Expert Guide to Antique French Clocks
If your interests extend to clock collecting there is no doubt that you are going to come across countless examples of French clocks. They can be found almost everywhere, and in a huge array of styles and materials. However, all unmistakeable in their French flair, mechanics and design.
As with all countries who produced clocks the subject is vast and the history long and convoluted. For ease this article will only concentrate on French clocks from the 18th and 19th centuries.
French clocks, particularly the often encountered mantle clock, were sold in huge quantities from around the middle of the 19th century up until 1914, the outbreak of Word War I. The Cobden-Chevalier Treaty of 1860 between Great Britain and France saw clocks, among other items, be exported in great quantity free of tariffs. This explains why so many French clocks are encountered in the English speaking world.
The following list is the type of French clocks most commonly found, and that were produced in the 18th & 19th centuries:
While earlier French examples certainly exist, most encountered on the market today are from the late 19th century.
The spring driven movements are normally of eight day duration, that while having complicated movements most don’t strike the hours. Rather they have elaborate musical trains featuring moving items such as animals, people or ships.
Often the actual clock dial is quite small in relation to the whole item, as the automaton is the main feature. These novelty clocks were normally made for the high-end of the market so tend to be of good quality.
The term bracket clock is often used to describe mantle and table clocks. However for this article I refer to clocks that sat on an actual matching wall bracket.
Early French bracket clocks nearly always have verge escapements with a going barrel rather than a fusee movement. Most have hour striking on a bell with some striking the half-hour as well. Dials are often composite or white enamel with Roman numerals. Hands are blued steel. Later clocks have anchor escapements.
Cases are elaborate with rich veneers such as tortoiseshell and ormolu mounts with matching bracket. It is quite rare to find an early French bracket clock that still has its matching bracket. Most encountered complete examples are from the second half of the 19th century.
One of the most extensively produced and collected of all antique clocks. The carriage clock can be found just about everywhere. It evolved from earlier travelling clocks but most directly from the pendule d’officier, a clock used by officers on their military campaigns.
The earliest examples of what can be considered a true carriage clock were produced in Paris in the early 19th century by Abraham-Louis Breguet (1747-1823). By the middle of the century they were being produced in significant numbers with separate craftsman making the movements (in Franche-Comté and Normandy) and the case, with the clock itself assembled in Paris.
Their movements are spring driven with rectangular brass plates with lever escapements. They are normally of 8 day duration, though some can be longer. They vary from simple timepieces to more complicated movements, with grande sonnerie striking for example. Striking can be either on a bell or gong. Additional features include calendar and seconds subsidiary dials, alarms and more complex escape mechanisms. Sometimes they even be combined with a barometer.
The decoration of cases vary widely in design but certain standards prevail such as being made from brass, or gilded brass, and having a carry handle. Common case names are Corniche, Gorge and Obis. Dials are most commonly white enamel with either Roman or Arabic numerals, often with a signature. They normally have four bevelled glass sides, though some can be found with porcelain panels. Hands are usually blued steel. All carriage clocks have serial number, which are useful for dating if records still exist.
Leading makers were Pierre Drocourt, Abraham-Louis Breguet, Henri Jacot and François Margaine.
Possibly deriving their name from the Italian cartella, or wall bracket. The name pertains to decorative cartouche shaped wall clocks that were produced mostly in France in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Their movements are spring driven and of eight day duration. The earlier examples have verge escapements, however the later 19th century revival examples are normally found with the ubiquitous pedule de Paris movement with anchor escapement. Most strike the hours on a bell.
Cases are elaborate with fire-gilt cast bronze, often in the rococo style with a flowing asymmetrical design, with features such as sunburst rays, classical urns, scrolling foliage and figures. Dials are circular and made of white enamel featuring Roman numerals with circular holes for winding.
These are a type of longcase clock that were produced in the French provinces in the 18th and 19th centuries. The name is derived from the eastern region of France, Franche-Comté, where the movements were produced by craftsmen from that area.
The movements are weight driven with the earlier examples featuring a verge escapement. They are normally constructed of a combination of brass and steel. Dials are enamel with Roman numerals with elaborate cast or pressed brass surrounds with a large corresponding pendulum, which influenced the shape of the case.
