Have clock will travel. The story of the carriage clock.
Originating as a practical timepiece for travellers, the carriage clock took 19th century England by storm. The French manufacturers shrugged a Gallic shrug and churned them out by the bucketful…”what can one do? Those crazy Anglais!”
Small, compact, attractive and practical, the carriage clock has by dint of its ability to blend harmoniously into almost any domestic setting, probably captured the imagination of the general public more so than any other form of timepiece.
By definition a “carriage clock” is a timepiece either plain and simple, or with one or more complications designed in such a way that it can be used on a journey, the only restriction governing its construction being that it must be controlled by a balance wheel. Owners of clocks that contain any sort of pendulum will immediately understand that they are very definitely not portable, and any attempt to “take them on a journey” will almost certainly have dire consequences.
As this article is primarily concerned with the type of every day carriage clock that most people will be familiar with, I will of necessity omit a great deal of historical background. Suffice to say that the carriage clock is not an “invention”…it did not suddenly appear on the scene in a given year, but evolved from earlier forms of portable timepiece; coach watches, capucines and the pendules d’officier, a wonderfully elaborate little clock that was taken on military campaigns by Napoleon’s generals.
There is little doubt that the first French carriage clock bearing any resemblance to the form in which we know it today was made in Paris in the first quarter of the 19th century by the greatest watchmaker ever to have lived, Abraham Louis Breguet. It is futile to say any more about this wonderful man. His clocks were without exception enormously complicated, equally expensive and crafted to a standard so high that it almost beggars belief. Examples which appear at auction today can be expected to ascend rapidly into five or even six figures.
The first person to produce carriage clocks in any sort of quantity (semi-mass production) was the French clock maker Paul Garnier. In 1839 he was awarded a silver medal for them by the “Exposition des produits de L’Industrie Francaise” who stated that he had for the past nine years been making a very large number of “petit pendules portatives ou de voyage”.
Other fine makers rapidly followed suit, both French and English, and the following names were (and still are) to be found on high quality carriage clocks; Theodore Leroy, Raingo Freres, Lepine, Jules, Berthoud, Jacot and Drocourt. Around about the same time the English clockmakers James McCabe, Vulliamy, Dent and Frodsham were also producing some fine examples.
By about 1860 and thanks to a fairly simple and standard design introduced by Paul Garnier, the carriage clock industry was beginning to shift into high gear ! Only the very best of them were now the work of a single maker and interestingly virtually none of them were ever sold in France ! Carriage clock mania had spread throughout Britain like some virulent infection, and virtually the entire output was for export to England.
Although finished and cased in Paris, the main centre of production for the movements was based in Saint Nicolas d’Alierment near Dieppe and the Jura region of the Franche Comte. Assembled but unfinished movements called “blanc roulants” were now mass-produced, the vast majority from the factory of Japy Freres, who had devised special machines for this purpose. The escapements (either the cylinder or lever platform types) came from several specialist manufacturers on the French-Swiss border. The main springs, cases and glass would come from yet another source. Rather like the modern car industry, this sub-contracting of a series of standard parts enabled a wide variety of clocks to be produced with different complications, eg; striking, repeating or complicated calendar work. It also permitted the end retailer who had purchased in bulk to put his own name on the dial. Many clocks are to be found bearing the name of, say Mappin & Webb, although they had no hand in actually making the clock.
To facilitate ease of production, case styles and overall dimensions now became fairly well standardised too. The earlier cases were “one piece”, pinned and brazed; this rapidly gave way to the multiple piece “boite” (a mixture of brass castings and pressings) which were then screwed together. Each style was given a name. ‘Gorge’ being the most expensive standard style and generally only used by the best makers, through ‘Canelee’, ‘Corniche’ and ‘Obis’ (the cheapest style and current from about 1880 onwards). An interesting tip for today’s collector is that the earlier the case the larger the area of glass it is likely to have. Taken in conjunction with other factors, this is quite a useful guide to dating an early clock.
Carriage clock sizes fall with a charming lack of precision under three main headings: ‘Mignonnettes’ or “little darlings” cover all clocks under 4¼” high with the handle raised. ‘Full Size’, between 5½” and 9”, and ‘Giant’, everything over 9”. The vast majority of the clocks found today fall somewhere in the middle of the ‘Full Size’ range, and in case style will be either ‘Obis’ or ‘Corniche’. ‘Giants’ are relatively rare and will probably contain several complications, making them not only desirable, but expensive.
For today’s collector, an ample supply of good quality carriage clocks are still to be found, and the price paid will largely depend on what sort of strike is employed. Carriage clocks were made with four distinctive types of striking:-
PLAIN STRIKE: Only the hours and half hours are struck.
PETITE SONNERIE: Sounds on two bells of different tones (ting-tang), and indicates the quarter hours as well as the hour and half hour.
GRANDE SONNERIE: As above, with the addition that the preceding hour is also struck at each quarter.
MINUTE REPEATER: A per ‘Grande Sonnerie’, with the addition of sounding the number of minutes that have elapsed since the last quarter.
Many ‘timepiece only’ clocks were also made and these do not of course strike at all.
Currently the collector should expect to pay between £300 for a straight timepiece to £7,000 for a good quality minute repeater. This is a reasonable guideline in today’s market and makes an interesting comparison with the price in 1914, when an ‘Obis’ timepiece with cylinder escapement could be purchased for one guinea.
The comparatively wide range of good quality clocks still available make the collection of these lovely clocks a most rewarding past-time, and those whose appetites have been whetted should easily be able to find an attractive example within the range of their pocket.
Happy collecting !