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Brittany Cox, an exceptional horological conservator – Part...
History & Masterpieces

Brittany Cox, an exceptional horological conservator – Part two

Wednesday, 22 January 2020
By Cait Bazemore
Cait Bazemore

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10 min read

Brittany Nicole Cox is one of the foremost horological conservators in the world. From studies to today’s accomplishment, she explains her thoughts and visions.

What is one project that has been a defining moment for you personally or professionally? How do you feel it served the greater purpose of horological conservation?

Even though my role was very minor, I’d have to say my work on the Silver Swan. I went to my program in England to study with Matthew Read because of the swan – my favorite object in history. So to actually play a part in its stewardship was a really poignant moment for me. It was the culmination of many years of hard work and sacrifice to find myself able to have the skills and confidence to be a part of the swan’s lineage. I worked on this pulley system that basically runs little fish up and down in the bed of contra-rotating, twisting glass rods that simulate the movement of water. There was some tension and friction, so we had to lubricate the bearings and everything in there to get them to move more fluidly, like they were supposed to. Just working underneath this object and being part of its story, paying service to it, and ensuring its safe operation for future generations in whatever small way was quite an important part of my journey.

Brittany Nicole Cox
Brittany Nicole Cox

In terms of its greater significance, what’s interesting to note is that the Silver Swan was bought for the price of scrap by John and Josephine Bowes when they were putting together their museum. The swan, at the time they acquired it for their collection, was basically considered worthless. It was once a prized item shown at the second World’s Fair in Paris where Mark Twain saw it. Then, basically, nobody cared about it at all, and most of it was thrown away. But if that swan were to go up for sale today, I have no doubt it would fetch probably the highest price of an automaton in history. It’s such an incredible piece of artwork and craftsmanship. My role within that object and with any object that I work on is to try to make sure that the object, no matter the context in the future, hopefully makes it there. And when it is interpreted in whatever way society wants to engage with it in the future, they know the truth of its story and its history. So, for example, I’m not going to take out original parts and change things – I’m not going to improve upon the design of the object because it wasn’t made that way in the first place. If something critical changes about an object and people in the future aren’t able to decipher what was changed, they might assume that’s how the object was originally made, and that’s a misinterpretation of historic practices. It’s important as a conservator to respect the lineage of an object and its entire context, its entire history.

What’s your opinion of the use of new materials in watchmaking? Are there any new materials that have been crucial to you and your conservation work?

Paraloid B-72 is a conservator’s favorite. It’s a very chemically stable adhesive. It doesn’t really discolor over time with exposure to light. It’s just a super stable material as far as its integrity and how it interacts with other materials. It’s one of those industry standards, but that will probably change over time. That’s what’s interesting about conservation. We borrow materials from other disciplines. We’re constantly looking at material science, the refinement of certain types of materials. For example, there’s an interesting epoxy called Hxtal that’s used in space applications, it’s used to put lenses together. It’s perfectly clear, light can transfer through it, you can’t see it. And these types of materials can assist us in working with historic objects, but their application has to be very carefully considered. Sometimes it might make more sense to use a historic material instead of a new material. But, if the historic material is going to cause damage, it makes more sense to use a new material. For example, I’ve used medical-grade silicon tubing, which is used in heart transplants, to replace vulcanized rubber tubing inside of smoking automata. Rubber tubing would become brittle and break, and allow for leakage of smoke, which is certainly not what you want inside of an enclosed, papier-mâché figure. Instead you want something like silicon tubing that’s much more stable and durable. It will hold up much longer to heat and chemical exposure. Is this a material that smoking automata would have been made with? Absolutely not, but in this case, it was a much better choice that would minimize further damage to the object in the future. This new tubing helped to increase the longevity of the smoking system, which means that the object will need to be handled less, the risk for the object goes down, and there’s less potential for further damage to the other organic materials the object is made of. Old wool textiles, fur, paper, hair – these materials are quite delicate and susceptible to damage with handling, exposure to light, and certain environmental conditions. So, if I can mitigate that risk by using a modern material, then I will.

What do you think of modern automata being produced by historic brands like Jaquet Droz or Van Cleef & Arpels?

In my opinion, if you’re looking for wow and splendor and awe, you don’t have to make anything new. Everything old does it better. It’s partly because of the context of it – how they made it, the fact that they made it with nothing, not even half the resources we have today. It looks better because a craftsman made it with their hands, every single part of it. So much care and attention go into that, and intention – every part is intentional. These objects were made at a time when this was the best technology we had to offer, and they were using it to make people happy and make people wonder. One of the most incredible things about the Silver Swan is that James Cox and John Joseph Merlin engineered a way to reproduce the movement and reflection of water on feathers. How beautiful, and what a subtle detail to notice in the natural world as you watch a swan move across the water with the sunlight sparkling on the surface that creates this mirror and that mirror reflects against the belly of the swan and its feathers light up. I’d like to see people looking at the objects they create from that kind of perspective. You just can’t reproduce that when things are programmed and cut out by a computer. But in some cases, this new technology has made some incredible things happen, like the charming bird watches by Jaquet-Droz with sapphire whistle systems. The fact is this is something we just couldn’t do before. So, utilizing this new technology to innovate or miniaturize or go to a level we haven’t seen before, that’s really exciting.

What would you like to see in the field of horological conversation in the future?

I’d like to see people place more value on craftsmanship. With horological conservation, there’s an entire ethical system that’s built around how you do something or why you do it. And that way of thinking along with the actual craftsmanship – being able to do the work as well as it was done in the past – is critical to being a good horological conservator. I’d like to see more value placed on the transference of these skills. There needs to be a lot more support for the people who do this work, the craftsmen who have worked their whole lives to get these skills. For example, a woman named Judith Wetherall is one of the best gilders in England, and when I learned from her, she had this method of floating gold leaf into place with her breath. She would hold her breath and blow on the gold until it was situated perfectly. And that’s not something you can really convey in a book – it just doesn’t compare to watching this woman blow gold into the perfect position. There’s a familiarity that only comes once you know a material intimately and you’ve worked with it your whole life. To be an artisan like this, it takes everything you have, it takes incredible resources – in the case of a horologist, the right equipment, machinery, and tools. How many people have these resources and can make things in these old traditions? There really aren’t that many who can do that, and many of the people who can struggle to understand how they’re going to survive in a world where craftsmanship isn’t as valuable as quick work.

What’s next for you, your work, and Memoria Technica?

I’ve been working on my own series of automata. I’ve only completed one – it’s something I’ve been working on for years in my spare time, but I’d love to get more finished and continue to explore this lineage that I was talking about earlier – where we’ve been, where we’re going, and what it takes to make an automaton in the twenty-first century. I’d like to be able to offer a lot more as far as education goes. A space where people can come and make things, learn things – a place to bring horologists and important luminaries in the field together to share their experiences. I’ve done a little bit of this already – I teach engine-turning classes and I had a lecture series, but it’s just a small drop in the bucket of what I’d like to be able to offer. Ultimately, I’d also love to be able to put together some kind of facility or place where mechanical magic comes back to life – to have a theater for magicians to practice mechanical magic or to actually build more illusions for magicians. It’d be really fun to see a revival of that.

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