20th March 2020

Atmos Clocks: poetry in near-perpetual motion

A scientific marvel, the official gift of Switzerland and an icon of horology, the Atmos Clock, produced by Jaeger LeCoultre has remained largely unchanged mechanically for more than 80 years. In any industry, to have a product remain popular, iconic and relevant to buyers without significant updates is rare, but in the world of luxury mechanical horology, it is almost unique.

The Atmos clock does not ‘tick’, or ‘tock’. Once running it needs next to no maintenance for years at a time and, as long as it is kept still and level, an Atmos will keep running almost indefinitely. Unlike more conventional mechanical movements such as the anchor escapement and pendulum as found in more conventional clocks, no winding is needed. Hour after hour, day after day, the Atmos will keep recording time, with remarkable accuracy, and a lot of style.

If such a clock is observed, the remarkable feature is the very slow and very smooth rotational ‘pendulum’ at its base, which glides effortlessly back and forth appearing to float as it does so, suspended by a wire no thicker than a human hair. Seemingly unhindered by friction, the mechanical workings of these clocks are always visible behind crystal cases, from which the beauty of the highly polished mechanisms can be admired.

First produced by Jaeger LeCoultre in 1935, the Atmos clock was a development of the ‘torsion pendulum’ design that dates back to the 17th Century. The Dutch inventor Cornelis Drebbel created a series of self-winding time pieces that used atmospheric changes to allow the mechanism to keep the driving spring wound. While hugely expensive and relatively fragile in nature, this novel approach to timekeeping gained huge notoriety when one was presented to King James I of England as a gift, after which a further 18 were sold and a fashion began.

This concept of bellows-driven movement was refined continuously over the centuries that followed, until in 1937, the ammonia and mercury filled tubes of the Atmos 2 design were found to be the perfect combination by the scientists in the Jaeger leCoultre workshops.

After this, the basic movement has changed very little, although complications such as perpetual calendars and moon phase dials have been added to special examples since then. Today, while these clocks are hugely expensive new, they are highly collected across the globe and so are good investments, holding their value just as well as they hold time.

Do you own an Atmos clock, or have you ever enjoyed seeing one in motion? If so, let us know what you thought of these ingenious clocks in the comments below.