In the age of art as speculative and subjective, beauty can seem very much beside the point. But standing ground over centuries, these pieces have changed their status from being pieces of utility to gorgeous statement-makers for collectors

Since time immemorial, a compass has been an important gear for voyagers and now the millennial wanderer, helping them navigate terrains. Sundials, in all their beauty, were an invention of the wise, the very first to define the concept of time. Both have undergone constant evolution, changes in design, improvement in functionality and today can truly claim to be pieces of desire with a touch of grace, a stunning look and a sprinkle of class.

Pointing North
Long before they went under the hammer as timeless pieces for massive amounts, compasses were first used in China in 271 C.E. in a very rudimentary form to make travel safer. In Europe in 1300, a fancier version in the form of a marine compass emerged. A navigational instrument that helps find direction, the compass then travelled via the Silk Trade Route to leave an impact on millions. Since then, over the centuries, various kinds of compasses have been invented - baseplate, lensatic, prismatic gyro, magnetic, among others, all over the world.

A lesser-known fact though is when the Chinese first invented the compass, they did not use it for the navigational purposes. It was instead used in the practice of Feng Shui and believers of the art continue to do so till today.

Early on, the most basic compass came in the form of a magnetised needle attached to a piece of wood or cork that was floated in a dish of water. With constant learning about magnetism in the ancient society, the device moved on with the needle mounted in the middle of a card that showed the four cardinal directions. A spearhead and the letter T (Tramontana) signified where north lay. The fluer-de-lis designs emerged much later with intricate carvings and inscribed text. The various technical improvements also led to experimentation with various materials like brass, gold and silver. They were used to make the more decorative pieces that would go on to be exquisite remnants of an era long-gone. Many of these developments had been pioneered by the English.

Recently, an auction on Sotheby’s saw the sale of a German Octagonal Brass Equinoctial Dial from the second-half of the 18th Century for a total of USD 1,125. Another Brass Prismatic Surveying Compass by Stanley in a fitted leather case was sold for GBP 2,125.

Time of the Day
Another equally important remnant and essential device from that day and age is the sundial. While one can visit sundials in London, Ireland, India, Greece and Rome as a tourist attraction, the very first sundial was invented in Egypt around 1550 BC to 1070 BC. Known as “gnomon” back then, the Egyptian shadow clock of green schist witnessed evolution from a basic six-scale base with a crosspiece to gigantic monuments of stone, brass and steel across the centuries. While it’s extremely difficult to put the giant sundials under your name, the delicate and intricate pieces, such as the Gaspard A Luneville Dial of gold, are a thrilling acquire for any collector. Sundials hold an old-age charm to them while narrating the story of development caused by human need.

A legendary sundial story is attributed to the invention of a hemispherical sundial by the Greek astronomer Aristarchus of Samos in about 280 BCE. Made of stone or wood, the instrument consisted of a cubical block into which a hemispherical opening was cut. The path travelled by the tip of the pointer’s shadow during the day was, approximately, a circular arc. But apart from its use as an intelligent way of telling time, the sundial is also credited as being the foundation stone for modern geometry. Sundials travelled to Greece when Anaximander of Miletus, the famous philosopher, astronomer and physicist found them. After he showcased basic principles of sundial to his students, the device became one of the driving forces of Greek calculus and led to the creation of modern geometry.

With the Renaissance, sundials became extreme popular in Europe where surpassing the emphasis on the mechanics, the manufacturers then worked on making them accurate. Sundials remained highly in use till the mid-1800s, mostly with the government and the commercial market. The device comes in all shapes and sizes, from tiny pocket dials to huge, metre-high dials in observatories or sundial parks.

Statement Pieces
When it comes to tasteful home decor, art pieces aren’t your only option. Compasses are increasingly being used now as centre-of-attraction pieces in the form of wall hangings. Giant round compasses, boreas compasses, clark pocket and metal compasses are immensely popular choices. Imitations of victorian enamel and gold compasses are considered prominent statement-makers.


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