When often first encountered one would be forgiven in thinking that these are wall clocks, however they had tall wooden cases enclosing the movement and housing the pendulum. They were made from soft woods like pine and fruitwoods, which have long succumbed to woodworm and rot. Very few have survived and are now mostly displayed with their movements attached to a wall with weights and pendulum hanging below.
Four Glass Clocks
Becoming common around the middle of the 19th century these clocks are so named because of the bevelled glass panels that surround it. They are normally of rectangular shape though oval examples can often be seen too.
Movements are spring driven with 14 day examples often found, though eight day duration is more the norm. They can also be found with two-piece enamel dials featuring a Brocot visible escapement. The pendulum is also often compensated featuring two glass mercury filled containers. Further complications such as calendars and barometers can also be found.
Cases are brass or gilded brass and normally quite plain allowing the dial and pendulum to feature. Hands are blued steel.
Made from the early 18th century French longcases are unmistakable in their elaborate use of woods and ormolu. Early examples are rare with most encountered on the market being 19th century revivals.
Movements are weight driven with early examples often featuring a pin wheel escapement. They should have a striking train for the hours on a bell. As they were clocks made for the wealthy they often featured sophisticated complications such equation and date, moon phases and elaborate striking. Dials can either be enamel or metal, often a combination of both.
The case is of a bombé shape with elaborate heavy cast ormolu over woods like walnut, kingwood and rosewood featuring rich marquetry inlay. Charles-Andre Boulle (1642-1732), the most famous of French cabinetmakers, produced extravagant designs of inlaid brass, pewter and tortoiseshell, in a style now known as Boulle marquetry.
These clocks were made from the late 18th into the 19th century. They are quite rare on the open market and are thus highly sought after by collectors.
Mostly produced in Paris these are highly accurate timekeepers with good quality weight driven movements. Unlike English regulators most have striking trains with most 18th century examples having pin wheel escapements. However some did have the more accurate dead beat escapement.
A characteristic feature was the use of a large gridiron pendulum, which consists of up to nine rods of alternating brass and steel. This ensured that the pendulum rod length compensates for contraction in varying temperatures thus allowing for more accurate time keeping.
Most have white enamel dials, with some having subsidiary dials featuring day, month, year, season, solar cycle and moon phases.
Like portico clocks, mentioned below, these elaborate examples are really just a derivative of the mantle clock. However they are worth mentioning because they have such a distinct case style.
As the name would suggest these clocks have a case in the shape of a lyre, modelled after the ancient Greek instrument. The style was introduced some time around the middle of the 18th century and continued well into the 19th century.
The movements have an anchor escapement and strike the hours on a bell. Dials are normally convex white enamel or porcelain, while some can have a skeletonised centre. Some of the better ones can also feature a pin wheel escapement and gridiron pendulum, like the example below.
This type refers to a Parisian made clock found in an elaborate case sitting on a corresponding pedestal. Popular in the 18th century with later revival styles found in the late 19th century.
Movements are spring driven, and as they were clocks of the wealthy, often featuring complications such astronomical and calendar complications. They can often be of month going duration or even longer. Dials are most often composite.
Cases are almost always extravagant featuring ormolu mounts, rich woods and Boulle marquetry. The design of which should always match across both the clock and pedestal.
Popular in the 19th century the name of these clocks pertains to their case shape in the form of a buildings portico or colonnaded main entrance.
Movements are spring driven with anchor escapement, earlier examples featuring a silk suspension. The later ones are found with the widely used pendule de Paris movement. Dials can be of white enamel or engine turned metal with blued steel hands.
Cases are varying, with ornate wooden marquetry ,ebonised wood, marble and gilt bronze being the most often encountered materials. They can also often be found with a protective glass dome shielding their movements from dust.
When one thinks of French clocks then the image mostly likely to be conjured up is of the mantle clock. Be it an ornate gilt bronze figural example or an imposing piece made of marble.
The movements are good quality with earlier examples having silk suspension and outside count wheels for the striking. The ubiquitous pendule de Paris was used as a standard in the second half of the 19th century and was normally of eight day duration. They almost always strike both the hours and half-hours on a bell, though some later ones also used a gong. Dials are varied but like many other French clocks the white circular enamel dial is the most often encountered example.
