Collecting Antique Clocks and Watches

The realm of antique clocks and watches is one that encompasses both the aesthetic in which individual pieces are collected for their artistry and craftsmanship, and the historic in which collectors explore the technological innovations reflected in those pieces. Horology is defined as the art and science of measuring time, and most collectors of antique timepieces consider themselves horologists to some extent. Throughout history, civilization has continually sought to more accurately and efficiently measure time, and that quest is embodied in the often beautiful and always fascinating artifacts that remain.

A Brief History of Clock and Watchmaking

The first mechanical clocks are believed to have appeared in the latter part of the 13th century, perhaps in Italy. While there are no surviving examples, it is at about this time that they appear in church records. Wholly mechanical clocks were made possible by the invention of the verge (or crown wheel) escapement, a technological advance whereby time could be measured by the regular advancement of a toothed wheel.

The earliest clocks would have been large, tower clocks built from wrought iron and driven by weights. They would likely not have had a clock face as we know it today, but would have instead been engineered to ring a bell at intervals. In the 15th century, clockmakers began to use springs in the place of weights making possible smaller, more portable devices that would have been used in homes. As the craft of clockmaking took root, the German cities of Augsburg and Nuremburg emerged as one of the earliest centers of clock production.

During these first centuries of clockmaking, mechanical clocks would have been terribly imprecise, losing hours throughout a day. Domestic clocks were showpieces of royalty and other wealthy persons, but of little use in time-keeping as we know it today.

In the middle of the 16th century brass began to replace iron, enabling the design of more intricate movements. It was also during the 16th century that clocks became small enough and portable enough to be worn - typically hung from a chain around the neck or attached to clothing - presaging the pocket watches that would appear in the 17th century.

Dutch mathematician and horologist Christiaan Huygens' invention of the pendulum clock, patented in 1657, is considered by many to be the most significant breakthrough in the history of timekeeping. First suggested by Galileo but never built by him, the application of a pendulum swinging at regular and precise intervals made it possible for the first time to produce reasonably accurate clocks. The advent of the pendulum clock in the 17th century was accompanied by the rise of clockmaking centers in England and France.

The pendulum clock was followed shortly by the invention of the balance spring watch which appeared circa 1670 making reasonably accurate watches possible.

English horologist Thomas Mudge invented the lever escapement in 1759. The lever escapement reduced interference by allowing the time-keeping element to run free during much of the operating cycle enabling great precision. By 1900 the lever escapement was used in the design of almost all watches, and it remains the most common mechanism in mechanical watches today.

American industrialist Eli Terry is credited with introducing the principles of mass production to clock manufacture. Terry received his first patent for a clock in 1797, and throughout the early 1800s developed and implemented processes whereby identical and interchangeable clock parts could be produced. Terry's innovations dramatically reduced the cost of clockmaking, and ownership expanded beyond the wealthy classes. Clock manufacturing in America flourished, and the country became a major exporter of clocks well into the 20th century.

The first electric clock was patented in 1840 by Scottish clockmaker Alexander Bain. In his earliest design a motor was used to wind a clock spring, he later patented a electromagnetic pendulum. Although Bain's designs suffered from accuracy issues due to other elements of the mechanism, for the first time clocks did not require periodic winding to function.

The development of electronics in the 20th century quickly led to the invention of clocks and watches of profound precision with no mechanical parts. Despite these advances, the mechanical timepiece survives to this day with many manufacturers around the world continuing to produce objects of great artistry and precision.

Antique Clock Styles

Mantel Clocks - So named because they were frequently displayed on the mantel of a fireplace, also known as table clocks and shelf clocks. These are smaller clocks, typically spring driven, with styles extending from the extremely basic to the extremely ornate.

Wall Clocks - A style of clock with clock works and face but no case. The clock is mounted on a wall and the works simply dangle free. The earliest wall clocks were weight driven, but eventually became pendulum driven.

Bracket Clocks - A spring driven clock in a flexible style that could either stand free or be wall mounted.

Grandfather Clocks - Also known as longcase clocks and floor clocks, these are distinctively large clocks standing at between 6 and 8 feet. Grandfather clocks came into prominence when the pendulum clock was invented and clockmakers learned they could achieve greater precision by building longer pendulums.

