In today’s digital age, it is easy to forget that clocks were once considered so important that they were almost always displayed prominently in one’s home, a domestic tradition that was born in the 17th and early 18th centuries. Often a combined effort between clockmakers, who were responsible for the movements that allowed a clock to tell time, and craftsmen, who designed and built the cases that housed a clock’s movement, clocks intended for use at home were limited early on to either tall floor clocks or table clocks. That changed, however, by the mid-18th century, when sophisticated French tastes encouraged what would become a golden age of clock design.
Considering how luxurious many well-heeled 18th-century French rooms were becoming, all manner of household furnishings, such as the increasingly popular clock, required upgrades to conform to their newly lavish surroundings. Some of those upgrades included the introduction of the cartel clock, which is an elaborately carved clock intended to be hung directly on a wall, as well as the bracket clock, essentially a table clock that is displayed on a coordinating wall bracket.
But as the fireplace began to assume a central role in 18th-century interiors—seating was often positioned close to these all-important sources of heat and light—attention began turning to how best to adorn the tops of fireplace mantels. While porcelain garnitures became a popular form of mantel-top decorations, so too did a new style of clock whose smaller proportions were made for shallow mantel ledges: the mantel clock, which in the hands of French craftsmen became less like a clock and more like an elaborate sculpture.
Primarily made of gilt bronze and sometimes embellished with porcelain or marble, French mantel clocks were designed to reflect the leading fashions of the day. In the mid-18th century, that meant exuberant, and sometimes fantastical, rococo flourishes, such as clocks disguised as gilded elephants supporting enameled numerical dials on their backs or exotic characters brandishing chinoiserie-style umbrellas. By the late 18th century, however, the ascendant neoclassical style was evident, with figures such as Venus, putti, and other mythical subjects gracing mantel clocks, themes that remained in favor well into the 19th century. Not just an elaborate facade, French clocks continued to be technically advanced, with some clocks indicating not only time but also the phases of the moon.
In 18th- and early-19th-century England and America, French gilt-bronze versions were considered the ne plus ultra of mantel clocks, but not to the exclusion of homegrown innovations. Boasting a tradition of serious clock making—in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, English clock movements were considered some of the most complex in the world—English clockmakers and designers began to develop a more restrained style of mantel clock in the mid-19th century, which entailed elegant wooden cases with applied finishes, a form that became popular not just in England, but even in the clock-design capital, France.
The Americans, on the other hand, turned their attention to making over the manufacturing process. In the early 19th century, clockmaker Eli Terry of Connecticut conceived and implemented a manufacturing process that allowed for the mass production of clocks, a development that drove down their prices, thus making them affordable to the middle classes. Other American clockmakers followed suit, including Seth Thomas, whose well-known clock company continued to operate until the early 21st century. Although smartphones may have supplanted clocks as our go-to timepieces, for die-hard traditionalists and collectors alike, antique clocks have yet to succumb to the vagaries of time.