The things you find at the flea-market…
This petite little carriage clock…the one on the right…was so small and cute! I picked it up at my local flea-market over the weekend, and I think it’s just adorable! It’s French, with an eight-day mechanical hand-wound movement, made sometime in the postwar era, ca. 1950.
Mechanically speaking, there’s really nothing special about it. It’s exactly the same as the one next to it…which is a more conventionally-sized carriage-cock…except that it’s smaller! All the parts have been miniaturised to fit into this little clock-case.
Miniature carriage clocks like this are nothing new. But on the other hand, they aren’t exactly common. Most people who envisage carriage clocks picture the much bigger ones (‘bigger’ being about the size of a house-brick). It was the size, more than anything else, that drew me to this piece. I felt it was something different and special, and that was what prompted me to buy it.
It didn’t come with a key when I got it. But to my good fortune, I was able to scrounge one from a box of keys belonging to the watchmaker whom I took it to, for an opinion on its age, quality and condition.
Carriage clocks have fascinated me for years. I just love everything about them. The fact that they’re made of brass, the fact that they’ve got glass panels on them, the fact that you can see all the gears and cogs and wheels clicking and ticking and turning away inside the case. The fact that you can see the escapement mechanism tick-tick-ticking away at the top of the clock through the viewing window. And the fact that it’s such a simple, uncluttered, elegant design. And the carrying-handle on top is always useful for carrying the clock and moving it around, without the risk of dropping it!
A Brief History of Carriage Clocks
The carriage clock was invented back in the 1790s by famed Belgian watchmaker Louis Breuget.
Do you own a mechanical watch? See that little spring inside it that expands and contracts as the watch ticks?
That’s called a Breuget overcoil hairspring.
He invented that.
And he also invented the carriage clock – some say – on the orders of Napoleon himself, who required a portable, and highly accurate timepiece, to carry with him on his long military campaigns.
Originally, all carriage clocks came with their own carry-cases. These were little wooden boxes, usually lined with leather (without) and felt or velvet (within) to provide protection to the clock when it was being transported. Today, an antique carriage clock with its original carry-case can command a high price – often the boxes were broken, worn out, or just disposed of.
Carriage clocks were almost all made in France. A microscopic number were also made in England, and some modern ones are made in Asia, but for quality and reliability, the best were almost invariably French; and manufactured in such large quantities that most of the clocks (apart from the really high-quality ones from famous makers or retailers) were unmarked.
The Heyday of the Carriage Clock
The carriage clock really came to the fore in the period 1800-1950, although they’re still very popular today, this period was when they were really en vogue. It was highly fashionable and desirable, to own a carriage clock during this period – and a vast variety of them were made in all sorts of sizes and designs. Oversized ones, regular sized, miniatures (like this one), and even, believe it or not, sub-miniatures, which were even SMALLER than this!
Carriage clocks came in a wide variety of case-styles and mechanism styles. All kinds of features were possible: Alarms (like an alarm-clock), minute-repeaters (which strike the hours, quarters and minutes at the press of a button), and strikers (which struck the hours and half-hours automatically).
Carriage clocks were popular as gifts, or just as fashion-accessories. Something for a gentleman to put on his desk. Or for a lady to have on her dressing-table. Or for a family to put in pride-of-place on the mantlepiece over the living-room fireplace.
Carriage Clocks Today
You can still buy new mechanical carriage clocks, and there are companies which still make and sell them. That said, the best are still considered to be French. As one article put it: “There’s only two kinds: Good, and Better”, so if you stick with French manufactured ones, you really can’t go wrong – after all – it’s where they were invented, two hundred years ago. And where else would be more knowledgeable on how to make good ones? Two centuries of practice has to count for something!
Naturally, antique carriage clocks are also very popular. Just be aware that with antique ones, you do need to be careful. Check for things like loose, cracked or broken glass panels. Depending on the competency of your watchmaker/clockmaker, he may be able to cut new panels and replace the damaged ones. Check also for things like rust, corrosion, and worn out parts – especially the balance-mechanism at the top of the clock. If that’s shot, you’ll need to get a replacement balance. That affects the clock’s value and desirability. If that doesn’t matter to you – then you can get a very nice antique carriage clock at a marked down price. It’s all a matter of luck, and observation.
When you buy a carriage clock, make sure you have the key that goes with it. All carriage clocks come with a double-head key. One end is for setting the time, the other is for winding up the mechanism. Assuming that the clock is in working order with sufficient oil, and you’ve wound it up and it won’t start, lift the clock up by its carry-handle and give it a slight, oscillating twist or wiggle. This will set the balance-wheel spinning, and the clock should start ticking away at once. If this doesn’t work, then the mechanism’s been gunked up by dust and grime. Send it to your watchmaker!
Thanks to Philip Gore of Ferntree Gully Watches & Clocks, for providing the key, and an expert opinion on the age and quality of my latest horological acquisition! 🙂