John-Mikaël Flaux: Time That Moves & Magical Machines
Every once in a while, I discover a connection that I never knew existed. It could be with a place that feels eerily familiar or with an object that suits me perfectly. Perhaps I hear a melody that resonates within my soul unlike anything before. Whatever the instance, there are many connections that suddenly appear in my life and create a wider web of entanglements with the world around me.
They all leave lasting impressions, and some are even carried with me as a new integral part of who I am. It’s one reason why I love discovering new things on a regular basis: as time goes by, more and more things come to be part and parcel of the person I imagine myself to be.
But sometimes that connection is with a person, someone I’ve come into contact with or possibly never even met. And it can come from any direction, often surprising me once I discover the new connection. In this way I develop a sense of kinship with seemingly random people around the world, and no matter the type of association I know that I share something in common with the wider human population.
Philosophy tends to be a strong connector for me, as do values about relationships or how I interact with the society I live in. And yet some of the strongest connections I feel are with people that want to create something new and are curious about how things work and want to live in a world where their imagination is actualized.
I have a philosophical and practical bond with people like that, and regardless of their positions on other topics it’s obvious that we agree on how we want to spend our time. This is why I would much rather hang out and get to know watchmakers instead of the celebrity ambassadors that represent brands. Even though imagination is crucial in my mind, I’m not an actor or an athlete; I’m a maker at my core.
Which brings me to John-Mikaël Flaux, a watchmaker and automaton designer I feel a philosophical bond with just from how he describes himself and why he creates. It doesn’t hurt that I love the mechanical marvels he constructs, but it’s deeper than the result of his craftsmanship. He is a mechanically curious person and his passion comes through in the objects he makes.
Let’s dig into who he is and talk about some of the increditastic machines that his mind has cooked up.
Introducing John-Mikaël Flaux
John-Mikaël Flaux may not be a name you recognize at first, but you still may have seen his work come across your Instagram feed. Flaux is a French watchmaker that began his six years of horological training at the Lycée Edgar Faure in Morteau. Upon graduation (and winning a medal in a French “best apprentice” competition), he was recruited by Ulysse Nardin in 2012.
Flaux immediately began working on grand complication pieces there, highlighting that his skill was already top notch. Within two years he had already independently created his first machine, La Guêpe (“the wasp”), a clock in the shape of the insect.
Due to his personal drive and creativity he became one of Ulysse Nardin’s official designers leading to the 2015 creation of the SuperCat (for catamaran) table clock, a unique piece concept clock that debuted at Baselworld in 2016.
Leaving Ulysse Nardin in 2017, just shy of a decade after establishing his own first workshop, Flaux set up a new atelier in Morteau in 2018 with the clear intention of becoming an independent watchmaker. Within a year he had moved it to Besançon where he now creates his automata and kinetic timekeepers.
In the two short years following the founding of Flaux’s independent workshop, he has already released four new projects, making it clear that he means business.
The first machine: the Car Clock
In 2018 he first released his debut mobile time machine called the Car Clock, a combination of windup car toy and high-end mantel clock. Inspired by 1930s sports cars, the Car Clock is pretty aptly named as it is literally a clock that moves like a car.
Using a finely finished clock mechanism where the engine would go, the Car Clock drives its wheels forward to display the passage of time. It has an eight-day power reserve so you better have a long table or shelf if you plan to actually use this clock. Okay, it does come with a pedestal to lift the rear driving wheels off the ground if you want it to be stationary, but it can totally drive forward for eight days on its own.
It is wound from the front similarly to how an old car would need to be cranked. The steering wheel is in the cockpit, doubling as the time-setting mechanism and the minute display. Once wound, the steering wheel is rotated clockwise to advance the time. The position is indicated by a polished ball on the rim of the wheel that mimics a Brodie knob (sometimes called suicide knob, necker, granny knob, knuckle buster, and wheel spinner) something often seen on antique cars or big-rig steering wheels.
The ball is essentially the minute hand and can be read loosely the same way. The hours are indicated on the car wheels with the numbers 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, and 12 engraved on the wheel spokes with 12 dots around the rim for each hour. These are found on both the front and rear wheels and are read on the bottom where the wheel would meet the road.
The car can move forward 13.2 mm every hour or a total of just under 32 cm per day (12.5 inches). That means this car can drive around 2.5 meters (eight feet) before needing rewinding, so you definitely want to keep it on the pedestal lest it drive itself to ruin.
The Car Clock is customizable for color, making each one a unique piece and built to order, with a lacquered aluminum body, leather upholstery, and a 270-component movement. When it was released it was available for €9,900, which is an incredible price for such a creation.
The next machine Flaux released was the automaton called Le Duel. As its name suggests, this incredible ballet of components is an automaton of two fencers dueling with swords. This was inspired by Eadweard Muybridge, who had taken a series of photos of fencers (in the near buff) to demonstrate their moves and show how their bodies worked. Le Duel captures the essence of that duel and recreates it in the metal.
The automaton, replete with a total of 456 components, took 730 hours to complete. It winds via a large key that fits onto a winding stem on the front of the housing. Flanked by two large gears, the hidden mainspring drives a central gear that rotates these two gears in opposite directions, beginning the choreographed dance of the fencers.
To control the speed, an air brake spins in the center of the main body between the two, while the internal gearing drives two sets of cams that control the timing of the moves.
