c.1800
Geneva’s Museum of Art and History

In partnership with GemGenève, the Museum of Art and History (MAH) is organizing an off-site exhibition featuring exceptional automata, musical, and other objets d’art from its collection. With a policy of promoting art and culture that dates back to the 18th century, MAH is now one of the leading museums in the world. This May, 25 small to medium-sized works of art created at the turn of the 19th century will be exhibited by MAH in an exclusive temporary display that will be open to GemGenève visitors. The show will also feature works on loan from the International Museum of Horology at La Chaux-de-Fonds, Swiss sculptor and automaton maker François Junod, as well as GemGenève exhibitors.


Following in the footsteps of the three previous exhibitions organized by GemGenève, this collaborative display illustrates the organizers’ desire to highlight the wealth of jewellery heritage and its relation to arts and crafts. It also raises the profile of acclaimed museum institutions such as the MAH by including them in the event’s cultural program.

The MAH Collection

Automaton case with a watch. Geneva, c.1800
‘Grinder’ automaton, colored gold and enamel
Geneva’s Museum of Art and History
Size: 7.7cm x 3.18cm x 1cm

Geneva’s Museum of Art and History is one of Switzerland’s largest museums. Deeply rooted in the city, it is a reflection both of local history and of the ties its citizens have formed with others all over the world. Watchmaking has a very special place at the museum: practiced since the 16th century, it went hand in hand with the expansion of far-reaching trade networks, bringing together converging technological innovations and developing exceptional expertise.


The wide range of items in the care of the MAH highlight watch mechanisms and related inventions in the field of mechanical art such as watch movements, musical boxes, and automata. The latter are something of a case apart blending technical prowess, history, philosophy and even magic.

Set of musical automaton clocks. Guangzhou (China), London, c.1800
Ormolu, enamel, silver, ivory, glass painting, polychrome glassware, painted metal
Ringing of hours on the hour, automatons and chimes on demand.
Geneva’s Museum of Art and History
Size: 90cm x 38cm x 33cm

The display being prepared for the GemGenève exhibition highlights the fascination exerted by the sounds and imitation gestures produced by automaton and musical box technology and machinery: tunes of the day, folk songs, more exotic melodies and animated genre scenes were all incorporated into an objet d’art.


25 small to medium-sized works of art created at the turn of the 19th century will be exhibited by the MAH in an exclusive, temporary display open to GemGenève visitors. The show will also feature works on loan from the International Museum of Horology at La Chaux-de-Fonds.

Pocket watch with repeater and automata. Paris, c.1820
Guilloché gold, painted enamel cartouches, blued steel window, colored gold automata
Geneva’s Museum of Art and History

Brief History

By the turn of the 19th century, Geneva watchmakers had perfected timepieces’ accuracy and chimes, and so moved on to developing more sophisticated curiosities. The trend for repeater watches and automata (jacquemart watches) drew on know-how from the large clocks with automata made from the 14th century onwards.

In the words of F. Berthoud in the 1765 Encyclopaedia, horology was defined as “the science of movement”; as such, it was embodied not only by timepieces’ inner workings but also by their faces, featuring animated displays housed in sumptuous decorations visible on the hour, at each chime, or on demand.


These watches, most of which included a musical aspect, reached the apogee of their popularity around 1840. There was similar enthusiasm for mantelpiece clocks being turned into showpieces with the help of musical boxes and songbirds, resulting in creations inspired by daily life, pastoral scenes, or the circus. More often than not, displays were accompanied by music produced by simple musical boxes that could play one or more tunes, commissioned from specialist craftsmen and built into the base of the clock.

Mantelpiece clock with acrobatic automatons, tightrope walkers and musicians
Benoît; Japy Frères, Geneva, Beaucourt (France), c.1852
Gilt bronze, painted wooden automatons, enamel dial, painted wooden base, glass dome
Hour and half hour chimes; music mechanism playing two tunes; cord activated
Geneva’s Museum of Art and History, Donation by [Mrs. Veuve] H. Chauvet, Geneva, 1924.
Size: 83cm x 49cm x 28cm

It was Geneva watchmaker Antoine Favre who invented the musical box in 1796. He hit on the idea of replacing the complex mechanism of belltowers’ hammers and bells (which had originally been adapted for use in watches and snuff boxes) by steel strips that would vibrate when struck by pins arranged around a cylinder.


Taking the opposite direction to the miniaturization evident in the shift from clocks to watches, musical box dimensions increased due to the technical requirements in terms of sound quality. As a result, the musical box industry took a separate path from watchmaking per se from around 1815 onwards. Output in Geneva peaked in around 1860 and then declined; the remaining manufacturers such as Japy and L’Epée were concentrated in the regions of Sainte-Croix and Beaucourt.

Musical quarter repeater pocket watch with automaton
Capt & Janin, Geneva, Mende, c.1810
Polished, engraved gold, painted enamel
The automaton’s right arm plays the lyre throughout the melody (straight blade mechanism)
Geneva’s Museum of Art and History

GemGenève’s 2023 Project: Enhancing Heritage & Artistic Creation

In 1952, Geneva’s Watches and Jewels Association organized a major exhibition entitled ‘Music and Automata’ at the city’s Museum of Art and History (MAH) in a specially constructed setting evocative of shows, guinguette bars, festivals, and the circus.

This May 2023, it’s now the GemGenève exhibition’s turn to invite the MAH to stage a display on the same topic in a minimalist setting designed to offer a converging view of the works of art in question: automata clocks and watches, animated scenes, musical mechanisms and singing birds will be on show side by side to celebrate the skills of mechanical art and the many decorative crafts evidenced in the museum pieces, such as goldsmithing, jewel-smithing, and enameling.


The GemGenève exhibition’s promotion of an ‘off-site’ program is a good fit for the ‘off-site’ stance taken by the MAH itself. The museum implements this policy through partnerships with private and public-sector institutions who have in common the aim of preserving the heritage of watchmaking and mechanical art.

Antique German enameled music box by Emil Brenk | Faerber Collection

The international visibility offered by the exhibition is a way of drawing attention to these collections and raising interest in the heritage of ‘Watch Valley’ – a source of inspiration and a key reference in the field – among visitors and professionals alike. Partners and the general public can thus gain first-hand experience of the benefits of bringing together heritage collections and professional training institutes to highlight the various professions in the world of jewellery and related crafts – and their creative output.

Antique mechanical garter bracelet | Faerber Collection

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