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The Allure of Antique Clocks: A Guide to History’s Finest Timekeepers

The allure of antique clocks transcends mere timekeeping. These objects serve as both functional devices and works of art, capturing the essence of various historical periods. This article explores the world of antique clocks across history, touching on decorative wall clocks, grandfather clocks and the multitude of timekeepers in between.

The History of Antique Clocks

Although the history of timekeeping goes back as far as antiquity, the history of clocks as we think of them today really began during the Renaissance. The mechanical clock is perhaps one of the most important inventions to emerge from the Renaissance. The period experienced a renewed interest in science and the arts which led to the eventual development of more practical, precise and beautiful timekeeping devices. The spring-driven clock appeared in the 1400s, answering the demand for smaller, more portable devices that could be used in the home.

Renaissance Turret Wall Clock, German, circa 1580
Renaissance Turret Wall Clock, German, circa 1580.

Clock technology received another boon in 1656, when Christiaan Huygens, Dutch mathematician, physicist and engineer, invented the first pendulum clock. His pendulum design was a far more accurate timekeeper than the previous spring-driven devices, with a discrepancy of only about 15 seconds rather than 15 minutes. Not only was it more precise, the pendulum also added a captivating, kinetic visual element that could be composed of a variety of materials and decorated in any number of ways. Pendulum clocks were the gold standard for accuracy for hundreds of years up until the invention of the quartz clock in the 1920s.

Louis XVI Style Grand Regulator Clock, French, circa 1880.

Clocks in the 19th Century

The 19th century was a pivotal era for clockmaking, with innovations in mechanics and design that continue to captivate clock collectors today. The grand Universal Expositions were at their peak in the 19th century and showcased the greatest inventions and technological advancements of the day – a natural place to showcase clockmaking. The 19th century saw many crucial clock-making advancements, including increased accuracy and portability.

The first carriage clocks were invented in 1812 by Abraham-Louis Breguet for Napoleon. These were small clocks designed for traveling, housed in a case with a carrying handle for mobility. They were pendulum-free so that they could still keep time on the rugged, bumpy paths of a carriage ride. Another major invention, the first electric clock, was introduced by Alexander Bain in 1840. It utilized electricity to sustain a pendulum clock’s movement.

Notable Clockmakers

The world of antique clocks is rich with names that have left an indelible mark on horology and have gained worldwide recognition for producing luxurious and high-quality timepieces. With a laser focus on craftsmanship, innovation and attention to detail, these makers’ timepieces are highly sought after by collectors:

The firm Breguet, founded in 1775 by the same Abraham-Louis Breguet who invented Napoleon’s carriage clock, is renowned for its exquisite and innovative timepieces. Breguet watches and clocks are known for their precision, craftsmanship and timeless design.

Swiss watchmaker Patek Philippe was established in 1839 and remains one of the most prestigious names in the world of horology. The company is known for producing some of the world's most complicated and sophisticated mechanical watches and clocks.

Patek Philippe Gilded Demi-Lune Solar Desk Clock, Swiss, 20th century.

While primarily known for its jewelry and watches, Cartier has also produced exceptional clocks since the 19th century. Louis Cartier, the founder of the brand, was involved in the design of some of Cartier's most iconic clocks, but the firm is most celebrated for its refined Art Deco timepieces.
Cartier Art Deco Desk Clock, French, circa 1920.

Leroy & Cie was a French luxury watch and clockmaker founded by Louis Leroy and well-established in Paris during the second half of the 19th century. They created some of the finest quality clocks of the day, many with highly complicated movements, including annular dial mantel clocks.

Seth Thomas Clock Company, one of the world's most revered clockmakers, was founded in 1813. This business soon prospered, both in part due to Thomas’s refined craftsmanship and society’s growing need for accurate high-precision timepieces. The company became the most prolific and dependable maker of high-precision tower clocks. By applying modern technology to centuries-old horological mechanisms, the Seth Thomas factory perfected the tower clocks on which railroad companies, churches, towns and institutions depended.

Types of Antique Clocks

Decorative Wall Clocks
Decorative wall clocks are timeless classics, serving as both functional timekeepers and ornamental pieces and offering a blend of utility and aesthetics. One of the great things about decorative wall clocks is their variety. Because they hang on the wall, they serve as not only a timekeeper but a work of art, and their variety means they can complement any kind of interior.
Patek Philippe Cartel Clock, Swiss, circa 1965.

Some of the earliest mechanical clocks were decorative clocks from the Renaissance era marked by gleaming gilt brass cases with intricate engravings. Later, the Victorians were enamored with decorative wall clocks due to their wider accessibility after the Industrial Revolution. Victorian clocks, much like other Victorian decor, varied widely in style, but common themes were high-relief carved wood cases and large, hand-painted enamel dials.

Grandfather Clocks

Grandfather clocks are a classic example of antique timepieces, known for their tall, freestanding design and intricate mechanics. These longcase clocks stand on the floor, typically composed of a decorated wooden case housing the movements of the clock and pendulum. The form was invented in 1670, but it did not receive its familial name until 1876 with the popular song My Grandfather's Clock.

George III Adam and Eve Automaton Longcase Clock, English, circa 1780.


George III Adam and Eve Automaton Longcase Clock, English, circa 1780.


While grandfather clocks stand tall with grandeur and gravitas, their smaller relative, the granddaughter clock, provides endless charm. Developed in the 1930s, the granddaughter clock is known for its petite stature and delicate decoration, usually standing between three and five feet tall. This vastly differs from the colossal size of the grandfather clock, which can reach nearly eight feet and can have a weight of up to 200 pounds.

Unusual Clocks
As timepieces evolved over the centuries, clockmakers became more and more creative and innovative in their designs, conceiving a diverse array of fascinating timekeeping mechanisms. Among those creations was a particularly fascinating category of pieces known as skeleton clocks, named for its unique design that puts the inner workings on outward display.
Skeleton Clock by James Condliff, English, circa 1860.


Skeleton Clock by James Condliff, English, circa 1860.


Another intriguing variety of clocks is known as the mystery clock, so called because it is often difficult to detect how the clock actually works. Mystery clocks take many forms, including conical, pendulum and transparent dial clocks.

Acquiring Antique Clocks

Considerations for Collectors

As with any collection, knowledge is key. For clock collectors or those interested in acquiring a piece, it's crucial to understand the factors that contribute to a clock's value, functionality and authenticity. Antique clock values can vary widely depending on the maker, the clock's rarity and condition, and the materials used to craft the piece. Collecting clocks can present a particular challenge because they involve a plethora of moving parts that can wear with age and handling. A well-made clock, however, can last hundreds of years and run as smoothly and as accurately as the day it was made with little maintenance. Therefore, it is always advisable to buy antique clocks from a reputable dealer who specializes in fine clocks. Be sure to have the dealer demonstrate how the clock actually functions, and ask them for recommendations if any clock repairs may be needed in the future.

Conical Pendulum Mystery Clock, French, 19th century.
Conical Pendulum Mystery Clock, French, 19th century.

Antique Clocks at M.S. Rau

Clock collectors can explore a curated selection of antique clocks for sale at M.S. Rau, each offering its own unique blend of history and craftsmanship.


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