Friday, April 11, 2014

Friday Video: A Bejeweled Caterpillar Automaton, 1820

Friday, April 11, 2014


Isabella reporting,

Loretta and I are fascinated by the elaborate automata of the late 18th-early 19th centuries. Made of precious metals, enamel-work, and jewels, these early robots run not on batteries or electronics, but on elaborate clockwork mechanisms. Consider them the most elegant of wind-ups. Whether they're silver swansgolden elephants, or Marie-Antoinette's elegant dulcimer player, these marvels combine the highest skills of engineers, watchmakers, and jewelers.

Created by the Swiss watchmaker Henri Maillardet in 1820, this caterpillar was exotically dubbed the "Ethiopian Caterpillar" when it was first displayed to the public in London, and has also been called a "Vers de soie," or silkworm. Like many automata, the caterpillars were likely intended as costly diplomatic baubles, to be sent as gifts to the royal courts in China.

This particular caterpillar is made of gold, decorated with black and translucent red enamel, and set with pearls, rubies, turquoise, emeralds, and diamonds. Six similar caterpillars are known to still be in existence. But as much fun as these little toys are, they don't come cheap: the last time one was sold at auction in 2010 by Sotheby's, it brought a sale price of over $400,000.

If you receive this post via email and are seeing only a black box or an empty space where the video should be, please click here to go to the blog and watch the video.

8 comments:

Anachronist said...

A lovely blog, ladies! That caterpillar...if I find a boyfriend millionaire I will know what to ask for! :D

The Gossamer Tearoom said...

Very cool! I have seen several automatons but they were all in human form. I find them fascinating. This is the first I have seen as an animal. Very fun!!!! Thank you for posting this video so we could see it!

Betty

Andrea Lozano said...

What a fascinating toy! Playthings of kings and queens. Thank you for your interesting posts.

Pippa Shirley said...

Very interested to see this - we had a similar silkworm in the collections here which was sadly stolen along with many of our gold boxes in 2003, so its present whereabouts are unknown.

I was also interested to see your blog on other automata, because we have a wonderful elephant automaton here, made in the 1760s in London by Hubert Martinet. It has a musical box in the base and when wound up springs into life - the eyes roll, ears flap, tail and trunk swing and all the figures revolve. You can read more on our website here http://collection.waddesdon.org.uk/search.do?id=41380&db=object&page=1&view=detail

DLM said...

What a gorgeous, ingenious bauble! I hope you won't mind if I nab the vid (and tell my own readers to come by here for better background and more links ...).

DLM said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

DLM, please feel free to share the link and video - the joys of Vimeo and YouTube!

Pippa, I'm very sorry to hear that one selfish/greedy person stole your caterpillar/silkworm. Treasures like this truly are irreplaceable. But I love the elephant! Is there a video somewhere showing it in action? These automata really come to life when they're wound up.

Pippa Shirley said...

No video available as yet but I am working on getting it up on our website. I will let you know when it is there!

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