Carriage Clocks – Originally appearing in France and then gaining popularity throughout Europe, carriage clocks were designed to be rugged and portable.

Banjo Clocks - Designed to hang on the wall with the works encased. They are called banjo clocks because the general shape is reminiscent of the musical instrument (upside down), however the style was very popular with a good deal of variety in appearance.

Cuckoo Clocks - First created in Germany's Black Forest region by Franz Anton Ketterer in 1730, the style became the trademark of Black Forest clockmakers for generations to come. Characterized by the hourly appearance of the cuckoo and its two-toned chime, the clocks feature a variety of novelty features and movements connected to the clockworks.

Anniversary Clocks – Characterized by the torsion pendulum, patented in 1829, which allows the clock to use very little power running for up to 400 days without winding.

Important Clock and Watch Collecting Terminology

Anchor - A type of escapement used in pendulum clocks. Developed in the 1670s the anchor escapement improved accuracy by enabling the use of longer pendulums.

Balance - A bar or wheel that controls the speed of the clock mechanism in early clocks.

Bezel - The frame around the glass face of a clock or watch.

Bob - The weight on the end of a pendulum

Bridge - Used in watch movements to support the balance.

Chapter Ring - The ring on a clock or watch in which the numerals or other time divisions are marked.

Count Wheel - The wheel in a clock which regulates the number of strokes.

Detent - A catch or lever that regulates striking by locking the movement of a mechanism allowing a wheel to move in one direction only.

Escapement - A mechanism consisting of an escape wheel and an anchor in which the last wheel in a train is allowed to move or "escape" one notch at a time. The escapement provides periodic energy impulses to a pendulum or balance.

Foliot - A horizontal bar with weights on the ends that was part of the verge escapement in early clocks.

Fusee - A conical pulley with grooves in a spiral configuration from which a cord or chain unwinds onto a barrel containing the spring.

Motion Work - Reduction gear train that turns the timepiece's hour hand from the minute hand.

Pallet - The locking lever that interrupts the passage of the escape wheel teeth to give impulses to the balance.

Pendulum - A device made from a weight (bob) hung from a fixed support so that it is able to swing freely under the influence of gravity. Since the motion of a pendulum is regular and periodic, it can be used to drive the clock works at precise intervals.

Pinion - A toothed wheel.

Train - A set of wheels and pinions geared together.

Verge - A vertical arm with 2 pallets attached that advances the escape wheel in the verge escapement.

Other Articles

Eli Terry, American Entrepreneur
Known as the founder of the American clock industry, entrepreneur and inventor Eli Terry brought the concepts of mass production to clock making. His efforts ushered in the industrial revolution while securing the young country's role as the leader in clock manufacture for generation to come.

Railroad Pocket Watches
Few images are more iconic of the golden age of American railroading than that of the train conductor dutifully checking his pocket watch. This collector's guide to the railroad pocket watch gives a history of these fascinating collectibles, along with information on railway watch standards, what to look for in a watch, and how to value it.

History of Ansonia Clocks
The clocks of the Ansonia Clock company, one of the foremost 19th century American clock manufacturers, are known all over the world for their style and craftsmanship. Ansonia clocks are very popular with collectors, but with millions having been produced many clocks are quite accessible.

The Meissen Porcelain Manufactory
For more than 300 years the Meissen Porcelain Manufactory has been a central figure in European porcelain. It was at Meissen that the first true hard-paste porcelain was manufactured outside of China, and the story of that accomplishment has the high drama of fiction - all the more intriguing because it is true.

What is Porcelain? - A Collector's Guide to the Craft
An introduction to porcelain for the collector. Includes information about the history of porcelain, the different types of porcelain (hard paste, soft paste, and bone), understanding glazing, and descriptions of the various methods of porcelain decoration.

Collecting Antique Furniture
Of all the collectible antiques, the broad category of furniture is perhaps the most widely held and most satisfying. Frequently handed down through generations, the various chairs, tables, cabinets and other pieces are often in use, adding character and constancy to our daily lives. This guide includes an overview of the significant styles and historical periods, and other important information for collectors.

Salamis Tablet
From the abacus to the Internet - perspectives on the evolution of computing.