Thanks to various levers and a lot of pivot points, the figures lunge and parry with capes billowing behind them, nearly all components playing a critical role in controlling the movement and providing hinge points for what is essentially a machine composed of various four-bar mechanisms. The finishing is simple but very clean, allowing appreciation of the figures’ dance and the craftsmanship of the machine itself.
Le Duel was a unique piece and definitely a fun invention from the mind of Flaux.
Time Fury P18
After Le Duel, Flaux returned to the mobile time concept in 2019 and developed a new clock based on a car, this time inspired by Forumla 1 cars of the 1950s. Time Fury P18 (a creative name instead of a matter-of-fact description) is an entirely new clock mechanism that does away with the steering wheel and adds a time dial on the tail of the car.
The hours are on a truncated cone that rotates past an engraved minute dial where a small pointer below the hour number indicates five-minute marks for a rough reading of the time. Similar to how an Urwerk is read, the time display is much more functional than on Flaux’s earlier Car Clock model.
Time Fury P18 is still an eight-day clock that drives 32 cm per day if it is not resting on its pedestal, though now the movement layout is entirely different. This movement is horizontal and runs along the length of the car where the other was vertically stacked in the engine bay leaving room for a passenger compartment. There is no seat on Time Fury P18, and time setting is accomplished by rotating the rear wheels.
The clock is wound via a special crank that inserts into the left exhaust tip under the rear cowl. The construction method is similar to the first, yet this model feels more considered as a time object. Depending on your style, each car-inspired clock may suit your fancy, but this one is my pick for looks and functionality.
It is limited to 10 pieces and priced at €14,900.
With two mobile clocks in the books, Flaux returned to the automaton aesthetic: this time an hour strike sonnerie tied to a cheetah automaton. It centers around a mechanical cheetah that uses its front paws to track and activate the hour chime, with the striking mechanism concealed within the body of the cheetah.
The movements are much simpler than Le Duel, mainly because the goal isn’t to show a cheetah running across the savannah but to show a delicate movement pertinent to the striking mechanism. The 45-hour clock mechanism is in front of the cheetah, where we find the hour counter cam and the activation snail cam. The right front paw counts the passing hours on the stepped hour cam, while the left front paw rides a long a smooth snail cam to charge the system over the hour.
Once released, the cam activates the hour strike mechanism in the body of the cheetah where we find the hour rack that determines how many strikes the hammer performs. The rear legs are tied to the striking mechanism, pivoting back and forth sort of like the cheetah is running, but much less natural. The tail also allows the mechanism to strike the hours on demand.
On the rear side of the body is a large brass bell struck by a brass hammer for a very bright and loud sound – no tiny little gongs for this kitty. The frame of the mechanism has some small details to mimic the grass on the savannah, otherwise it is a minimal and beautifully finished assembly.
The time display is wound and set via a crown extending out from the dial, while the striking mechanism is wound using a key on a large mainspring between the cheetah’s legs.
Behind the cheetah, hiding the bell, is a hand-painted panel depicting a starry celestial image, somewhat like the Milky Way in its grandeur. The artwork was created by miniature painter Line Descombes and can be customized for each customer. Only five examples of Le Guépard will be made, with prices starting at €30,000 and increasing with customization.
Inspiration and connection
Out of all of the projects that Flaux has created, only Le Duel is an automaton that does not display the time, showing that his true desire is to make machines that move while telling the time, a unique niche if there ever was one in the horological world.
La Guêpe, his first creation following school, is not an automaton, but a clock in the shape of a wasp and is the only machine that doesn’t move. It is a harbinger of where Flaux would eventually go, the pieces falling together as time progressed.
And this brings me to the connection I feel with a maker that I have never met. He has mentioned in the past how as a child he would take apart machines to see how they worked. But most significantly he states that he hoped the machines hid a secret that would transform him into a magician.
While he was often disappointed in what he found, a passion for creating objects that would appear magical like the automatons he discovered when he was eight years old grew in him.
Learning watchmaking gave him the skillset to make machines bordering on magic, and this is where I connect to John-Mikaël Flaux. When I was first discovering watchmaking, I was also developing a real passion for science and also sci-fi and fantasy. I yearned to combine the practical skills of watchmaking and engineering with things I had seen in movies or read in books that were basically magical objects.
I used to say that I wanted to build objects that when first experienced by the average person would seem like magic, and then upon closer examination could be understood and dissected as clever engineering and basic mechanical principles. Flaux clearly had a similar impetus when he was younger, and that passion for mechanical magic has directed his entire career.
It also has created a sense of kinship in myself. And while I haven’t met him yet, it seems clear we share at least some small understanding of how incredible mechanics can be. This is why his desire to make objects that move as a core function is so fascinating: it shows that the mundane doesn’t interest him. His pursuits are more playful and very personal to him, and he seeks to share the wonder of his younger self in everything he makes.
John-Mikaël Flaux has created an awesome smattering of machines in a relatively short time. His sheer quality and creativity makes it obvious that he isn’t going to run out of ideas and passion anytime soon.
As an AHCI candidate Flaux is bound to continue his path with the support of other creative independents – as long as he can weather the storm of 2020.
For more information, please visit www.john-mikael-flaux.com.
Quick Facts Le Guépard
Base construction: 30 x 10 x 10 cm in stainless steel and brass
Movement: manual winding Le Guépard movement 18,000 vph/2.5 Hz frequency, 45-hour power reserve
Functions: hours, minutes, hour strike, sonnerie en passant
Limitation: 5 pieces, customization on request
Price: €30,000, customization extra