One-of-a-kind Cartier timepieces built into rare Chinese jade antiques to be sold at Phillip’s Hong Kong

The combination of Chinese antiques and French watchmaking may sound unorthodox, but two prime examples of this style of work have made their way to the market. This spring, as part of Phillips’ Hong Kong Watch Auction XVIII, two pieces by Cartier, a jade “water clock” and a jade panel clock are to be sold, and represent some of the company’s most creative works.

These works are extremely rare, with the last time they appeared, even to Cartier, being in the 1990s. They represent not just a unique style of timepiece but also an uncommon form of antique, both in their usage and their inherent design. These works incorporate not just Chinese antiques, motifs, and materials in their construction but also mechanics, showcasing a level of cultural integration not often found in other timepieces.

Both pieces were part of the same collection and had previously been sold by Christie’s in 1990. However, their provenance before their sale and subsequent nearly three-and-a-half decades spent since are unknown. What is known is that they were made in the late 1920s, and both pieces at their core are Chinese antiques from its dynastic era.

The jade “water clock” features a unique time-keeping device and stunning jewelry. The blending of these elements led Cartier to describe this as one of their most precious pieces, and former Christie’s jewelry expert Hans Nadelhoffer to describe it as “the version most refined." It is followed by a jade screen etching of a Dong Bangda landscape. Cartier would add jewels and a timepiece, carefully highlighting its heritage.

Lot 933 | Cartier | A unique marble, silver, lapis lazuli, nephrite, coral, mother-of-pearl, enamel and jade “water clock” with original presentation box
Manufactured circa 1929
Diameter of Jade Bowl: approximately 20cm
Diameter of Base: approximately  22cm
Overall Height of Clock including Chimera: approximately  18cm
Case Number: 1934 and 1820

  • Christie's New York Three Magnificent Art Deco Cartier Clocks, April 25 1990, lot 341

Estimate: In excess of HK$2,000,000 / US$250,000

On, a jade "water clock” its core is a basin made from nephrite and used to hold water to clean Chinese calligraphy brushes. The basin itself originates from the 17th century, around the collapse of the Ming dynasty (1369-1644) and the accession of the Qing dynasty (1644-1912). It is a particularly luxurious item as it is carved from nephrite, a form of jade.

Wash basins made of this material were favoured by imperial China’s intelligentsia, as such rare items favoured style over practicality. The designer at Cartier then used gold, coral, and mother-of-pearl to make the chapters that line the rim of the basin. It then sits on a Cartier-designed marble base adorned with gems.

A jade wash basin with a similar auspicious mythical animal from the Qing Court | National Palace Museum in Taipei

Most notable of all is the animal, a representation of a traditional beast from Chinese folklore. Many such creatures can be found on similarly luxurious jade crafts, with this one peering its head over the top and its body wraps and flows around the basin.

To further highlight this piece’s rarity, the creature’s face has a strong expression with its eyes open and mouth agape, a contrast to less expressive creatures found in other jade carvings of this nature. 

This already unique creature was further decorated by Cartier with emerald eyes and black and red enamel accents along its face and body, a difficult task seeing as it necessitated the seamless blending of Western and Chinese design tastes.

This mythical creature would have traditionally represented auspiciousness and good luck. However, like the French gargoyle, for example, the creature has lost all meaning to the modern everyman. Instead, it remains an enduring symbol of Chinese design that has lasted two thousand years, having constantly reappeared and evolved.


Undoubtedly the most interesting part of this piece, and the one that displays the peak of Chinese and Western fusion in this clock, is its time-telling mechanism. Cartier’s water clocks usually used turtles, with this being the exception with the use of a fish. This is a possible reference to the “south-pointing fish” compass system on which the time-telling system this clock uses.

Early magnets were used in ancient China for traditional directional purposes at sea and also for entertainment by travelling magicians performing illusionary tricks. The “south-pointing fish” evolved as a form of compass, where a wooden fish sitting in a bowl of water concealed a magnetized iron needle used for direction finding.

This principle can be found in this piece crafted by Couët using a magnetized fish that sits in the water basin and follows a concealed magnet system in the clock’s base that draws it around the basin past the chapters that indicate the time. The striking similarities this system has to ancient Chinese compasses, but manifest in 1920s watchmaking making leads to a wholly one-of-a-kind design.

