Don’t let the retro look of the mechanical men built by Swiss artisan Francois Junod deceive you — they fascinate tech fans from Silicon Valley to Asia and will no doubt gain broader popularity after the launch of Martin Scorsese’s film Hugo about a secret hidden in an automaton.
The latest of Junod’s time-consuming projects is an 80cm wind-up Leonardo da Vinci figure that will be able to do intricate drawings and write mirror-inverted texts in Latin.
“I have been working on the sculpture for 10 years and on the mechanism for six years. I do not have a buyer yet so I can take my time,” Junod said, surrounded by a mishmash of tools, machines and sketches in his workshop in the village of Sainte-Croix perched high up in the Swiss Jura mountains.
His most complicated creation so far, an Alexander Pushkin animated by a complex mechanism enabling it to write down 1,458 different poems, was bought last year by a Silicon Valley entrepreneur for a price kept secret.
“Complex models can take years of work and cost up to 1.2 million Swiss francs [US$1.32 million],” Junod said, proudly showing historical automata that collectors from around the world ask him to restore.
“Before, I mainly worked for Japanese clients because automata really have a tradition there, but today, I have customers from all around the world,” said Junod, who counts the Sultan of Brunei and the late Michael Jackson among his clients.
Interest in these sophisticated dolls, known as automata, is likely to get a fresh boost from Scorsese’s new 3D film Hugo.
Based on a best-selling children’s book by Brian Selznick, the film tells the tale of a young boy in a Paris railway station in the 1930s who struggles to uncover a secret hidden in his father’s automaton.
“The film is going to be a good advertisement for my business,” Junod said. “People who watch it may think nobody makes automata anymore.”
Good-humored, enthusiastic Junod, who went through some rough times when he started making the self-operating machines in 1984, is one of the last craftsmen specialized in an art serving no other purpose than to surprise with its complexity.
“That’s what makes automata different from robots, which normally have a practical purpose. They are poetic,” he said.
Junod wants to give his Leonardo da Vinci a transparent back to make the mechanism visible.
“It’s part of the fascination with automata that people can understand how they work. These days, ever more objects are beyond our comprehension,” he said.
Junod’s automata are animated by a complex wind-up mechanism, not unlike the one in a mechanical watch, allowing them to accomplish a precise programmed series of gestures, which has often triggered comparisons with our modern computers.
The roots of these surprising machines reach back to ancient Greece, but they had their heyday in the 18th century when a general fascination with artificial humans helped watch and automaton maker Pierre Jaquet-Droz’s work win the favors of French King Louis XVI and his wife, Marie-Antoinette.
Jaquet-Droz’s three masterpieces — The Musician, The Writer and The Draughtsman — are on display in a Neuchatel museum and will be part of a large automata exhibition next year.
Junod has made several automata for high-end watch brand Jaquet Droz, now owned by Swatch Group, which wants to revive this heritage and a closer partnership is in the works.