Art Deco clocks: bold and modernist

This wedge-form Art Deco gold, sapphire, enamel and agate Cartier desk clock earned $18,000 + the buyer’s premium in September 2014 at Hindman. Photo courtesy of Hindman and LiveAuctioneers

NEW YORK – Clocks of varying styles and types to suit all tastes are avidly collected but a particularly interesting period in clocks was during the 1920s and ’30s when sweeping changes in design were made. Having a bold streamlined look, Art Deco clocks are some of the most striking.

While Cartier was king of this genre, making several designs of desk, mantel and table clocks in the Deco style, there were several other makers in America and Europe – especially France and Switzerland – whose Deco clocks were and are still sought after.

A rare Art Deco period Cartier, no. 1679, desk clock in a glass case with a mother of pearl dial centered by kingfisher feathers and in its original box, realized £17,000 ($21,680) + the buyer’s premium in June 2019 at Chiswick Auctions. Photo courtesy of Chiswick Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Cartier is renowned for jewelry, but its Deco-era decorative desk clocks are masterful, showing off the design house’s talent for marquetry, enamel work and use of gems. Ranging from square travel clocks to rectangular clocks, its clocks often featured geometric shaping befitting the Deco aesthetic. Among its coveted Deco clocks were “mystery” clocks whose hands appeared to be floating with unseen clockworks. The mechanism of how these clocks worked was a highly guarded secret. “These ‘marvels of horology’ as described by the Gazette du Bon Ton in 1925, conceived by Louis Cartier and the Maison’s clockmaker Maurice Coüet, were also inspired by the work of illusionist Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin,” according to Cartier. Production began in 1912 and these clocks are still made.

A circa 1920 Cartier Art Deco day/date desk clock in nephrite, having hexagonal jeweled decoration, attained $24,000 + the buyer’s premium in February 2015 at Kamelot Auctions. Photo courtesy of Kamelot Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Cartier’s Deco clocks are also renowned for having ornate mother of pearl decoration or utilizing luxury materials. A fine example is this circa 1920 day/date desk clock, 4¼ inches tall, in nephrite with hexagonal jeweled decoration that attained $24,000 + the buyer’s premium in February 2015 at Kamelot Auctions. Showing the use of mother of pearl is this mantel clock having a beautiful mother of pearl rising sun dial that fetched £2,900 + the buyer’s premium in May 2019 at Dawson’s Auctioneers.

An Art Deco mother of pearl clock in a black enameled gold case by Linzeler Marchak achieved $30,000 + the buyer’s premium in March 2018 at Hill Auction Gallery. Photo courtesy of Hill Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneer

Combining Art Deco styling with clever designs, C.H. Marguerat in Geneva, Switzerland, was famous for its singing bird clocks. The owner could make the bird sing independently or via the alarm. The bell would ring, the lid open and the bird would stand up out of the box, turn and flap its wings while singing. This example (below) sold for €8,500 + the buyer’s premium in May 2016 at Auction Team Breker. Made in silver-gilt and enamel, the dial is flanked by fluted columns with flower capitals and set on a rectangular base of blue guilloché enamel. Ornately decorated, the top features roses amid a stylized scene of a mountain lake at sunset.

A 1920s silver-gilt and enamel Art Deco singing bird alarm clock by C.H. Marguerat, No. 430, sold for €8,500 ($9,540) + the buyer’s premium in May 2016 at Auction Team Breker. Photo courtesy of Auction Team Breker and LiveAuctioneers.

Other Deco clocks in interesting forms by other European makers include this rare 1930s Jaeger LeCoultre illuminated world globe Art Deco “Mappemonde” table clock, on a black marble and chrome base, that sold for $3,350 + the buyer’s premium in March 2016 at Baer & Bosch Auctioneers Inc.

American Deco clocks are also popular with collectors and perhaps the quintessential Deco design was the iconic Z clock by Gilbert Rohde in clear glass made for the Herman Miller company like this chrome-plated example. Rohde also created other striking Deco-era designs such as this Century of Progress clock from 1933.

The Breton by General Electric often tops many collectors’ wish lists. Diving for Deco notes this late Deco clock was made circa 1937-39 and listed at $8.95 at the time. It was often misidentified as having been designed by Rockwell Kent when it was the brainchild of John Rainbault. “The frosted glass clock face sits on a silver-painted stepped base, has etched numbers and abstract design that is illuminated from below,” according to the website. The electric parts often burned out and can be expensive to fix, so while the clocks may be affordable to buy today, getting the parts and repairing them adds to the cost. This elegant example from 1938, with engraved and mirrored numerals, sold in nonworking condition for $125 + the buyer’s premium in February 2019 at Block Auction House.

Westclox was known for its advertising alarm clocks, such as this one for Keen Kutter. Its regular alarm clocks often boasted strong geometric styling such as this example. The Sessions Clock Co., based in Bristol, Conn., was well known for its airplane-form clocks; this one sold for $150 + the buyer’s premium at Dallas Auction Gallery in February 2020.

Renowned for their use of beautiful materials from mother of pearl to jade and onyx as well as their striking streamlined and geometric forms, Art Deco clocks continue to appeal to buyers today.