Carriage clocks, in the form we associate with them and as the name applies, were first made in the early 1800s as portable timepieces to be used when travelling.
Although earlier clocks such as the pendule d’Officier and the montre de carrosse had been used for this purpose it was the development, increased proficiency and miniaturisation of the lever escapement and its utilisation on a platform that allowed for the practicability missing in earlier clocks.
The great Abraham-Louis Brequet (1747-1823), the most famous of French clockmakers, is felt to be the first to appreciate the growing market that existed for a practical pendule de voyage and was the first to properly produce such clocks circa 1810, albeit very fine and expensive pieces that must really be set apart from the later examples by other makers.
It was Brequet’s pieces that set the basic form copied by the following makers of an eight-day movement set in a brass case with a carrying handle and a lever escapement.
He inspired a number of followers in France in the early 19th century who made more commercially available carriage clocks, the first being Paul Garnier. If Brequet was the developer then Garnier was the creator of the carriage clock industry in Paris although it wasn’t until the 1830s that his first examples were exhibited.
His clocks tended to be striking examples in beautiful but simple one-piece brass cases, often employing his version of the platform escapement, the chaff-cutter.
Garnier had created a practical and affordable travelling clock and in turn inspired a second string of makers including such illustrious names as Bolviller, Jules and Auguste who must have worked very closely together as examples by all three are almost indistinguishable save for the signature on the movement.
They were shortly followed by Henri Jacot and Alfred Drocourt, both fine makers who took the commercial production of carriage clocks in the latter part of the century to another level.
It was the English market that swallowed up the vast majority of French made carriage clocks as can be seen by the catalogue of the Great Exhibition of 1851 held in Hyde Park, London, but it wasn’t until the latter part of the century that the commercial aspect really took hold. This is obvious from the catalogue of the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1889 which showed the large output of clocks now being achieved and for which an article in The Revue Chronometrique spoke of the carriage clock being “an indispensable part of the luggage of any self-respecting traveller”.
It is this English aspect of French carriage clock production that can cause confusion as by this time a number of English makers such as Dent and Frodsham were also retailers with shops in the West End of London. They were buying clocks from Paris with their name and London address on the dial and sometimes the movement. This, allied to the fact that the hand setting and regulation marks were punched on in English can lead the unwary to think that these are indeed English made clocks by top makers. Indeed by the early 1900’s, to alleviate this problem, most backplates were stamped ‘Made in France’.
The majority of French carriage clocks can be placed into distinct categories of case style, movement type and quality. The most common style, and that most recognised, is the Corniche case, being fairly plain with slight fluting to the columns and a moulded overhanging cornice.
The Anglaise case of the late 1800s, so called as its sharper, plainer lines were thought to be more commercially viable to the English taste, was generally a little bigger than average and came in a number of variations including those with fluted columns.
The style often used by the top makers, and nearly always housing the best quality movements, was the Gorge case, which had ribbing to the corners of the base and top and a five ribbed handle.
A variant of this was the Canallee which was slightly plainer without the ribbing. Other styles include the one-piece case, so called as it was squarer and cast from ‘one piece;’ the oval case, which was often engraved; and those with differing columns such as the bamboo style. A more expensive option would be the fully engraved case, or one set with champleve enamel whilst others would have the glass panels and dial substituted for painted porcelain panels decorated with various classical or romantic scenes often from the Sevres factory or more rarely from Limoges.
Cases also came in various sizes from the miniature mignonette no.1, through the normal sizes, and up to the giant cases which were generally of wonderful quality.
Dials were generally white porcelain with black Roman numerals although again there were a number of variations such as engine-turned gilded masking or the use of Arabic or aised numerals.
Movements tended be of eight day duration striking on a bell or gong and sometimes repeating via a button pressed on the top of the case although timepiece examples were used in both mediocre and fine examples. Further strikework included petite-sonnerie where the quarters strike on two gongs and then grande-sonnerie where not only the quarters but also the hours strike at each quarter. Rarer examples include examples which chime on four gongs and others with musical movements, normally set within the base, whilst also rare are pieces with phases of the moon set within the dial.
Quality is another factor in French carriage clocks, with the majority being the mass-produced Obis style with cylinder escapements and timepiece movements. The better quality clocks were usually signed and numbered by the maker which would include those mentioned earlier along with Margaine, Lemaille and others. Drocourt, for instance, nearly always used high quality Gorge cases or sometimes Corniche cases whilst Jacot used the best Corniche cases but also those of a distinctive style such as those with bamboo or fluted pillars.
Although the French made the majority of carriage clocks they didn’t produce them all. In the early 1800s English makers such as Wregg were making coach watches with balance wheel escapements and fusee movements put into mahogany cases. These were taken on coaches by the driver, having been wound and set before the journey began and then locked. This was to make sure that the timekeeping wasn’t adjusted during a journey. The guard was required, at certain stages of his journey, to hand the locked timepiece to the local postmaster, the time being entered on the guard’s waybill. The stagecoaches had been running for many years but the period from 1825 were their heyday when ‘Wonder’ ran as the first timed stagecoach from London to Shrewsbury.
But true English carriage clocks still took their cue from the French although the English examples were produced in much smaller quantities and to a very high standard. They tended to be made by well-known clockmakers including Cole, Desbois and Vulliamy, with wonderful quality movements, usually employing fusees and chains and with a lever escapement.
By the mid 1800s the top chronometer makers such as Frodsham, Dent, and White would sometimes substitute the lever escapement for a chronometer escapement, making for very accurate pieces although how portable these clocks were is open to debate as their size was often prohibitive.
That these clocks were at first intended for use as travelling pieces is apparent by the beautifully made and padded wooden carrying boxes employed to house them on journeys and the fact that the later chronometer escapements were made with light balance wheels and short detents allowing for more bumps and shocks than the average type used for chronometers in the home.
But by the later part of the century many buyers saw these fine English-made pieces as a status symbol and bought them for this purpose.
Discounting the more fancy and unusual pieces, English carriage clocks tended to come in two types. The bigger, more rectangular plain case housed the large twin fusee movements, whilst the smaller pieces would be a lot more fancy, with fluted columns and finials and would be engraved with floral and rococo decoration. More often than not they had timepiece movements which employed just spring barrels rather than incorporating a fusee.
Obviously due to the proximity to France of Austria and Switzerland, and their pedigree as fine watch and clockmakers, both these two countries produced superb carriage clocks although with nowhere near the output of France. Indeed the majority of Swiss clocks are almost indistinguishable from French examples as makers from both countries worked together, with many of the escapements employed on the French clocks having being made in Switzerland.
The Austrian clock industry centred around Vienna and their pieces tended to have finer movements, employing both lever and duplex escapements but ran, like so many Viennese clocks, for only a short duration. Their cases appear to be much simpler but are of excellent quality and often engraved.
By the latter part of the 19th century and into the 1900s other countries such as Germany and America were producing carriage clocks. Their quality couldn’t compare, however and they tended to be far more mass-produced, ensuring that they did not unduly effect the French industry which continued into the 1930s and beyond.