Bras en l'Air - A History Part I

As some of you know, I have been fascinated by alternate methods of displaying the time for many years. It is a tribute to the watchmaker’s creativity and abilities  to take what is a simple circular movement and turn it into something which is at the same time ingenious and beautiful…and still tells the time.
Hence these two beauties:1

Bras en l'Air - A History Part I     Bras en l'Air - A History Part I
Jump Hour watch (Heure Sautante                                                  Il Saltarello

Turning rotary motion into linear or angular motion is a feat as old as machinery itself. Yet doing so on a small scale, and combining it with a pleasing and indeed fascinating display has become the realm of the master watchmaker.
One of the more interesting techniques of alternate time display is the “Bras en l’Air” mechanism. When I first started investigating this watch variant, I discovered that there were some unique interpretations:

Bras en l'Air - A History Part I   Bras en l'Air - A History Part I   Bras en l'Air - A History Part I

These vintage Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and Goofy watches are indeed “Bras en l’Air”, but not exactly what I was looking for.

Google sometimes got a little confused when foreign languages (non-English) were used. And thus we see a very interesting interpretation of the search term “Bras en l’Air”:

Bras en l'Air - A History Part I   Bras en l'Air - A History Part I
It’s good to see that American and French women are of the same mindset about bras en l’ air. In fact you might say they are comrades in bras…er, I mean, arms.

But getting back to watches: the concept of the Bras en l’Air watch was fairly straightforward in theory. It was only a question of changing the pointers at the end of the going train from circular to angular. And this action was accomplished through a set of cams and rods. The execution varied somewhat, and of course became more sophisticated over the decades and centuries. The idea for this kind of display first gained popularity in the later 18th century. In fact, it became quite popular under the reign of Napoleon.
One of the earliest realizations of this type of watch display was by the Frères Veigneurs in Geneva circa 1790. The watch is 54mm diameter, made of 18 ct. yellow gold and enamel depicting an ancient warrior holding a sword in each hand, one pointing to the hours and the other to the minutes. On depressing the pendant, the head turns from side to side and the arms rise to indicate the time. The movement was a fusée and chain with a verge escapement, 3-arm balance and rack and pinion regulator.

Bras en l'Air - A History Part I
Frères Veigneurs, Geneva circa 1790

Bras en l'Air - A History Part I     Bras en l'Air - A History Part I
Early and modern fusée and chain drive  (The latter is courtesy of Lange und Soehne)

By the 1820’s watchmaking had become a bit more sophisticated, both in movement and dial production. Hence, this more refined version from about 1825, an anonymous watch from Geneva, currently in the NAWCC Museum.

Bras en l'Air - A History Part I    Bras en l'Air - A History Part I

Bras en l'Air - A History Part I   
Back of watch

This watch also has an enamel dial with a hand-painted background, more elaborate than the one by Frères Veigneurs attesting to the improvement in enamel work over a 35 year period. The figure is somewhat more elaborate too but here again we see a soldier pointing to the time when the pendant is depressed. He also turns his head from side to side with the seconds beat. This watch measures 52mm, has a full plate with chain and fusée, key wound and set, and a Tompion regulator.2

A more interesting, and quite unique, variation of the Bras en l’Air design can be found in the Sir David Salomons collection in Jerusalem.3  This one uses three pointers instead of just two, indicating the hours, minutes, and the date. It may be the only one still extant with three indicators and thus a triple retrograde movement.

Bras en l'Air - A History Part I    Bras en l'Air - A History Part I

The watch depicted was made by Humbert and Mairet, in Geneva circa 1820. It shows a very refined metal sculpting and engraving skill with great attention to detail. Here too the indicators rise appropriately when the pendant is pushed down.
It measures 57mm diameter and has a fusée and chain drive with a plain balance.
The dial is of white enamel with 3 sectors for the hours, minutes, and date of the month, and features gilt metal figures in relief of a man, a boy and a monkey in a tree. 3
However, by about 1830, the Bras en l’Air’s popularity had gradually diminished, and disappeared altogether for almost 100 years.


