Monthly Archives: January 2011

the Utrecht Museum of Musical Clocks presents Emperor Qianlong’s Singsongs: paste extravaganza

In Utrecht we have a unique museum: the Museum Speelklok (Museum of Musical Clocks). They house any kind of automatic  musical instrument, such as this monster of a carousel. Until 28 February a very special exhibition SingSong displays a selection of clocks representing the most important objects from the Qing dynasty. Leading European clockmakers, such as the master of the craft James Cox, produced many of these magical and mysteriously frivolous showpieces. They have never left China before.

Although they do contain proper clock movements, their main aim was not to tell the time but to amuse and impress, making them exclusive and expensive toys for prominent adults. The exotic designs went way beyond any imagination expressed in the European rococo and chinoiserie of the time. During the 18th century, the most spectacular and costly clocks were traded from the West to China. The clocks were much sought after by the Chinese emperors and were also highly desirable gifts.


Some enchanting clocks played music every quarter of an hour, and the Chinese called this novelty ‘the clock that plays by itself’, or in Chinese: ‘zimingzhong’. This word was anglicised into ‘singsong’, the equivalent of the musical clock. Emperor Qianlong (1736-1796) accumulated a vast collection of these fascinating and imaginative clocks, which now form part of the collection of the Palace Museum in the Forbidden City (Beijing).  For three years Museum Speelklok and the Palace Museum have restored the imperial clocks together. The exhibition also gives a great insight in this complicated collaboration.

The Pagoda clock

This clock is one of a pair of identical, fire-gilded bronze pagoda clocks. The pagodas have five levels, with roofs decorated with bells, garlands and pastes: glass which has been cut into gem-like forms imitation gemstones. The paste decorations are completely over the top.  Each hour on the hour, music plays and the pagoda clocks open up telescopically (to a height of almost two metres!), only to fall back again to their original size during the hour that follows.

The Elephant & the Pavillion clock

Watch these clock play below.


Georges Frederic Strass (1701-1773) invented the much desired gem imitation in 1730 and due to the huge success of the invented technique was awarded with the title King’s Jeweler in 1743. The glass “gems” could be set in silver or gold and could have been foiled or unfoiled. The 18th century pastes demonstrated on the SingSongs were always foiled. Foiled pastes were usually seen in closed-backed settings where the foil provided added reflection and brilliance. Pastes were much easier cut and shaped than real gems, making this close-fitting pavé look achievable. You see every color imaginal, including opaline pastes that are similar to opals as in this brooch. Only two gems real are used; amethysts and  chrysolite.

Paste in the Singsongs

Paste jewels are still immensely popular, but I have never seen examples like this before! Pay attention to the bouquet on top of the Elephant clock  in the movie above. Just imagine these bouquets on your shoulder, or just a tiny one…