Rare Japanese clocks to sell in London

Clockmakers in Japan were painstaking, as they knew their Samurai patrons would not take kindly to clocks which failed to keep accurate time.

Centuries later, on February 17, Bonhams will host a sale of Japanese clocks, showcasing 60 stunning examples of the Japanese master clockmakers' work.

Among the many strange features on these clocks are the numbers, allowing them to be calibrated to the longer summer hours. This was based on a long-ago-discarded Japanese idea that a greater amount of light requires an expandable hour.

The Japanese were as confused by western concepts of time, introduced by Christian Missionaries, as the westerners were by Japanese time keeping.

Perhaps rather sadly, western time won and the traditional Japanese clock eventually became redundant. However, it was this development which makes Bonhams' collection all the more fascinating and historically important.

For the past 200 years, these clocks have literally kept 'a time that is past.'

'Beautiful works of art as much as historically interesting timepieces,' <BR>says Bonhams
'Beautiful works of art as much as historically interesting timepieces,' says Bonhams

John Read OBE was a one-time chairman of the British Horological Institute, and remains a legend in the watch market. He is the leading authority in the west on Japanese clocks, and the man who introduced Rolex to Japan.

It was Read who brought this fascinating collection of Japanese timepieces back to England.

He first moved to Japan in 1954, when the country was beginning its recovery from the destruction wrought during the Second World War. Whilst there, he trained as many as 500 Japanese watch makers.

"The Revolution of 1866 saw the end of the Tokugawa Dynasty and the restoration of the Monarchy," said Mr Read, in a Bonhams-issued statement.

"Japan threw herself open to western influences. But it was not until January 1873, after seven frustrating years, that Emperor Meiji was able to issue a decree whereby Japan was to abandon its ancient and complicated method of time measurement and adopt the simplified European system - making all existing clocks obsolete.

"As a result of this many of the traditional Japanese clocks were destroyed. In fact some of the best examples surviving to this day are those that were taken abroad by foreigners."

After 1551, European clocks were mostly imported into Japan by Jesuit missionaries, both for their own use and as gifts for the Shogun and nobility.

But the Japanese were not keen to adopt the new western timekeeping model, and the ancient system was kept alive by Buddhist and Shinto priests who operated incense clocks in the shrines around the country.

By 1612, Japanese blacksmiths were producing their own version of western clocks, known as Daimyo clocks because only the Daimyo, the nobles, could afford the clocks.

Already accomplished as metal workers, the Japanese were also clever clockmakers and a flourishing industry came into being in Nagoya, Kyoto, Osaka, Nagasaki and Tokyo.

The Japanese made brilliant technological innovations such as lacquering to protect delicate iron cogs and gears: a time-consuming process, but one responsible for the fact that metal Japanese clocks of this period are in far better condition than their western equivalents.

"These are often very beautiful works of art as much as historically interesting timepieces. The level and quality of decorative work is quite breathtaking," said James Stratton, Head of the Clock and Watch Department at Bonhams.

"And of course you are looking at a mix of Japanese craftsmanship getting to grips with a new method of time keeping. These are utterly fascinating objects which speak of cultural borrowing and making that borrowed sense of time their own," he said.

"These are outstanding clocks of their time. Over time the clocks evolved to suit the peculiarities of the Japanese timekeeping system," added John Read.

"Nevertheless they remained an incredibly expensive and rare item. One clock would have cost the equivalent of 20 years' wages for a normal person.

"On top of this, each was looked after by a man whose sole responsibility was the maintenance of the clock. It is little wonder that the clocks were so expensive."


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