Antique and vintage mantel clocks make beautiful display items, whether it's a single clock adorning the mantel or a collection of clocks displayed in a bookcase. An old mantel clock makes a perfect anchor piece in a vintage vignette or stands out as an eclectic accent on a floating shelf in a modern home office. Begin your journey of collecting mantel clocks by getting to know their history.
History of Mantel Clocks
According to the experts at Merritt's Antiques, the 15th century technological advancement of a wound spring to power a clock provided the basis for bringing timekeeping instruments out of towers and into homes in the sized-down forms of mantel and wall clocks. However, a hundred years would pass before spring powered clocks were put to practical use, rivaling traditional weight driven clocks.
French Mantel Clocks
Mantel clocks were first made in France in the mid 1700s, according to Britain Clockcase Ltd. Developed from French regency bracket clocks, they adorned the numerous fireplaces of royal palaces and wealthy manor homes. Frequently made from brass, these clocks featured intricate embellishments and detailing and were sometimes accompanied with candleholders or vases. A well-known French maker of mantel clocks in the early 1800s was Raingo Freres.
English Shelf Clocks
England was behind by a few years but the first shelf clocks came in the form of lantern clocks and then bracket clocks featuring both brass and wood cases. Bill Harveson, an antique clock dealer, member of the National Association of Watch & Clock Collectors (NAWCC), and author of DiscoverClocks.com, points to three key advancements in clock making during the mid-to-late 1600s that also contributed to the miniaturization and portability of clocks: the pendulum, anchor escapement, and rack and snail striking method. The National Institute of Standards and Technology also points out that the pendulum and anchor escapement helped keep more accurate time in clocks, too.
The style of lantern and bracket clocks remained mostly unchanged through the 1700s, with slight variations in the dials and some had rounded instead of flat tops. Eardley Norton was a skilled English clockmaker producing clocks from 1760 to 1792, and became a member of the Clockmakers' Company in 1770.
Origins of American Mantle Clocks
With the help of water powered machines in the early 19th century, a small group of inventors revolutionized the clock making business, changing it from an artisan craft to a factory process. Eli Terry and his associates Seth Thomas and Silas Hoadly began to design small clocks with inexpensive wooden moving parts instead of the more costly brass. Encased in a simple wooden box, the glass door contained reverse painted numbers that served as the clock's face. See an example of one of these early mass-produced mantel clocks, known as the "Box Clock," online at the National Museum of American History.
Collectible Antique Mantle Clocks
Mantle clocks dated at 100 years or older qualify as antiques, with the majority of clocks dating from the mid-1800s to the early 1900s, prior to 1930.
Seth Thomas went on to become one of the most successful clock makers in the U.S. Thomas' family run company continued to prosper well into the 20th century, long after his death in 1859. According to Collector's Weekly, some of the most notable Seth Thomas mantel clocks include:
- Adamantine Mantle Clocks, 1892 to 1917 - Adamantine was a shiny veneer developed by the Celluloid Manufacturing Company. Thomas' company licensed the veneer because it could replicate the look of onyx and marble, providing a more cost-effective way to compete with French clocks made from those materials.
- Tambour Mantel Clock, 1904 - This clock had a low, wide profile, making it ideal to display over the fireplace.
In the mid 1800s, Elias Ingraham created the triangular steeple clock, which inspired similar spin-off styles such as the double steeple and the beehive.
Expert Bill Harveson indicates the black mantel clock, which stood about 12 inches high, 16 inches wide and 7 inches deep, became a staple design for American mantel clocks. Common design features include celluloid columns on each side of the dial, flat or curved tops, gilt filigree decoration on the front case and pot metal feet coated in brass a finish. Adamantine clocks featured this look, with other wood clocks finished in a glossy black enamel paint patented by Elias' son, Edward Ingraham. Harveson recommends the black mantel for novice collectors just starting a mantel clock collection.
Other Collectible Antique Mantel Clock Styles
A few other notable collectible clocks made during this era include:
- Ogee Mantel Clocks - Introduced in the 1840s, ogee clocks were essentially a pine box covered in a veneer and contained an S-like curve in the molding of the case. Almost every American clockmaker produced an ogee clock and the style continued until 1910.
- Ansonia Porcelain Mantel Clocks - During the late 1800s and early 1900s, The Ansonia Clock Company imported exquisite hand-painted porcelain clock cases from Germany, which they made into beautiful mantel clocks.
- Simon Willard Shelf Clock - A highly collectible weight driven clock by the same man who designed the Banjo Clock.
Resources for Antique Mantel Clocks
- Ruby Lane has listings for antique Ansonia porcelain clocks and Adamantine clocks, as well as other antique mantel clocks.
