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Mantel clocks

Katrina Burroughs spends time appreciating clocks, from jewel-laden ‘mysteries’ to compact carriages.

October 22 2010
Katrina Burroughs

Antique clocks combine the cream of the casemaker’s art with the apex of vintage tech; supreme lapidary work with miraculous engineering. And they populate the mantelpieces and desks of many stylish high-flyers.

John Summers, founding partner of a West End firm of solicitors, says, “I love the fact that clocks are precision instruments, but there’s also the beauty of the case: usually ebony for 17th-century models and walnut for the 18th. Perhaps because I’m a lawyer, I like the passing of time, as I charge on it.” His starter purchase was a Regency bracket clock. “We’d had a good year and I had a bonus. I went to Olympia fair, met [dealer] Tony Woodburn and looked at the clocks. My first was by Thomas Moss. It cost £4,500 and had an absolutely shattering strike.”

Anthony Woodburn is one of the few sources for clocks from the golden era of English clockmaking (mid-17th to mid-18th century). He explains, “In 1631, Charles I granted a charter establishing The Worshipful Company of Clockmakers in London. Clockmaking flourished under the patronage of monarchs, aristocrats and wealthy merchants, drawing the best clockmakers to London from all over Europe. Luminaries of the Clockmakers Company such as Thomas Tompion and George Graham were buried in Westminster Abbey – that gives you some idea of their stature in society.”

So what might we pay for a stellar example? Woodburn has a bracket clock in an ebony-veneered case, with gilt brass mounts and an engraved back plate signed by another celebrated maker of the period, “Dan. Quare, London”, priced close to £100,000. A table clock by Tompion can easily cost twice that.

Golden-age clocks have a masculine charisma, but they’re not exuberant. If you fancy, well, something a little fancy, the most effervescent examples are the products of the Parisian jewellery houses, made 1914 to 1935. Lee Siegelson, a New York dealer, says, “These clocks have it all – the jewelled element, the skilful lapidary work and carving, and the balance, subtlety and proportions of great jewellery.”

He likes Cartier, “because it has such cachet”. The Cartier Model A mystery clock was the defining objet d’art of its time: “Cartier made about 90 one-of-a-kind Model As, between 1913 and 1930. The very first was sold to JP Morgan, the American banker, in 1913.” Siegelson also owns one. Called “Le Ciel” and dated 1928, it has diamond-set hands and a dial that represents the night sky resting on carved jade fish. (The eponymous enigma, incidentally, is how the hands work – they appear to float, but are really fixed onto crystal discs and driven by concealed gears.) The price tag on such a rarity? $2.5m. Happily, most collectors don’t need quite such deep pockets; a tiny 1928 rock crystal, onyx, mother-of-pearl and diamond “mystery clock” sold at Sotheby’s in Geneva for SFr338,500 (about £217,000) this May.

In the current climate, spending six figures on a desk clock might seem...untimely. Those on a more modest budget should check out Atmos clocks – yours for between about £850 and £6,000. Invented in 1928 by Swiss engineer Jean-Léon Reutter, the Atmos became popular when Jaeger-LeCoultre started producing it in 1939. By the 1950s, the compact design was a byword for modern timekeeping and the Swiss Confederation gave the Atmos as gifts to Winston Churchill, John F Kennedy and Charlie Chaplin. The fascinating feature of the 20cm-high, brass-bound, glazed boxes is inside; Reutter developed a revolutionary way of powering them using mercury. John Coxhead of Gütlin Clocks and Antiques explains, “A 2°F temperature change provides enough energy to run the clock for two days. There’s no battery and no winding. That’s as near as you get to perpetual motion.”

The Atmos is classically handsome, but part of what attracts buyers is the Jaeger-LeCoultre brand. Similarly, carriage clocks modelled on Abraham-Louis Breguet’s late-18th-century products appeal to chaps who are already fans of the watches. These include Adam Blaskey, MD of property development company Northbeach. He enthuses about the 1870s French carriage clock in his study. “It has glass on four sides, a plain white face and a brown leather travelling box. You remove a piece of the case to see the time and there’s a button on the top of the box you press to hear the hour and half hour, so even if it’s dark you know what the time is. Mine isn’t a Breguet – it’s by a little-known maker and probably worth about £2,000, but it’s in that style.”

Carriage clocks are always popular, according to Jamie Collingridge, international head of Christie’s clock department. Their abundance makes them well priced and their size (around 13cm) renders them perfect for a desktop. “In the second half of the 19th century, they were made in large numbers in France, so you can buy good examples by makers such as Drocourt, Margaine and Jacot for £3,000 to £4,000.” Collingridge reckons he sold the ultimate carriage clock this year. “It was Breguet’s second-ever, sold to the King of Naples in 1804. We sold it for £385,250. I could easily make an argument for that being cheap. It’s the best of its kind.”

See also

Vintage, Clocks