In 1925, Paris held the “Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes” To many, this exposition was the beginning of the “Art Deco” period. It featured modern designs and ideas: art, architecture, fashion, furniture, motor cars, jewelry, and much more. The Exposition heralded a time of exuberance, advancement of women, and new ideas in music, aviation, and science. This Art Deco period would indicate a complete break with the past and a move into a bold new future. Into this milieu stepped les frères Verger, Georges and Henri. In the next two decades, they became the “jeweler to the jewelers”.  With the use of precious and semi-precious stones, a variety of metals such as gold, platinum, and palladium, and designers that were “sans pareils”, the “Verger Frères” developed jewelry, watches, clocks and objets d’art that were both luxurious and exotic, and unmatched.
In 1879, Ferdinand Verger, their father and founder of the firm, became an agent for Vacheron & Constantin. They eventually developed a strong partnership which lasted until 1938, during which time Vacheron became their principle supplier of watch movements. Vacheron and Constantin benefited immensely from this relationship. Even if their name was not on the dial, their movements were inside the case. As for Verger Frères, they did not have to solicit business from the “monde de haute joallerie”. Those companies such as Cartier and Hermès came knocking at Verger’s door for their jewelry creations.
Verger Frères also provided designs to Boucheron, van Cleef & Arpels, Bousquet, LaCloche Frères, Gubelin and Bulgari in Europe. They reached America by way of Tiffany, and Mexico in the hands of Hauser-Zivy y Cia. Many other jewelers well known throughout the world sought their expertise. Verger Frères’ designs were worn by the haute monde of Paris, the royalty of Europe, the royalty of entertainment: Josephine Baker, Mistinguett , Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, and Marlene Dietrich.
There was no single Verger style. In fact, its styles was quite varied, being heavily influenced by ancient Egypt, China and Japan.
During the height of their popularity,  Verger Frères revived the Bras en l’Air watch. The concept was unchanged, but the execution was pure Verger. Initially, the central figure on the dial was an Asian gentleman who could have been a soothsayer, a snake charmer a Buddha, a mandarin or even the Mikado himself.4

“Our great Mikado, virtuous man,
When he to rule our land began,
Resolved to try
A plan whereby
Young men might best be steadied.
So he decreed, in words succinct,
That all who flirted, leered or winked
(Unless connubially linked),
Should forthwith be beheaded…”

Sorry, I digress…

The watches functioned the same as their predecessors did albeit with more refined movements.

Below, we have four examples, almost identical to one another and made for, Gubelin, Charlton, Caldwell, and Grogan. The last three are in the U.S.). One of the movements is by Vacheron and was sold to Charlton & Co. The Movement for the Gubelin version is by Haas Neveux, a small but exemplary manufacture of watches in the Geneva area.5

Bras en l'Air - A History Part I  Bras en l'Air - A History Part I  Bras en l'Air - A History Part I
Gübelin and Charlton Dial                                   Caldwell Dial                                                          Grogan Dial

The Caldwell movement is probably by Vacheron, given that Caldwell was a major American retailer for Vacheron. I am not certain about the Grogan movement, but it looks to be either Vacheron or Haas Neveux. The bridges are similar, and the layout and placement of the Geneva Seals are identical.
The backs of the all the watchcases indicate the Verger Frères manufacture.

Bras en l'Air - A History Part I    Bras en l'Air - A History Part I
Caldwell and Charlton Movements

Bras en l'Air - A History Part I

Back of the Charlton case showing the diamond symbol and the "VF", (Verger Frères) initials inside

Bras en l'Air - A History Part I
Van Cleef & Arpels watch showing arm pointers at rest and indicating the time.

The Van Cleef version, very similar to the others, but a bit more ornate, I believe, carries a Vacheron  movement as well.

Here is one slightly different example from Vacheron, with the character looking a bit like Emperor Ming, (Ming the Meciless), from the Flash Gordon series of the 1930’s. 6

Bras en l'Air - A History Part I
Ming the Merciless and some quaint stereotyping of the Far East!

