Not a Christmas Story

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a Swiss Anti-hero?

Not a Christmas Story

The anti-hero is that character who lacks the conventional qualities of heroism yet manages to transform human frailties into heroic results.  This concept supports an entire genre of popular movies which I first discovered in 1979 with the dystopian Mad Max, but has roots in ancient Greek dramas.

Rousseau was a contemporary of Jean-Marc Vacheron, less than twenty years his senior, and they undoubtedly crossed paths for Rousseau was descended from three generations of watchmakers.

So why associate the name of Rousseau with this subject?  He is, after all, a symbol of the Enlightenment in Switzerland and France; venerated through statues, streets, and parks.  Let us leave that for later while I describe the object that stimulates my discourse.

Not a Christmas Story

This ingot of purest aluminium measures 35 x 45 mm and was struck in 1912 to celebrate the bicentennial of Citizen Rousseau’s birth on 23 June, 1712.  On the obverse it bears the crest of his birthplace, Geneva.  But most interesting is the reverse, where a charming scene is depicted.

Not a Christmas Story

Impressed into the metal is an image of a young Jean-Jacques in the cabinet of his watchmaker father, Isaac Rousseau.  The senior Rousseau is seated at his bench, tools briefly laid aside while he gestures out the window towards the Genevois cityscape. 

I do not profess to be a scholar on Rousseau; in fact it was the medallion’s connection to watchmaking in Geneva that first attracted my interest along with the unusual metal it was made from.  Nevertheless, some time spent with Mr. Google revealed a far more interesting story than I anticipated.

Not a Christmas Story

Returning to the scene; is the father offering the life of a cabinotier to his son, in the embrace of La Fabrique, or is he encouraging Jean-Jacques to travel beyond the city’s palisades and experience the outside world?  We know Jean-Jacques attempted to please his father, although he struggled as a watchmaker.  After spending three years in training, he left Geneva at the young age of sixteen and headed for France.

Not a Christmas Story

With the death of his mother when an infant, perhaps Rousseau found maternal comfort with his first sponsor; Louise Eleonore, Baronne de Warens.  With her support he pursued life as a music scholar and tutor; eventually publishing a dissertation on the topic of modern music in 1743 followed by a pair of operas and copious articles for Diderot’s Encyclopédie sur la musique française and Dictionnaire de musique.

Rousseau’s first major work, Discours sur les sciences et les arts, was submitted in 1750 in response to a newspaper contest and earned a prize from the Académie des Sciences, Arts et Belles-Lettres de Dijon while igniting a scandal for its contrarian view that the arts and sciences corrupted human morals.

I most identify with his second major work; Discours sur l’origine de l’inegalité, coincidentally published in that famous year of 1755.  In this he sought to address the origin of inequality among men and whether it was justified under natural law.  His conclusion earned him great enmity amongst powerful people.

What offended was his assertion that property, and the oppression employed to protect it, was the chief source of human inequality.  This concept greatly excited Marx and Lenin in future years.  Although he praised Geneva for having come closest to the ideal, this did not stop his subsequent persecution.

Rousseau’s first full novel was published in 1761.  Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse was a fictional potboiler with enough sexual innuendo to guarantee popularity and make Rousseau a minor celebrity.  He followed a year later with two works which were far more dangerous; political treatises on the nature of man and corrupting influence of civilization titled L'émile ou de l'éducation and Du contrat social.  In Émile he writes; “Everything is good as it leaves the hands of God; everything degenerates in the hands of man”. 

With another famous quote from The Social Contract; “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”, Rousseau advocated moving beyond the status quo to enforce liberty even upon the unwilling; a strain of thought that inspired all manner of good and evil, and most proximally the French Revolution.  The result was that both works were banned in Paris and Geneva, with copies burned in the public square.  Exiled, Rousseau found himself on the road again.

After renouncing his Genevan citizenship in 1763 and publishing the pamphlet; Lettres écrites de la montagne, repudiating the city’s ruling regime, Rousseau attempted to settle in Bern but was ejected and so spent a couple of years moving from place to place, even finding refuge in England until 1767, when he was allowed to return to France.  At the age of 56, he finally married his long-time mistress, an illiterate laundry maid who had borne his five children, all of whom were abandoned to the public orphanage.  He returned to Paris in 1770.

Not a Christmas Story

With this peace he finished his autobiographical Confessions, although sadly it would not be published until after his death.  This work would reveal an increasingly erratic personality which his friends and associates were already well aware of.

Allegedly insane, Rousseau died at a rural cottage on July 2, 1778, from a sudden illness which aroused suspicions of suicide.  In 1794, his remains were reinterred to the Panthéon in Paris.

Returning once again to the precious aluminum medallion, with this history I now find the scene to be exceedingly poignant, with more than a touch of pathos.  The watch alongside embodies a spiritual connection with the medallion.  It too was constructed from featherweight aluminium, and bears the name of Rousseau's Genevan compatriot, Vacheron.  I think they make a fitting pair.

