Antique French Mantel Clocks

French Mantel Clock
French Ormolu Rococo Mantel Clock, Late 1800’s

Tick-tock! Spring has sprung! What better way to welcome the arrival of springtime than with an antique French mantel clock! And with a color-palette of gold, turquoise, Robin egg blue, pistachio-green, cotton-candy pink, and malachite green,the design and decoration of 17th-, 18th-, and 19th-century French mantel clocks incorporate all the trappings of spring.

You’re probably most familiar with these decorative pieces as the resident time-keepers of illustrious castles and palaces (such as Windsor, Versailles, and Schönbrunn) as mantel clocks were created as display pieces for their grand fireplace mantels. These clocks are ornate: eye-catching gold masses with delicate floral designs, elegant scrollwork, flowing drapery, garland swags, and, very often, solid statuettes of angels, cherubs, or divine figure. (They would need to be striking if adorning the fireplace mantel in a vast and palatial room though, right!) 

Several of these clocks often feature panels of painted porcelain. (Many used Sèvres, the celebrated French porcelain manufacturer.) The painted pastoral-like scenes feature young maids or mothers and children frolicking in the meadows, shepherd boys tending to their flocks, or a young couple sharing a romantic walk. These scenes were, in fact, inspired by the works of Fragonard and Watteau, French masters of the lush landscape paintings.

The dominating styles are either Rococo (often associated with Marie Antoinette and Versailles) or the Neoclassic aesthetic (with Roman and Classical influences and ancient “temple” shapes) favored by Napoleon. Sometimes these clocks combine both styles. The clock face is encased within an ormolu(or “gilt bronze”)[i] body which sits atop a pedestal base, often perched on decorative feet. The basic body shapes vary, but overall the clock will look either square-like or pyramidal. Think of Cogsworth, the beloved “clock” from Beauty and the Beast, to get a sense of the shape (but make sure you’re thinking of the live-action 2017 film, not the animated version!)

French mantel clocks from the 17th-19th centuries were often created as garnitures. Garniture is a French term used to describe a collection of decorative objects intended to be displayed together. For antique French mantel clocks, a garniture includes the mantel clock and two similarly decorated side-objects (usually two matching candelabras, vases, or urn-like objects) which directed attention toward the centerpiece, the clock.

French mantel clocks created by Le Roy, Japy Frères, Raingo Frères, or Boulle are especially sought after.

  • André-Charles Boulle: Boulle is known as the famous French cabinet maker (although he did make many clocks). He became legendary for his intricate inlay technique of applying layers upon layers of gold onto wood or tortoiseshell. His gilt-inlay furniture was so stunning that he was nicknamed le joaillier de meuble (“the furniture jeweler”). His work was even recommended to The Sun King Louis XIV!
  • Le Roy: 18th century clock-making firm Le Roy (founded by Julien Le Roy and later joined by his son Pierre Le Roy) was the royal clockmaker to Louis XV.
  • Japy Frères (Japy “Brothers”): This company was founded by Frédéric Japy. In 1806, he renamed it Japy Frères when his three sons joined the company. His hometown of Beaucourt is sometimes included in the description.
  • Raingo Frères: Belgian-born clockmaker Zacharie Joseph Raingo formed the Raingo Frères (“Raingo Brothers”) with his four sons in 1823. Emperor Napoleon III and Empress Eugenie commissioned many pieces from his company. The Raingo Frères firm was awarded the gold medal at the 1889 Exposition Universelle for its work.

Today, these mantel clocks would bring a studious impression to a home-office desk or add an old world allure to a makeup vanity. Most clocks command “antique prices”— from $5,000 to well over $20,000. As these clocks are quite expensive antiques, it would be beneficial to consult an art appraiser for more information. Many of these antique mantel clocks are advertised for sale on online auction and art sites; the condition and authenticity of the clock are of the upmost importance, and an appraiser would advise you on what to look for. More diminutive (and less costly) mantel clocks are available, and an expert could help you in locating these.

[i] ormolu (gilt bronze): gold is ground and incorporated into a paint-like substance which is applied over bronze. (This technique is also very well-known with antique Chinese porcelain pieces.) 

Michelle Miller,
Veritas Fine Art Appraisals & Consulting