NEW YORK – a Carriage clocks – so-named because they’re portable and were made to be carried, usually by way of a handle mounted to the top – are small, spring-driven timepieces. They were designed for travel, developed in the early 19th century in France, where they were often referred to as officers’ clocks. The first carriage clock was invented in France, in 1812, by Abraham-Louis Breguet (1747-1823) for none other than the emperor himself, Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821).
A feature of French carriage clocks is the platform escapement, which is sometimes visible through a glazed aperture on the top of the case. The clocks use a balance and a balance spring for timekeeping and, in fact, replaced the larger pendulum bracket clock, which were small weight-driven clocks that had to be mounted on a bracket on the wall to allow room for their hanging weights. The spring-driven clocks didn’t require any hanging weights to power them.
The factory of Armand Couaillet, in Saint-Nicolas d’Aliermont, France, produced thousands of carriage clocks from 1880-1920. Which is good news for collectors, since it’s possible to buy a fine and beautiful one for relatively little cost, perhaps a few thousand dollars. “The tradition and elegance of the French decorative clocks made them ideal as gifts for service from employers,” said Michael Parsons of Cottone Auctions in New York. “The demand for them is quite steady.”
Will Kimbrough of Jeffrey S. Evans & Associates in Virginia said the enduring appeal of French carriage clocks is twofold. “First of all,” he said, “they are inherently beautiful objects whose cases were designed to visually impress. Typically composed of glass panels within a gilt-brass frame, these compact timepieces came in a variety of decorative schemes and function well as display objects in multiple decorative contexts ranging from the conservative to the flamboyant.”
Kimbrough said the finest examples often employed additional materials in the design of the case, such as champlevé, painted porcelain of guilloche enamel, “resulting in an object that was as much art as it was machine.” He continued, “Second, at their core, French carriage clocks are complicated mechanical contraptions whose internal complexities fascinate us. Technological innovations in their day, most carriage clocks remain in good working order, with proper care.”
Kimbrough pointed out the market for the carriage clocks over the past five years has exhibited strength, “though it continues to become more and more unbalanced in the manner that so many segments of the antiques and fine art marketplace have over the last decade. This makes for an environment where exceptional examples bring record-breaking prices, while the value of good – but lesser – examples slowly declines. I would expect this trend to continue into the near future.”
John Nye of Nye & Company Auctioneers in New Jersey said he’s not sure the attraction of the French carriage clocks lies in the fact that they’re from France (“although one can always find a dedicated Francophile without looking too hard”), but that they are “carefully crafted pieces of horology, often accompanied by a fitted leather case. They were meant to travel, and the more sophisticated ones had an alarm mechanism as well. Remember, this was before wristwatches.”
Nye said the market demand for anything – not just clocks – is primarily driven by condition and rarity. “As long as carriage clocks are in good working condition and retain their carrying case,” he said, “the demand, and therefore the price, should remain strong. As artificial intelligence becomes a larger part of all of our daily lives, people will continue to seek out mementos of a simpler time, particularly if the object maintains high integrity, which many carriage clocks do.”
Travis Landry of Bruneau & Co. Auctioneers in Rhode Island said the market for the French carriage clocks isn’t as strong today as it was two years ago. “I attribute this depreciation to the clocks’ less marvelous appeal to the mechanical aspects,” he said. “In the 19th and early 20th century, time and keeping time was more appreciated than it is today. Which is a shame. The amount of detail that was given to the inside of the clocks was just as beautiful as the outside.”
One trend that suggests French carriage clocks are losing their grip is the fact that they are often overlooked as a retirement gift, traditionally given to employees in honor of longtime service. But that has little to do with the clocks as it is a statement of our times. The practice of working for several companies means a symbol of time no longer carries the same appeal. Nowadays, retiring workers are likely to leave a job with a digital camera, DVD player or flat-screen TV.
According to the website employeebenefits.co.uk, “The days of carriage clocks and gold watches as long-service awards are fast disappearing, replaced by gift vouchers and electrical goods as the top gift choices for loyal employees.” The site listed the top five most popular ways of saying good-bye, with gift cards (or vouchers) topping the list, followed by electrical goods (like an iPad), extra holiday or sabbaticals, employers’ memorabilia and, finally, clocks and watches.
But that’s not to say that French carriage clocks are losing their appeal to the many collectors worldwide who own and adore them. “The carriage clock may show stronger demand in the years to come than, say, tall case or mantel clocks,” John Nye said, “due to their portable nature. Americans’ lives are increasingly transient and mobile. This works in the carriage clock’s favor.”