Not a Christmas Story



A fascinating history...
12/14/2015 - 20:18

and a connection I had not made.  I, in fact, carry a quote from Rousseau with me everywhere I do (well, everywhere my iPad mini goes, since I cannot bring myself to engrave a watch).

Base souls have no faith in great individuals.

Thank you for sharing this very interesting historical connection.

Tis the season
12/15/2015 - 15:50

Glad to hear Jamie.  Looks like we're the only ones in the Lounge but understandable during shopping season.  Got any particular watch-related wishes?

Well... wishes are one thing
12/16/2015 - 18:04

But, alas, none that I plan to have fulfilled this holiday season.  Well, that is not entirely true, there may be a travel roll or some other such traveling case under the tree this year.  I have been thinking more lately about my role as Santa and less as my role as receiver, but there are a few things.  How about you?  Any great plans in the great white north for the holidays?

Retreating with family to a cabin in the woods
12/16/2015 - 20:54

We are escaping the city madness next week for a cabin nearby to a ski resort called Kicking Horse, with lots of black diamond runs for the young 'uns and some nice nordic tracks for us.  Want to enjoy my latest luddite venture; wooden skis!  I'm starting to collect (and use) these 1970s "toothpicks"; have four pairs myself and also buying for friends.  They climb and stride effortlessly and only give up any advantage to the modern plastic skis on downhill glide.  This shot was taken last week in Banff backcountry on the new bridge just completed this summer after the old one was destroyed by heavy floods nearly 3 years ago.

Retreating with family to a cabin in the woods

Got the last of the gift shopping done this morning, thankfully that task is now done angel.

Re: Not a Christmas Story
12/15/2015 - 21:34

Dean, can you read what the inscription at the bottom of the aluminium plate says? something like, 'Jean-Jaques, aime ton pays'? Assuming JJR to be about 10 or so in the image, perhaps a reference to the turmoil in Geneva in 1720's with pro- and anti-Calvinists??

Anyway, thanks for the interesting slice of History. I haven't ever read Rousseau but your article might have nudged me to have a go at the copy of Émile I've had waiting for a while now - holiday reading smiley



A plea or castigation?
12/15/2015 - 22:52

"Jean-Jacques! Amie ton pays"  With his leaving the country and renouncing his citizenship, the father's pleas to "love your country" are certainly open to interpretation.  Not sure if this was a historical quote or, more likely, some editorializing on the part of the medallion's creators in 1912.

PS, when you finish the book can you come back to us with a brief review?

Re: Not a Christmas Story
12/15/2015 - 23:02

Fascinating Dean.

Rousseau was an interesting thinker and writer who was influential in helping create the French revolution.

He also influenced the early American politicians who wrote the US Constitution.

His writings were profound and complex and some aspects can be better understood by appreciating the society in France in the 18th century.

But that'senough of that!

Nice watch!



Absolutely, Joseph
12/16/2015 - 00:44

Place and time gives context, and I most enjoy the observations of participants.  Perhaps the book I just finished had some influence on this post; a fascinating read titled Incomparable, about a regiment of the Grand Armee under Napoleon.  It was pieced together from military diaries and letters home so really puts one into the moment with the view at ground-level, from cantineer to chausseur.

I love the aluminum V&C, my first vintage watch and with a great Canadian connection heart.  Best of the Season to you and yours!

Re: Absolutely, Joseph
12/16/2015 - 12:06

Thanks Dean

Just returning from Paris. Had a great time and visited the Boutique. Jean-Yves was his usual charming ang gracious host. 

We saw some beautiful vintage pieces courtesy of Pierre-Jean Chabalier, their resident heritage expert. 

Saw a great exposition at the D'Orsay called Splendeurs et Misères about the depiction of prostitution in art from about 1810-1910. 

I guess the only watch connection is that some of the haute courtesans probably got some very nice watches. blush



Most interesting '&' enlightening...
12/16/2015 - 14:38

Dean, you're right, it is a busy time of the year preparing for the holiday season. Virtually non-stop! wink...

However, duly armed with a G '&' T (I think I've earned it!?) I have read your excellent article and congratulate you upon the crafting and compilation of the feature.

I shall return to it sometime over the holiday when alittle more time allows.

In the meantime, a word of thanks for the marvellous contribution you make to THL. Very much appreciated yes...

I take this opportunity to wish both you and Diane a wonderful holiday coupled with best wishes for the New Year.



A toast to you Tony, and all my fellow Loungers!
12/16/2015 - 16:53

Exciting times await us in the New Year enlightened.

I enjoyed this very much, Dean!
12/16/2015 - 15:26

You were right, too much holiday shopping and celebrations!  But this was a nice read to find waiting for me when I returned.


Most of all, I always enjoy seeing the V&C pocket watch.  I am hunting some V&C aluminum myself and maybe I will get lucky.  angel


Thanks for this interesting post, as awlays.



I am impressed and amazed how you made the
12/16/2015 - 21:17

life of Rousseau come alive via just a medaillon. Chapeau!