La, La, C'est Magnifique
clockmaking came into its own in the 17th century, when highly
ornamented clocks covered in gilt bronze, known as ormolu, were produced
to keep pace with the new standards for opulence set by King Louis XIV’s
Palace of Versailles.
There were two general styles of antique French clocks during this
period. One was known as boulle, which refers to a clock cased in
tortoiseshell and inlaid with brass, pewter, porcelain, and ivory. The
second type was called religieuse, in which brass and pewter overlays
were set in ebony veneers on oak.
During the Regency period from about 1715 to 1723, bracket clocks, which
had been popular a century before, came back into use. These clocks
could be hung on a wall or placed on a table, making them a flexible
timepiece compared to the longcase clocks that clockmakers were also
producing at that time. Rococo pendule, for pendulum, clocks featured
curvaceous profiles and seemingly endless decorative detailing.
1775 on, a new art movement, Neoclassicism, influenced the style of
French clocks. The This style originated as a reaction to the excesses
of the Rococo and through the popularity of the excavations at ancient
Herculaneum and Pompeii, in Italy. Clockmakers did without the excessive
ornamentation and over-elaborate designs of the preceding Rococo style
so typical of the Louis XV reign.
Clocks produced during the reign of Louis XVI and the French First
Republic incorporated classical designs, allegories and motifs. In the
case of the Louis XVI pieces, clockmakers combined white marble,
alabaster, or biscuit with gilded and/or patinated bronze. While some
clocks were more architectural in design, others displayed
the time Louis the XVI assumed the throne 1774, clockmakers were
producing highly accurate regulators, skeleton clocks whose exposed
works were protected from dust by glass domes, and mantel clocks
festooned with everything from bronze Greek and Roman statuary to
This was also the era of cartel, or frame, clocks. Housed in elaborate
cast-bronze or gold-leaf-on-wood frames, these French wall clocks often
featured Roman numerals on white dials surrounded by gilt garlands and
figurines. One of the many makers of these sorts of clocks was Frederick
Japy, whose firm Japy Freres would become the leading French clockmaker
in the 19th century.
French wall clocks from this period became known as oeil de boeuf, or
bull's eye clocks. Some had movements that were versions of the Pendule
de Paris, the movements found in marble and standard French mantel
clocks. These clocks, most with a flower shape, were often decorated
with mother of pearl and had lift-up fronts.
Until the end of the 18th century, the French clockmaking industry had
been centered in the Jura region because of its nearness to the Swiss
and the German clockmaking industries in the Black Forest and the
skilled craftsmen who worked there. In the early 19th century, a couple
of clockmakers moved closer to Paris, where they made standard mantel
clock movements. One moved to Saint-Nicholas-d'Aliermont, which was
attractive because like Jura, it offered a pool of local craftsmen.
The black marble cases used by French clockmakers were assembled in
Rance, using marble from the Dinant area. This practice changed
slightly, however, when Belgium became independent— the French grabbed a
piece of the Dinant marble fields and imposed import tariffs to
undermine the industry in Rance.
the 1790s, the production of gilded-bronze increased considerably as
working conditions became easier. The freedom of trade initiated by the
French Revolution allowed many casters, who during the ancien régime
worked in workshops strictly limited to making bronze, to develop large
factories. They took advantage of this opportunity to execute all stages
of bronze making within one factory and drew, cast, gilded, assembled
and sold objects from their own workshops. Artisans still benefited from
pre-Revolution training and worked according to the standards of a
luxury art from the ancien régime, but they had better means of
production and organization.