- Online Galleries has an exquisite collection of French and English antique mantel clocks as well as three piece candleholder clock sets dating from the 1700s and 1800s.
- Skinner Auctioneers can connect you with sellers of antique ogee mantel clocks.
- eBay has over 4000 listings for pre-1930 antique mantel clocks of practically any maker.
Collectible Vintage Mantel Clocks
During the 1930s, the Art Deco design movement was in full swing in America and mantle clocks took on a new, streamlined look. The machine-like, geometric aesthetic and smooth, sleek finishes of Art Deco style continued to dominate the look of mantel clocks through the 1940s and 1950s.
European Art Deco Clocks
According to Collector's Weekly, France and Switzerland were the leading producers of Art Deco mantel clocks in Europe. French clocks were made from marble, onyx, brass, glass and chrome, with many featuring columns on the sides and Roman numerals on the face.
Swiss clockmaker Arthur ImHof produced mantel or shelf clocks featuring amber glass and chromed bronze. ImHof also designed an airplane wing-like clock base, accentuated with a contrast of shiny chrome, patinated bronze and black Bakelite.
German clockmakers such as Hermle and Junghans made substantial mantel clocks with beautiful wood veneers and sleek, curvaceous cases.
American Art Deco Clocks
Plenty of American clock makers were producing Art Deco mantel clocks in the 1930s as well, including Thomas and Ingraham. Joining them in their endeavors were:
- Waltham clocks were often framed in successive bands of marble or jade and some had silver numbers or hands.
- Telechron, a subsidiary of General Electric, made the Imp or mustache clock, earning the name because of the top of the case. Telechron also produced a large number of butterscotch Catalin clocks.
Some of the most popular and modern materials for clocks of this era include Bakelite, the first synthetic plastic and Catalin, a similar translucent form of plastic often in a butterscotch color.
Late Art Deco and Midcentury Styles
Many of the later Art Deco mantel clock designs from the 1940s through the 1960s are a fusion of Art Deco and Midcentury styles, such as the Jefferson Golden Hour Mystery Clock, dating from the 1950s.
- One of the most glamorous Seth Thomas Deco clock designs features a block case made from clear Lucite and infused with gold bubbles, blending seamlessly with the atomic era design aesthetic of Midcentury homes.
- Especially popular in the 1950s were the classic looking 400 Day Anniversary Clocks, also called Torison Clocks. Usually encased in glass, the shiny brass mechanisms and rotating pendulum make it a showpiece that stayed in production from 1880 to 1980, according to clock expert and business owner Bill Stoddard. Stoddard is a member of the American Watchmakers - Clockmakers Institute (AWCI) and the NAWCC.
- Among the priciest of collectible vintage mantel clocks from the 1960s are the atmos clocks by Jaeger LeCoultre. Encased in shiny brass and glass, atmos clocks run using pressure and temperature from the atmosphere, so they never need winding.
Resources for Vintage Mantel Clocks
- 1stDibs offers a small collection of vintage Art Deco mantel clocks from the 1930s.
- Etsy offers hundreds of vintage mantel clocks for sale of both European and American origin.
- eBay also has the largest selection of vintage mantel clocks and you can refine your search for something specific like LeCoultre atmos clocks.
Tips for Collecting Antique or Vintage Mantel Clocks
The numerous styles of antique and vintage mantle clocks can make it overwhelming for the beginning collector. Browse through some auction sites and online antique dealers to familiarize yourself with clock maker names and styles of Mantle clocks that appeal to you.
Consider the type of clock that would best complement the style of your home. Art Deco and Midcentury style mantel clocks fit well in modern or contemporary settings, while antique clocks look right at home in traditional settings. You may also want to collect clocks by a certain maker, style or time period. If you need help dating a clock, The Antique Clocks Price Guide has a lot of helpful information.
Factors to Consider Before Buying
Other things to look for or do before buying an antique or vintage mantel clock include:
- Authentication - Look for the Maker's Mark on a mantel clock to help verify its authenticity.
- Condition - A clock in working condition will be worth more but only if the parts are all original. Check for cracked glass or scratches in the finish.
- Transportation - The delicate instruments inside a clock can easily be damaged if not properly prepared for shipping. Check with online sellers to see how they protect their clocks for safe shipping.
Visit Local Shops for Mantel Clocks
Although an auction site like eBay offers the largest selection of antique and vintage mantel clocks, consider visiting a local antique shop or thrift store when searching for your first mantel clock. Nothing beats a first-hand experience of getting to examine the piece and actually hear it ticking or chiming before you buy.