Clocks of original design serve as striking interior decorations, catching our eye and ensuring we are always on time.
When clocks strike midnight, we don’t usually know about it. One night a year, however, we really do. New Year’s Eve always forces us to think about passing time…
Seconds From the Past
Timekeeping was a very inexact process until the invention of mechanical clocks. Their gradual technical development was accompanied by huge changes in decorative styles.
History shows that the first house clocks appeared towards the end of the 15th century. Originally these were large, non-portable weight-driven objects which needed to be wound up every twelve hours. In around 1500 mainsprings were invented enabling the production of portable clocks. These were first manufactured in numbers in southern Germany. The craft of clockmaking then spread first to France and by 1600 to England. The clocks’ protective cases were decorated with artistic carving and precious stones.
The precision of timekeeping was greatly improved with two inventions: the pendulum and the remontoire, a spiral spring attached to a balance wheel which guaranteed accuracy to within three minutes a day rather than the previous half-hour. In 1704 a patent for using rubies as jewel bearings in clock mechanisms was issued in England. This helped to reduce friction and wear and was especially important in the manufacturing of watches.
After 1800, Swiss watchmakers started to catch up with the French in the world of fashionable timekeeping. Abraham-Louis Breguet, who came from Switzerland but lived in Paris, perfected the art of watch design. Amongst his inventions was the so-called tourbillon mechanism, preventing deviations caused by changes in the watch’s position. Breguet’s technical achievements together with the elegance of his designs earned him the sobriquet ‘the father of modern clocks’.
During the Renaissance, Germany had become the leading European centre of clockmaking. Most remarkable of all were their beautifully crafted table clocks made from precious metals with numbered dials on all sides.
In 18th-century France it was furniture makers who decided what clocks would look like. After a period of rich decorativeness, the less imposing Regency and then plainer French Empire style followed.
In the 19th century, clock design often reflected styles from earlier centuries: Baroque, Rococo, Renaissance, neoclassical and Gothic. These new models of clock, however, always contained features and details which made them distinctive and different from what had come before. France became famous for its ornate table clocks with cases cast from gilded bronze and often placed on porcelain pedestals. These were decorated in the Sèvres style with concave dials. Different types of clock, many now collector’s items, were meanwhile being developed in other countries. The first cuckoo clocks, for instance, were made in the Black Forest in southern Germany in around 1730. It was a hundred years later before they were manufactured elsewhere.
Today clocks have become an indispensable part of every household and we cannot imagine living without them for one day. The shape, material and colour of the clock we choose often depends on the room we want to put it in as well as on personal taste. And although we may not always notice plain wall clocks, those more innovative in design will catch our eye and help ensure we never run late!
Text: Zuzana Martinová, photo: Howard Miller, Vitra, Normann Copenhagen