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The Silver Swan Automaton

When you think about it, the methodical field of science and the creative field of jewelry-making really rely on each other. Science can provide information (such as alloy properties or reasoning for why gem cuts affect light dispersion in different ways) that allows a jeweler to form pieces that are true to their artistic vision – while the design tenants of jewelry-making can give form, function, and beauty to scientific ideas. In 1773, British jeweler James Cox and Belgian inventor John-Joseph Merlin embraced these ideas and worked together to create the marvelous silver swan automaton.
The swan is life-size and made of solid chased silver that hides three separate clockwork mechanisms. It sits on a “stream” made of twisted glass rods, interspersed with silver fishes and surrounded by silver leaves. After the mechanisms are wound up, music plays and the glass rods rotate to give the illusion of flowing water. The fishes swim with the stream and the swan goes through a 32 second performance of preening, as well as spotting, catching, and eating a fish. Almost 100 years after the swan’s creation, American novelist Mark Twain was so impressed by it that he described it in his book The Innocents Abroad: “I watched the Silver Swan, which had a living grace about his movement and a living intelligence in his eyes – watched him swimming about as comfortably and unconcernedly as it he had been born in a morass instead of a jeweler’s shop […]”

Today, Cox and Merlin’s creation is proudly displayed by The Bowes Museum in England. To help preserve the old and delicate mechanisms, the swan is only operated once each day at 2 pm. You can also watch the swan’s performance here.

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