Towards the end of the 18th century, round clock movements became a
reliable mass- produced product. Known as Pendule de Paris, or Paris or
French clock movements, they were an 8-day movement with an anchor
escapement, silk-thread suspended pendulum with a count wheel striking
on a bell every hour and half-hour.
the 1800s, Gothic revivalism swept France, and French antique clock
cases began to resemble Gothic cathedrals. Other clocks featured objects
animated by the clock’s movement. Some of these even incorporated a
music box to give the clock and its animated elements its own
The first decade and a half of the 19th century ushered in the French
Empire style of the Napoleonic Empire. Clockmakers continued to produce
elaborately decorated mantel clocks throughout the Bourbon Restoration
from 1814 to1830.
Although there were a great diversity of case shapes, the most common
and popular ones were the clocks with a rectangular or oblong base
sustained by four or more legs of different forms and patterns.
Clockmakers usually decorated the pedestal front with either garlands,
acanthus tendrils, acroterions, laurel wreaths, scrolls, flowers and
other classical decorative motifs, or depicted finely chased
mythological and allegoric scenes in relief as a frieze of a Greek-Roman
temple. On top of the base, in the center or to one side, sat the plinth
that accommodated the clock dial, however in other models it was also
placed in cart wheels, rocks, shields, globes, tree trunks, and such.
embellished these mantel clocks with fine bronze figures of art,
sciences, and high ideals allegories, gods, goddesses, muses, cupids,
classical literary heroes and other allegorical or mythological
compositions. Sometimes historical personages such as Alexander the
Great, Julius Caesar, George Washington, Napoleon Bonaparte,
philosophers and classical authors, were the main theme as well. Hence
they are also known as figural or sculptural clocks.
Classical sculptures and paintings also inspired clockmakers. The
classical gods served as models and symbols for the era. For instance,
the chariot clocks or "pendules au char" were an exceptional category
within the Empire clocks. Apollo, Diana and Cupid depicted as triumphant
chariot drivers, were the most popular gods used. It was habitual during
the Napoleonic times and particularly under the "Directoire" and "Consulat"
regimes that clocks glorify the conduct of warfare.
By the 1850s, clockmakers produced two types of French clocks in large
numbers. They made mantel clocks from 1850 for both the local and
English markets. The design of the English versions was naturally more
sober than the bronze ormolu, white-marble base, porcelain dial, and
gold-handed clocks made by clockmakers such as Raingo Freres for French
At the turn of the 20th century, French clockmakers incorporated the
aesthetics of Art Nouveau and Arts and Crafts into their finished
products, but they really shined during the Art Deco Period. Clockmakers
regularly produced mantel clocks made of marble, onyx, brass, glass, and
chrome. Many of these clocks featured columns on their sides and Roman
numerals on their dials.
Figurines and statues, which had been favorite devices of French
clockmakers in the 18th and 19th centuries, continued to flank the faces
of French clocks during the Art Deco era. Bronze human forms from myth
and history were popular, as were animals—from lovebirds to springboks.
Art Deco clock designers included Edgar Brandt, whose hand-wrought,
forged iron clocks typically sat on marble bases, and Cartier, which
made all sorts of clocks, including square travel clocks with gold hands
and black enameled handles. Compagnie Industrielle de Macanique
Horelogere sold clocks under its JAZ brand. Its line of Art Deco clocks,
introduced in 1934, were usually geometric (round faces in horizontal
cases), colorful (blues, greens, and gold), and often incorporated
mirrors into their designs.
Unlike the clocks built in the 18th century, the majority of which were
signed, the makers of many of the Empire ones remain anonymous, making
it difficult to attribute one particular work to a certain bronze
sculptor, such as Pierre-Philippe Thomire, Claude Galle, André-Antoine
Ravrio, Louis-Stanislas Lenoir-Ravrio. Experts consider their timepieces
to be works of art—sculptural études, where the balance in composition
and the study of objects, animals and the human bodies forms and
expressions are carefully and meticulously reflected in the bronze
figures, achieving a high degree of realism, perfectionism and delicacy.
It was a common practice among bronziers to sell pieces to each other
and even to copy or readapt each others' designs. When signed, they
usually bear the bronzier's name as well as the retailer's name or the
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