Bras en l'Air - A History Part I          Bras en l'Air - A History Part I
Vacheron Movement                                                                                                         Bi-retrograde module of the Vacheron watch

Designers can be quite ingenious. Here we have two other examples of Bras en l’Air watches which are nothing short of magnificent. The first is from Gübelin, showing an oar and sail-powered ship from an indeterminate era festooned in diamonds. (The oars are in the wrong place, but that’s artistic license).

Bras en l'Air - A History Part I

Bras en l'Air: Caravelle circa 1937

The second, from Vacheron Constantin (The Lovers), shows a couple engaged in a game of shuttlecock (badminton), and is highly decorated in gold.

Bras en l'Air - A History Part I

Bras en l'Air Les Amoureux circa 1929

I include here an interesting observation about this design in general. If you ignore the central figure(s), and concentrate on the pointers, you can see that the two time indicators (hours and minutes) are actually arcs of a circle and the pointers (arms, weapons etc.) are located in the centre of the circles of which these arcs are a part. The arcs subtend a third of the circle or 120 degrees. Therefore the hour pointer moves 10 degrees per hour, and the minute pointer moves 2 degrees per minute. Thus the cams and gears can be set appropriately. I never came across this explanation of the operation anywhere, but it does seem to make sense.

With the beginning of the World War II, the Art Deco Movement faded and the Bras en l’Air concept again was relegated to the archives of watch design. This time for about fifty years.

...continued in Part II


An amazing history Joseph
03/11/2014 - 05:40
Congratulations on this well-crafted, two-part saga yes.  I'm amazed at the creativity and craftsmanship of these pre-CAD vintage watches; such original concepts, so cleverly executed.  The three-handed version from the Salomons collection is a real treat to see! The 1825 Bras en l'Air greatly resembles a piece in the Geneva Museum attributed to Vaucher, which can be found on plate 108 of Jaquet and Chapuis' Technique and History of the Swiss Watch.  Perhaps an avenue for further enquiries... The Caravelle is another visual feast and reminds one of the similar glittering V&C from 1929, also retailed by Gubelin: Looking at how the snail cams, visible in the underdial picture of the Bras en l'Air complication, act on their levers I'm guessing the hours and minutes are jumping rather than wandering, but can you confirm this from your research? Thanks for taking the time to write this most excellent article, Joseph heart
I'm not sure they are either, the hands indicate time only when the
03/11/2014 - 19:14
button is pushed, other than that the hands are static
Re: An amazing history Joseph
03/12/2014 - 17:29
Thanks for your kind words, Dean. I appreciate them very much. I did see that watch in your photo but decided not to post it. It's a bit over the top bling for my taste. The Caravelle was about as much in diamond decoration that I could take (LOL).  I did see it and the Caravelle and the Lovers (Badminton) at the VC Museum. (I think they were all part of the exhibition, but my memory could be faulty). As far as the movements are concerned, non in the 18th, 19th or early 20th century displayed the time continously; but only when the button was pushed. I found on;y one reference as to why and it wasn't all that clear. It had to do with friction and wear on the mechanism, but it wasn't fully explained. Perhaps it was a mettalurgical issue.(?) Here is a Bras en l'Air clock from France circa 1890 which does have continuos movement. The sculpture looks very Belle Epoque and the arms move continuously. I suppose, in this case, with a larger gear train, cams and levers, wear on the parts would not be such a significant factor, but i do not really know. Best wishes, Joseph
Wonderful clock!
03/12/2014 - 21:04
Wouldn't that be something on the mantle cool.  Thanks for this added info, Joseph smiley
An enthalling piece of research...
03/11/2014 - 21:05
I'II come clean, Joseph......I've only completed this part of your journey and already you've stolen my attention in no short measure. Your commitment to research is a great strength that I truly admire. I'm now looking forward to Part ll and finding out what else is unravelled. Knowing you, nothing can be certain.wink... Well done! Tony   
Re: An enthalling piece of research...
03/12/2014 - 17:31
Thanks Tony. You are very kind. I had to stop somewhere in the exposition surprise. The more I looked into things, the more information I had. It was a bit of an overload! I probably left out as much if not more than I included. I hope you like Part II as well. Best, Joseph