Skeleton clocks are one of the most exciting subsets of antique clocks and are simultaneously exceptional works of art. Though skeleton clocks vary in design and style, they are categorized as such if their internal mechanisms and technologies are exposed. They are enchanting not only for their mechanical complexity but also for their incredible history and beautiful artistry. Join us as we walk through some of the skeleton clocks’ most interesting facts and greatest creators, and click here to see one of our favorites in action!
CHARACTERISTICSSkeleton clocks are famous for their lack of an external case, revealing their highly complex internal workings. The ability to see their inner mechanisms is what makes them such a marvel but also what makes crafting them such a challenging feat. Simply removing the clock’s external casing is not nearly enough; clocks typically house their movements and wheels between two solid plates— quite a boring sight. In order to make a skeleton clock, these plates are cut out and then decorated. The trimmed and carved plates are now called “frames,” and they surround and expose the internal mechanisms.
The exposed parts of the skeleton clock may vary, but typically the most attractive and most exciting elements are on display. This often includes the escapement, balance wheel, balance spring, mainspring and tourbillon. Because the inside is on view, skeleton clocks often differ in escapement compared to wall, mantle and case clocks. British skeleton clocks typically use anchor, dead beat, balance wheel and tic tac escapements, while French skeleton clocks often use pinwheel, coup perdu and crossbeat escapements.
Often, skeleton clocks display beautiful designs and are more ornate than a cased clock, though the decorative nature of skeleton clocks vary. Some clocks use swooping ivy leaves and arabesque motifs, offering a graceful design. Others are made with a more architectural theme or Gothic influence. A skeleton clock that was previously offered by M.S. Rau even mimicked the architecture of Westminster Abbey!
HISTORYEarly cousins of the skeleton clock were made during the late 17th and early 18th centuries. These clocks did not have an external casing and showed the internal technologies, but that was in an attempt to save materials; the more aesthetic qualities of this design choice were not yet considered.
The first true skeleton clocks, crafted without a case for aesthetic purposes, were made in France during the mid-1700s, but it was not until later that skeleton clocks would gain substantial popularity. Their fame grew during the Industrial Revolution beginning around 1830, and they were most popular in England and France. Skeleton clocks were often showcased at international exhibitions to feature new innovations in technology and as exceptional display pieces.
FAMOUS MAKERSJohn Smith & Sons of Clerkenwell
Founded in 1780, John Smith & Sons of Clerkenwell are one of the most famed English clockmakers and are specifically known for their exceptional skeleton clocks. From 1830 until the late 1980s, Smith & Sons manufactured each and every piece of their clocks — from start to finish — at their factory in St. John’s Square. Their notable factory even included a foundry where wood and cast brass parts were crafted! Such a hands-on approach to clockmaking led them to produce some of the most important skeleton clocks in history.
Many of the firm’s clocks were exhibited at various exhibitions, and it is noted that the firm’s creations were present at the illustrious Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851 in London. John Smith & Sons has created some of the finest clocks ever produced, and we are thrilled to have an exceptional example of their beautiful skeleton clocks here at M.S. Rau.
Evans of Handsworth
Located in Birmingham, Evans of Handsworth is another exceptional firm that created beautiful skeleton clocks. Evans was at the forefront of design in the 1800s, much like Smith & Sons. The delicately designed Arabesque clock pictured below looks almost weightless on its pedestal. The 8-day triple plate movement and stunning oversized dial showcase the firm’s excellence in craftsmanship and technology. A similar skeleton clock is currently housed at the British Museum.
John Pace is yet another distinguished skeleton clock maker. Originally from London, Pace worked in Bury St. Edmunds from 1804 until 1857 as a jeweler and watchmaker. There, he often collaborated with Benjamin Parker, the famed gunsmith and clockmaker. This clock in particular highlights Pace’s expertise in mechanics and design; a six-wheel train and twin fusées connect to four spring barrels in order to create this year-long clock. Long durations were a major achievement of the maker, and this clock is a wonderful, rare example.
Skeleton clocks are some of the most stunning timepieces ever created, and we always search for the best of the best. Sign up for emails from M. S. Rau to get updates on our newest and ever-changing selection of rarities and objet d’art — including skeleton clocks.
Frank, Mark. Revealing Skeleton Clocks. Aug. 2012, www.go-star.com/antiquing/skeleton-clocks.htmRoberts, Derek. Skeleton Clocks Britain 1800-1914. Suffolk: Antique Collectors' Club, 1987.