It is particularly with these clocks that a huge varied array of case styles, quality and materials are encountered. Clocks with either very cheap or very expensive cases often have identical movements in the second half of the 19th century. Value for these clocks is thus determined by the quality of their cases. While bronze and fire-gilt were often used so were cheap alloys like spelter. Another common material used was marble. Again found in great variety but the one most encountered is the black marble clock. Most of this marble was quarried in Belgium near coal mines, which gave it its distinct colour.
Many of these clocks will also feature a glass dome over them to protect their gilded cases and open movements from dust. Some were also sold together with a pair of decorative objects, a pair candelabrum for example, and are known as a garniture set.
Some well known 19th century makers are Japy-Freres, Vincent & Cie, Honoré Pons. A. D. Mougin and Le Roy et Fils.
After the Englishman John Harrison (1693-1776) invented the marine chronometer, France was in as much need of the accurate instrument if it was to remain a notable maritime power.
They are similar to English examples but most have a going barrel rather than the more accurate fusee movement. They are also suspended in gimbals, in a wooden three-sectioned box normally of mahogany with a sliding panel in the top section.
Dials are normally white enamel, unlike the silvered brass of the English examples. All are numbered on the dial and usually on a brass plate fixed to the case as well.
Notable makers are Jean François Henri Motel, Louis Berthoud, Louis Leroy, Abraham-Louis Breguet.
While other countries certainly produced mystery clocks the most encountered are French 19th century examples.
One of the most popular versions is of a female figure, often in classical dress, holding a pendulum aloft, which seems otherwise unconnected to the clock. However, once the pendulum is set in motion the movement causes the figure to almost imperceptibly rotate to the right and left. This motion now keeps the pendulum in beat, seemingly unaided. Other variations include an elephant holding a clock in its trunk.
Movements are spring driven, eight day duration normally striking the hours and half-hours with white enamel or metal dials with Roman or Arabic numerals. Like automaton clocks the dial can seem quite small in comparison to the rest of the clock. Like with many French clocks the quality of the case is a large determining factor when it comes to value.
Cases, again like the French mantle clock, are made in varying materials such as bronze, marble and cheaper alloys that mimic bronze like spelter.
Unlike many other French clocks, French skeleton clocks are more notable for their mechanical refinements than for their outward flamboyance. First produced in the late 18th century but most found on the market today date from circa 1800-1870.
Most were made in Paris with the distinctive upside down Y-shape of their plates. Movements are eight day with a going barrel though some examples have a fusee. Escapements are normally anchor but some use a pin wheel instead. Most do not have a striking train but many have complications such as day/date.
Unlike English skeleton clocks the chapter dials are never pierced but rather of white enamel. However the centre of the dial can sometimes be cut out with an engine turned bezel. Like most other French clocks the hands are of blued steel. The base is normally made of marble, often with applied gilded mounts, which then rests on a separate wooden plinth with a fitted glass dome for protection.
As the name would suggest these are highly accurate clocks that are designed to sit on a table, or mantlepiece. The difference is in their movements and pendulums, compared to similar looking mantle or portico clocks. Instead of the straightforward anchor escapement of the pendule de Paris movement they usually have a pin wheel escapement, or sometimes a dead beat escapement, like their longcase regulator counterparts mentioned above.
They will also feature a compensating gridiron pendulum. Dials will be machined or enamel, while the movements are often of longer duration than the normal week going of mantle clocks, with some featuring a remontoire and/or calendar work.
Urn and Annular Clocks
These are really just another form of mantle clock, however they are distinctive in having an urn shaped case following the rococo fashion of the time.
Like mantle clocks they have spring driven movements with ornate ormolu cases and white enamel dials. An interesting derivative of urn clocks sees a horizontally mounted movement where the chapter ring rotates. Known as an annular clock or cercles tournants in France. The ‘hands’ are then normally part of the case, often a pointing figure or the tongue of a serpent.
Annular dial clocks first appeared in France during the last half of the 18th century and reappeared during the later part of the 19th century.
As one can see, like most things in relation to antiques, the subject of French clocks is hugely varied with many hefty tomes being devoted to each particular type of clock found. This article barely scratches the surface but it I hope it does draw some distinct lines between their differences.
Antique French clocks are also a very satisfying collecting area as there are still many examples on the market, much that offer surprisingly good value for the collector just starting out.
Here at iValuations you’ll find experts in over 50 categories of art, antiques and collectibles that are waiting to give impartial professional, affordable and in-depth valuation reports in a timeous and easy to use manner.