The chronograph’s inventor
Louis Moinet was born in Bourges in 1768. Acknowledged as a naturally gifted pupil, he consistently won first prize in all his secondary school competitions. While still a child, he developed a passion for watchmaking and spent all his free time with a master-watchmaker. An Italian painter also gave him private drawing lessons.
By the time he was of 20, Louis Moinet dreamed constantly of Italy, the classic land of fine arts. He left France for the city of Rome, where he lived for five years, studying architecture, sculpture and painting. He became acquainted with members of the Académie de France, which encompassed some of the finest artists of the times.
He then moved from Rome to Florence, where he learned the art of fine stone engraving in a workshop placed at his disposal by Count Manfredini, Minister of the Grand Duke of Tuscany. He also did several paintings there.
Upon returning to Paris, he was appointed Professor of the Académie des Beaux-Arts, in the Louvre. He became a member of several scholarly and artistic societies, and cooperated with eminent artists such as the astronomer Lalande, the bronzier Thomire, and Robert-Houdin, the skilled automaton-maker who is considered as the “renovator of magical art”.
In parallel, he pursued his theoretical and practical study of horology, the art for which he already nurtured a passion. He renewed contact with his former teacher, and the student quickly became the master.
Watchmaking occupied his entire time from 1800 onwards. He spent long periods in Switzerland, from the Jura mountains to the Joux valley. He met many famous watchmakers there, including Jacques-Frédéric Houriet, and acquired his horological tools and instruments.
Louis Moinet was appointed President of the Société Chronométrique de Paris, whose membership included some of the greatest talents of the era, and whose avowed purpose was “the development and encouragement of watchmaking, one of the finest sciences of the human mind”. Within this setting, he cultivated ties with his fellow members including Louis Berthoud, Antide Janvier, Louis-Frédéric Perrelet, Joseph Winnerl, as well as Vulliamy, who served as the King’s Watchmaker in London.
The work of Louis Moinet
Louis Moinet worked closely with the great Abraham-Louis Breguet, over a period of many years, acting in the capacity of close friend, confidant and intimate advisor. The two men shared the same passion for the art of horology.
In the course of his career, Louis Moinet created some extraordinary clocks for such eminent figures of his era as Napoleon Bonaparte; American presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe; King George IV of England; Ernest Augustus, Prince of Hanover; Maria Amalia, Queen of the French; Joachim Murat, King of Naples; Marshal Ney, along with many crowned heads the length and breadth of Europe.
There are some extraordinary stories behind these clocks, crafted in cooperation with the famous bronzier, Thomire. Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, United States ambassador in Paris and third US president, asked Louis Moinet to make him a clock based on his three criteria for a work of art: beauty, durability and utility. One can well imagine that he really loved his clock, since it accompanied him during his two White House terms of office and indeed until his last breath.
The one belonging to James Monroe is one of the original objects adorning the White House as it now stands. It was purchased in Paris in 1817, along with other decorative objects, in order to adorn the White House that had been burned down by the English in 1814, and then rebuilt by architect James Hoban. A large proportion of this original furniture has been lost over the years, and only a handful of these witnesses to the past remain, including the famous “Minerva” clock by Moinet and Thomire.
As for the Napoleon clock, it was made in 1806. Equipped with an eight-day movement, it displays the hours, minutes and date. Its grand originality stems from an exceptional mechanism displaying the moon phases inside the day hand, by means of a tiny ivory ball. Moreover, Napoleon and Josephine are crowned Emperor and Empress as soon as the music box is started. To achieve this, an ingenious mechanism physically places the imperial crown on their heads.
Today, these masterpieces are preserved in major European museums such as the Louvre in Paris, the Château de Versailles or the Palazzo Pitti in Florence, as well as in the United States in Jefferson’s Monticello museum and even in the White House.
As a maker of precision instruments, Louis Moinet was involved in maritime, astronomical and civilian horology. This ingenious craftsman perfected various techniques in these fields and developed several important new improvements. His major achievement is of course the compteur de tierces of 1816, which makes him the inventor of what became known as the chronograph. This instrument could time events to the sixtieth of a second (known then as a “third”), had a balance frequency of 216,000 vibrations an hour and could be reset to zero. Louis Moinet is thus the father of high-frequency time measurement, although it was not until exactly a century later that a watch was made to beat his record.
The work of Louis Moinet also includes alarm watches, regulators and astronomical watches. As the inventor of unprecedented concepts, he devised some truly astonishing mechanisms. For example, several of his pocket-watch calibres boasted unusual arrangements of the components (such as with the whole set of gears built around the same pinion). Moreover, it invented a toothed mainspring that improved the rating of the watch – a spring he poetically described as being a “half-ripe cherry red” colour when fired in the kiln. He also developed a new balance-cock that facilitated winding. After tireless efforts, he created a mobile balance-spring stud so as to poise the balance correctly without needing to dismantle anything. Finally, he slotted, rounded and hand-finished the gear trains of his marine chronometers in order to ensure their precision, according to the principles he laid out in his learned Traité d’Horlogerie or watchmaking treatise.
Dedicated to excellence and extremely modest by nature, Louis Moinet was driven by the ambition to advance his Art rather than a desire for commercial profit – which is why he freely shared his ingenious ideas with his fellow watchmakers.
The famous Traité d’Horlogerie
Louis Moinet is in particularly renowned for his famous Traité d’Horlogerie, published in 1848 and widely reputed to be the finest book on horology of the century. Comprising descriptions of the finest watchmaking techniques, it was appreciated by the great watchmakers of his era such as Frodsham, Perrelet, Saunier and Winnerl, as well as by several other scholars and connoisseurs such as HRH Prince Alexander of Orange – all of whom appear on the list of the numerous subscribers to a book that was reprinted three times and circulated as far afield as Russia.
Louis Moinet devoted twenty years of his life to writing this two-volume treatise, which remains highly sought after to this day. It contains in particular a practical and universal method for gears that follow scientific principles duly modified by their application.
The work of Louis Moinet consisted in giving life and soul to matter. Acknowledged by his peers as a good-hearted man of outstanding intellect, he died in Paris on May 21st 1853, at the age of 85.