Imagine a clock that winds itself based on changes in atmospheric pressure.
This clock doesn’t need a human. It winds itself with the help of a sealed bellows of ethyl chloride. When the temperature rises, the metal spring is condensed. When it falls, the metal spring expands, and the mainspring is wound.
Because this clock is so delicate, a pendulum was invented that practically has no friction and hangs off a wire thinner than a human hair. This is the Atmos clock, the brand of a torsion pendulum clock made by Jaeger-LeCoultre of Switzerland.
Clocks that ran on atmospheric pressure were invented in the 17th century and refined throughout the 18th century.
A particularly noteworthy torsion pendulum clock is the Beverly Clock in Dunedin, New Zealand, which has not been touched by a human since 1864 and is still telling accurate time.
I love this gold and crystal atmos mantel clock with its modern case, given as a retirement gift, as so many were in the mid-20th century, and the strange pendulum.
Many Atmos clocks have been given as gifts since the 1940s. Not the least of the “givers” is and was the Swiss government, for which the Atmos Mantle Clock has been the go-to gift for visiting dignitaries since the 1950s.
In the U.S., the version you see in the photo of gold plating over brass with crystal has different outward casing styles, but the clock technically speaking is the same internally since 1946. These were often given as retirement and wedding gifts, given by families and companies, and the gift of the Atmos reflected the relationship the clock honored. The Atmos was an object that one could give that would reflect reliability, dependability, accuracy and beauty.
For example, a version of the Atmos mantel clock called the Moonphase, which retails today, used, for $10,000, is the same torsion pendulum Atmos clock set into a case of plated Rose Gold and crystal. The difference is that the Moonphase tells the time, month and moon phases, and is not accurate only once in every 3,821 years.
The Atmos was invented by the Swiss engineer Jean-Leon Ruetter in 1928 and became commercially produced by Jaeger-LeCoultre in 1936. Jaeger-LeCoultre was formed in 1833 by Antoine LeCoultre. The brand is my favorite for clocks and watches. They have invented and patented thousands of clock movements, including the world’s smallest movement, the world’s most complicated movement and of course, the perpetual movement of the Atmos clock.
My business manager Shawn is a collector of men’s unique wristwatches and loves the wizardry of the Tourbillon movement and its Jaeger-LeCoultre Grand Complication watch, called the Hybris Mechanica a Grand Sonnerie — a wristwatch that will set you back $2.5 million. It was designed in 2009.
What you get on your wrist for $2.5 million are treats for the ear because Sonnerie means ”chimes,” and yes, the watch has miniature tiny gongs and hammers inside that can play the miniature chimes inside that watch. Because of its 1,300 parts and many complex tiny gears, it will play you the entire Big Ben chime song and the Westminster chime song, as well as showing you the time, and the perpetual calendar for the date, day, month and leap year.
The challenge, I have learned, to the watch making industry, in the creation of the Grand Complication wristwatches, is the precise engineering needed to find more and more complexity, in a relatively small wristwatch, and to solve the complexity problem in mechanically engineered miniature ways that are not digitally based, but mechanically astounding.
Think of it this way. If in 1980, your Casio beeped every hour, this $2.5 million dollar Hybris Mechanica a Grand Sonnerie wristwatch will play amazing tiny chimes. It will come delivered with its own 450-pound safe and two backup watches. What are you waiting for?
Over the length of its career as the premier Swiss mantle clock, the Atmos has had various models and changes to its horology, but the essential engineering is the same. However, in the last few years a LeCoultre designer developed the Atmos Mysterieuse — a most gorgeous torsion pendulum mantel clock set in a case with a base covered in cream shagreen (shark’s hide), and mother of pearl, with a Baccarat crystal cloche, which hermetically seals the Atmos horological movement. The case is accented with 9.35 carats of diamonds and retails for $230,000.
The value of the 1960s era Atmos is estimated at $3,000-5,000.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart’s “Ask the Gold Digger” column appears Mondays in the News-Press.
Written after her father’s COVID-19 diagnosis, Dr. Stewart’s book “My Darlin’ Quarantine: Intimate Connections Created in Chaos” is a humorous collection of five “what-if” short stories that end in personal triumphs over present-day constrictions. It’s available at Chaucer’s in Santa Barbara.