The Origins of Antique European Clocks

The major centers for European clocks and the production of fine antique watches included the southern German area of Augsburg and Nuremburg , London and Paris and the prominence of European clockmakers began in the fifteenth century. While large weight-driven mechanical clocks first appeared in monasteries to regulate the lives of monks in the fourteenth century and these monastic clocks led to town and church tower clocks, it wasn’t until about 1500 that the mainspring was used to power clocks. The mainspring mechanism then allowed the development of smaller portable clocks, usually in the form of table clocks. These clocks were then suitable for domestic rather than public use, spawning an enhanced clockmaking industry that especially catered to royalty and the wealthy. Let’s look at the best of the inventions and trends behind the antique European clocks that have survived to the present.

German Clocks

Hand-carved cuckoo clock

Germany was the first leading clockmaking center for European clocks. In the clockmaking arena southern Germany, especially the cities of Augsburg and Nuremburg, is best known for the first production of portable clocks in the sixteenth century, a major distinction from the huge weight-driven tower clocks of previous centuries. Portable clocks included any clock that a person could pick up and move around and most of the portable clocks were intended to sit on a table.

During the peak period of German clockmaking in the sixteenth century clocks were spring-driven and typically the cases were made from metal that was gilded. A popular style of clock of this period was square in shape with a horizontal dial on the top for indicating the time. The sides of these gilded cases often featured cast or engraved ornamentation in a decorative pattern. In general, after 1620 most clock cases were engraved. The earliest clocks used just one hand to indicate the time but after the development of the spring-balance which allowed greater precision in timekeeping, around 1680 another hand was added to indicate the minute.

Church themes were of great importance during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The most complex clocks of the period were tabernacle clocks that resembled church structures resplendent with spires and finials. These clocks had a dial on each vertical surface to indicate not only the time of day but, for example, the quarter hour, the phases of the moon, and a calendar of major saints feast days.

In the late 1600's to the present, the Black Forest region of Germany also became a major clockmaking center with the hand carved Cuckoo Clock.

English Clocks

England soon eclipsed southern Germany as the premier center of European clocks with the introduction of the pendulum clock in 1658. Besides changes in the clock mechanism, English clockmakers introduced two new styles of clocks, the bracket clock and the longcase clock.

Bracket clocks were a style of table clock; bracket clocks were typically square with a flat top and handle but many styles of bracket clocks featured domes, rounded tops or even beehive tops. A radical departure from German styling, bracket clock cases were made from oak that was veneered with precious woods like ebony or ebonized pearwood. These woods remained popular all the way up to 1800 and then mahogany became the wood of choice. The dials of bracket clocks are fairly standardized at 5 to 6 inches square.

Longcase clocks are the forerunners of what we call grandfather clocks today. Like bracket clocks, longcase clocks were primarily made from oak veneered with ebony. While many of the cases were made from unadorned wood, the fanciest of longcase clocks were adorned with gilt paintings or fine marquetry.

The size of the dial can help to date a fine antique English longcase clock. The dials are 10 inches square from 1675 to 1690, 11 inches square for the brief period from 1690 to 1700, and 12 inches square thereafter. While most clockmakers signed the chapter ring on the dial, the best European clocks are signed on the dialplate. However, after 1700 clockmakers signed clocks in a variety of ways on the dialplate.

French Clocks

In the realm of antique European clocks, French clocks came into prominence during the eighteenth century under the reign of King Louis the Fourteenth, the Sun King. In the early years of the 1700’s French clocks featured fancy ornamentation of gilded bronze generally known as ormolu placed on a tortoiseshell background. A popular clock of the period was called pendules religieuse which generally had a rectangular movement suspended on the back of a velvet-covered dial. These clocks typically had a crown wheel and verge escapement with a short pendulum, which was suspended on a silk thread.

Like their English counterparts, French clockmakers manufactured a variety of bracket clocks from about 1710 to 1760 but with greater ornamentation of the clock case. However, far fewer French longcase clocks were made but the ones that were fine examples of precision clockmaking.

The most common French clock of the eighteenth century is the table clock which became the equivalent of a mantel after about 1780 when mantels were added to fireplaces. These fancy clocks of the period typically feature cast statues of classical human figures or animals and may be adorned with colorful enameled three-dimensional flowers around the case. These clocks have a circular dial made from enamel while the clock mechanism is housed in a drum-shaped canister.

In 1796 the first carriage clock, a clock suitable for traveling with, was made by French clockmaker A-L Breguet. Carriage clocks advanced in sophistication and the fanciest models featured calendar and alarm dials along with indicating the time.

The Emergence of American Clockmakers

By the 1850’s American clockmakers came into prominence and until the 1920’s American clockmakers exported millions of clocks to the rest of the world. However, the American clock industry was greatly impacted during World War II as clock factories were converted to manufacturing war materials and never recovered. Today, perhaps the clockmaking industry has come full circle. The Franz Hermle and Sohn clock company, headquartered in Germany with four German and one American manufacturing location, is a major worldwide supplier of clock movements, a leading supplier of clock dials and pendulums, and manufactures a full line of table, wall, alarm and grandfather clocks. With the return of European clocks as a major supplier to the world market, the circle is closed.

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