Lot 934 | Cartier | A unique jade panel and yellow gold table clock set with emeralds, pearls, rubies and sapphires, carved landscape after Dong Bang Da’s landscape painting with Imperial poem written by Qing Dynasty Emperor Qianlong, 8 day movement by European Watch & Clock Co. Inc and engraved wooden stand

Manufactured circa 1930
Jade Screen: Height 14.5cm, Length 17.5cm
Jade Screen with Carved Wood Frame: Height 17.5cm, Length 20cm
Case Number: 31034 and 31358

  • Christie's St. Moritz, February 21 1990, lot 292.

Estimate: in excess of HK$500,000 / US$65,000

The second piece the jade panel clock, is incredibly striking both in design and background. It’s comprised mainly of a jade carving of a Dong Bangda painting adorned with jewels and an etched poem written by a Chinese Emperor. 

Work done by Phillips dates the white jade screen to the 18th and 19th centuries. This combined with information on the style of jade screen, and what was etched into it, could mean that it originated from either the Qianlong Emperor (1711–1799) or his son and successor, the Jiaqing Emperor (1760–1820). Both were members of the Aisin-Gioro Manchu house that ruled China as its last dynasty.

The Qianlong Emperor in particular was known for his cultural policies, with him ordering the mass construction of new palaces, collecting precious antiques, writing poetry, and being a patron of the arts. This includes the renowned landscape artist Dong Bangda, whose work the Qianlong Emperor heavily patronized.

Dong Bangda (1699–1769) painted the landscapes of China, many of which were elevated into the Shiqu Baoji, a personal catalogue of works that the Qianlong Emperor personally collected. These high honours bestowed upon Dong Bangda by the emperor can still be realized today as his works, as seen below, fetch high prices at auction. 

Dong Bangda | Bamboo Grove in Light Drizzle | Sold: over US$5.01 million, Sotheby's Hong Kong, 2023

Furthermore, Dong Bangda was more than just a painter, having started his career as a civil servant. Due to how loved his paintings were by the Qianlong Emperor, he was elevated to a position where he was the government's Minister of Rites. There he was in charge of cultural affairs, amongst other duties. 

That being said, the exact painting, this etching is based on, Part 2: Flying Spring on the Stone Wall has yet to be found. However, this jade work, when compared with some of Dong Bangda’s other works, including the one seen below shows strong similarities in the composition and the style of the painting, all of which support its authorship.

A Dong Bangda painting depicting a man rowing a boat by the cliffside | National Palace Museum in Taipei

Regardless, the Qianlong Emperor’s love for Dong Bangda's work can be seen through the poem that was written about it and found etched into the screen. It reads, 

Fu Ping Water Curtain Cave, the road is far away before you can see it.

The towering height of the stone wall, and waterfalls hanging after the rain.

This poem adds to the Qianlong Emperor’s impressive list of over forty thousand poems. This poem like others written about pieces of art can be interpreted as a mark of distinction being awarded by the Qianlong Emperor, a tradition that existed throughout Imperial China.

Emperor Qianlong’s adoration of Dong Bangda’s works meshed with his love for jade, of which he collected vast amounts and encouraged the production of even more. This love for jade would extend beyond collecting, with Emperor Qianlong writing poems about jade and naming his sons, including the future Emperor Jiaqing, after the precious mineral.

The Emperor also commented on jade works being done across China. His commentary generally saw him discrediting works he did not find appealing and only really being drawn to jade works that seemed to mimic the landscape of China and paintings. Naturally, the white jade screen presented here met the high demands of the Emperor.

Cartier seemed to realize the beauty imbued in the screen and what the Emperor was seeking in such a piece. The additions they made to it over a century after his reign ended highlight the screen’s royal lineage and aesthetic features.

In order to not disturb the etched painting that is the core of the screen, Cartier only chose to make small additions. Jade, pearls, and rubies carefully dot the trees, and gold serves to highlight the structure of buildings and branches weaving across the jade backdrop.

The timepiece itself sits in the top left corner of the screen and is encircled by gold dragons, a symbol of China’s imperial past and the attention that Cartier’s designers paid to represent that heritage. Dragons themselves have always represented the Emperor or Imperial family, dating back to the Han Dynasty.

The five-clawed dragon used here by Cartier was an exclusive symbol for the Emperors of the Ming and Qing Dynasties, with it appearing on the flag of the latter. The attention paid to this clock encasement is a microcosm of how the Cartier designers carefully merged the European timepiece and jewelry within the history of this jade screen. 

Auction Details:

Auction House: Phillips Hong Kong
Sale: The Hong Kong Watch Auction:XVIII
Date and Time: 24 - 25 May 2024 | 2:00 pm (Hong Kong Local Time)
Number of Lots: 283