History of Mantel and Tabletop Clocks

A technological advance came with the invention of the 'Spring-powered' clock, around 1500-1510, credited to 'Peter Henlein' of Nuremberg (Germany). These were instantly popular although the spring-powered clock did have one problem, that of slowing down when the mainspring unwound. In the sixteenth-century, and even through until the nineteenth-century, these clocks were mainly the reserve of the wealthy, when the reduced size meant it could now be put on a mantle shelf or table. The development of the spring-powered clock was the precursor to accurate time keeping

Mantel clocks were very popular and widespread in France, since not only castles and manor houses, but also more modest dwellings had several fireplaces and therefore also mantel pieces. Most of these mantelpieces had a mantel clock, variously complemented with candle holders, vases or other decorations, depending on the period.

The popularity of mantel clocks, which also extended of course to chests of drawers, trunks, tables and other items of furniture, started around 1700 and ended around 1890. There was a second flourishing in the Art-Déco period, i.e. from around 1920 to 1935.

Throughout the various periods, the housings of mantel clocks had very varied forms and were also produced in a variety of materials: bronze (usually gilded), marble, wood, etc. The movements were practically all of the Paris type, a robust, 8-day anchor escapement with pendulum and usually a simple striking train onto a small bell for the hours and half-hours. Until around 1850 the pendulum hung from a silk thread. After that date the more robust pendulum spring came into use, which was no longer temperature or humidity dependent. Paris movements can generally be repaired at reasonable expense, i.e. worn parts like the pendulum springs and winding springs are still available in the trade.

French mantel clocks remain very popular to this day and present no problems in handling. If a cleaned, oiled and properly adjusted clock is left in its fixed position and then just wound up every week (and if the hands are not turned backwards) it will run for many years.

The Art Nouveau and Art Déco styles which prevailed from 1890 to 1935 also found rich expression in mantelpiece clocks, especially in those Art Déco clocks which were produced in very large numbers during the twenties and thirties.

The term "Art Déco" originates from the exhibition "Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes", which took place in Paris in 1925. "Art Déco" refers to the style between 1920 and 1935.

The very beautiful (and now almost prohibitively expensive) figures by Art Déco sculptors like Chiparus, Preiss, Bouraine and the rest, in combinations of ivory for the flesh parts and bronze for the clothing, were also produced in simpler versions out of compacted ivory powder (the waste from more expensive carvings) and cast zinc (spelter) not only as single figures but also as decorations for mantel clocks.

In most cases, the housings of mantel clocks consist of different colours of marble. The figures are in bronze, as already mentioned, but mostly in cast zinc with or without ivory inlays.

Movements are of the proven Paris type with pendulum and striking train onto a small clock, like the "normal" mantel clocks.

Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder, but these are still historical records of the not so distant past.

Clock History

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