It's About Time - A Basic Approach to Antique Clocks and Watches

A Basic Approach to Antique Clocks and Watches
by Joe Cohen

As seen in Antiques & Art Around Florida, Winter/Spring 1998

French Grandfather clock by G. Dunois, Paris. 8 day, striking the hours and quaters. C 1268. All photos by the author.
Antique clocks and watches were manufactured in various materials, styles, designs, types and sizes. The diversity and the multitude of clock and watch makers and manufacturers require many, many years of study to be able to accurately identify and research antique clocks and watches.

For all intents and purposes, the first clocks made were made in the late 14th Century. Of the three fundamental quantities on which all physical science is based and measured, time measurement has been the concern of every developing civilization. Mechanical timekeepers are the artificial clocks, while nature’s natural clock is the sun. In the early years, and through several centuries, mechanical clocks and watches were so rare and made by so few, that only rulers and noblemen had such pieces. In Europe, the general populace had to rely on the few public clocks in existence.

The vast majority of these early timekeepers from the 15th Century to the mid 17th Century are mostly in museums with just a small percentage in private collections. Most of us will never see nor would we be able to recognize these early clocks. What we will consider in this article are the antique clocks and watches of the mid 1800’s through the early 1900’s as these are the clocks and watches of mass production and quantities.

I have had many people come to me with a clock or watch and have been told the story that it "had belonged to my great grandmother and must have been made in the early 1800s due to the style and workmanship," etc. In most cases, it is easily recognizable that the piece is in fact from the early 1900s. We can see by this example that research is a very important aspect of identification and dating.

Furniture periods had a great influence in the style and materials of clocks and watches, and in fact, clocks and watches became not only measurements of time but decoration. We still find this true today. The majority of modern clocks and watches are made with the “throw away mentality” of the modern age. Due to this, most modern clocks and watches will never become antiques nor should they, because of the fact that craftsmanship is of a very low quality. The majority of clocks from the 1800’s through the early 1900’s were made with such quality that with proper care and maintenance, they in fact will last several centuries.

As a collector or one time purchaser of an antique clock or watch, only purchase a clock that you find beautiful or interesting, or befitting you personal need, and that you will want to live with for many years. If this is the first consideration, the clock or watch will become an integral part of your daily life and the decoration of your home.


  1. Condition - the clock or watch must be properly and competently restored, and accurately regulated. If these two aspects are ignored, the clock or watch will only be decorative rather than functional and decorative. Condition is also a factor in considering the value of the clock or watch.
  2. Originality - of the movement, case, finish and materials are important aspects. Any changes or alterations of these will result in diminished value.
  3. Rarity - common sense tells us the rarity of anything enhances its value. To determine rarity, we are required to do research, which is very time consuming and costly. However, if done, can result in identification of those clocks and watches that have extraordinary value.
  4. Provenance - like rarity, can affect value greatly, and like rarity requires research and documentation for it to affect the value of a clock or watch.

French carved wood wall bracket and clock

French carved wood wall barcket and clock. Painted and gilt finish. 8 day, time and strike, silk thread suspension. c. 1760

These four areas, condition, originality, rarity and provenance are the factors that will determine the value of a particular clock or watch. The average person must seek out a knowledgeable authority who has a reputation for honesty and integrity and the ability to evaluate these four areas prior to making a purchase. The fact that clock making is a dying art should also indicate that experts in this field are few and far between.

The values of clocks and watches range from a few dollars to several thousand dollars, and this is the price range of the antique clocks and watches that most persons will encounter, although there are clocks that go up in value to over a million dollars. You might be one of the lucky people to own one of these clocks, but you’ll never know unless you are able to identify and research it.

When attempting to identify a clock or watch, you must first identify the type - floor or wall clock, mantel or desk clock and tower or street clock. Secondly, you must determine if possible the clockmaker, manufacturer or company. This in most cases will help you to determine the country of origin, as well as the period of time in which it was made. Always remember that through the years there may have been alterations in clocks and watches that can cause a great deal of trouble in identification.

Other areas that we need to be cognizant of is fakes, forgeries and reproductions. In all three cases, an expert should be able to guide you through this maze so you don’t make a costly mistake. Recently, a husband and wife found a clock that they really loved in an antique store. The clock was priced at $12,000.00 and identified by the dealer as an old clock, made in France, and running when it was purchased from a home. Because of the amount of dollars involved, the couple sought expert advice. They had given a $2,000.00 deposit on the clock. The expert determined that the clock was old, about 20 years old!!!!, a reproduction of an 18th Century French clock, but was made in Germany, and was in need of cleaning and minor repair. However, the clock could be bought elsewhere for $1,000.00. This example shows how the couple, by seeking expert advice, were able to save themselves the aggravation as well the substantial cost of $12,000.00. This shows the costly lessons that people can avoid with a little due diligence. The old axiom “let the buyer beware” applies in many aspects of our lives.

French table clock

French table clock. Bronze mounts, cut crystal by Baccarat. 8 day, time and strike, silk thread suspension, movement by Bechot. C. 1812

If you have decided to add an antique clock as an accent piece to your home, or as part of a collection you are trying to build, first find an expert to help you, then find the clock or watch. If you do it the opposite way, you’ll have time to rue your poor decision.

There is an international organization that is dedicated to the preservation, research and education of antique clock and watches. This organization is the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors, which has a membership of 35,000+, in addition to a world class library, museum and experts. There are over 150 Chapters nationwide, and nine Chapters in Florida alone. The NAWCC headquarters is located in Columbia, Pennsylvania. The local Chapter of NAWCC meets monthly in the Miramar Civic Center, 6920 S.W. 35th Street, Miramar, Florida, (954) 561-2234, and offers exhibits several times a year that are open to the public. There is also a course offered at Florida Atlantic University in Fort Lauderdale, on Antique Clocks and Watches. This could be another source for help in determining the aforementioned factors.

One other source available for identification and research is the International Society of Appraisers. I.S.A. will provide you with names of appraisers whose specialty is clocks and watches. One of the notable appraisal companies that specializes in clocks and watches is Kerwick Appraisals of Fort Lauderdale, Florida. There is a charge for these services, but you must insure that the appraiser you use is an expert or has an expert on their staff with regard to clocks and watches.

About the author:
“JC” Cohen is a collector, expert, national speaker at NAWCC Regionals, author of “Evaluation, Research and Pricing of Antique Clocks” and is an instructor at Florida Atlantic University on “Antique Clocks of the 17th through 20th Century”. He is also a watch and clock consultant to several notable ISA certified appraisers. “JC” is the local president of the NAWCC Chapter 60.

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