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What are Antique Mantel Clocks?

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  • Written By: Debra Durkee
  • Edited By: Daniel Lindley
  • Last Modified Date: 23 September 2016
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Antique mantel clocks are small timepieces designed to sit on a mantel or shelf. They can be ornate or plain, but will generally increase in value over time as long as they are cared for. Typically, clocks over a century old are considered antiques, although they can come from a number of different time periods and countries.

Mantel clocks were first made in France in the middle of the 18th century. They were designed as an alternative to decorative, wall-mounted clocks, and got their name from the fact they were often set on mantels over fireplaces. Earlier clocks required long pendulums in order to accurately keep time, but with the invention of smaller movements, clocks could become more compact. Among antique mantel clocks are the first clocks that contained a movement set on the bottom of the clock instead of mounted on the back of the clock, where it would typically be mounted to the wall.

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Many of the most prolific makers of antique mantel clocks came from France and England. Some of the earliest clocks are the most ornate, decorated with bronze or gold and framed with decorative scrollwork. These clocks crossed the Atlantic at the turn of the 19th century, and quickly became popular and expensive. Many American clocks from this era resemble their European counterparts, but were made out of different materials to make them more affordable. For example, Seth Thomas clocks are as decorative as some of the French clocks, but many were fronted with veneers that made them look as through they were made of a more exotic material.

At about the same time, the French were changing the appearance of many of their more popular clocks. Clockmakers began to create mantel clocks with figurines on them; earlier clocks typically had the face surrounded by solid pieces of scrollwork, but this next generation often featured a clock face flanked by two larger figurines. As the art form became more advanced, clockmakers began to experiment with different woods and metals. In addition to wood clocks, it is not uncommon to find antique mantel clocks made of porcelain, brass, and ceramics, although iron is among the most common type.

Traditionally, antique mantel clocks run on a clockwork mechanism that needs to be wound with a key. Many of the best clocks are wound on a regular basis, and some are even named for their mechanisms; those known as eight-day clocks need to be wound every eight days. These clocks are easily identifiable, as many come with a key and have holes in the clock face where they are wound.

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