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Clocks old and new

Clocks old and new

Tuesday, 14 July 2009
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Marie Le Berre
Freelance writer and journalist

“How does time turn the corners on square clocks ?”


Spread the word of watchmaking and introduce as many people as possible to an all too little-known sector.

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4 min read

As a decorative feature of more and more contemporary homes, clocks are inspiring designers of every ilk. As for the clockmakers themselves, some are perpetuating a tradition while others venture into new territory.

In Switzerland, clock manufacturing is synonymous with Swiza, a more than centennial firm which rose to prominence in 1959 thanks to its eight-day mechanical movement. Swiza’s golden era continued until the late 1970s and the advent of quartz. In 1976, the company began producing its own quartz movements which it uses to equip the stylish, even avant-garde clocks that are sold under the Swiza brand name. In 1991 nonetheless marked a return to mechanical clocks when Swiza acquired the Matthew Norman brand. Its classically-styled clocks feature often visible movements, many with chimes and calendars. This year Swiza added another feather to its cap with the acquisition of L’Épée, a leading manufacturer in the Franche-Comté region of France and a specialist in reproduction nineteenth-century clocks.

L'Epée Vénitienne © L'Epée
L'Epée Vénitienne © L'Epée

The famous Comtoise clocks are the preserve of Seramm, the last French manufacturer still to make them. Models with a traditional wood case are sold under the Edmond Quenot brand. Others with a visible decorative movement are marketed as Les Horlogers de Saint-Paul. This line now also includes clocks by Jean Kazes, a Swiss craftsman renowned for his one-off sculptural clocks, including the monumental clock that stands inside Hotel Cornavin in Geneva, the tallest in the world at 30 metres high. Seramm manufactures his design-forward wall clocks as limited editions.

Independent clockmakers

As works of art in their own right, clocks are inspiring many of today’s independent artisans. French-born but based in Germany, Philippe Wurtz turned to clockmaking in 2003. He produces modern precision pendulum clocks. Eager to innovate, he patented a revolutionary escapement which earned his Gramat clock a place in the Musée International d’Horlogerie (MIH) in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland. Next came Brive, the first clock to combine a one-year power reserve with a central seconds hand, and Sarlat which stands out for its stable V-shaped hanging works.

Swiss German Beat Haldimann, who also has a timepiece at the MIH, has been applying the principle of resonance to his double regulator clocks since 2000. He proposes models in classical as well as modern styles. Miki Eleta in Zurich draws on kinetic art for his extraordinary one-off clocks. Bern-based Frank Jutzi make contemporary clocks, the majority of which he equips with his own movements. His latest creations are mysterious clocks with invisible mechanisms. Future models should be driven by a new regulator movement with a three-month power reserve.

Germany’s Matthias Naeschke is the only maker of organ clocks in the world. Since 1984, he has revived this forgotten art from the 18th and 19th centuries, which reached its apogee in Vienna, Austria.

At the brands

Certain clocks have become indissociable from their brand, such as Cartier and its mystery clocks, or Jaeger-LeCoultre and Atmos. It’s a lesser-known fact that Breguet was behind the development of travel clocks. The current collection features a clock inspired by a model from Breguet’s day, complete with hand-wound movement and thermometer. This year sees a prestigious Art Deco version in a limited edition of seven, the first of which will be auctioned at Only Watch, held in September, in Monaco, to raise money for research into Duchenne muscular dystrophy.


Breguet - Pendulette Only Watch 09 © Breguet
Breguet - Pendulette Only Watch 09 © Breguet

Hermès recently unveiled its mechanical travel clock. The Vaucher eight-day movement is now part of the Boule line, launched in 2006. Ulysse Nardin has imagined a spectacular piece in the form of Planet Earth, a desk clock conceived by Dr Ludwig Oechslin and which gives the time and astronomical indications by means of outer and inner crystal globes and two hands, one bearing the Sun and the other the Moon.

No less extraordinary is the Time Writing Machine imagined by Jaquet Droz. Once renowned for its automata such as The Writer, it has developed an ingenious mechanism which, at the push of a button, writes the exact time on a piece of paper. Richard Mille, creator of a Planetarium-Tellurium in 2007, rose to a new challenge when it answered a request from the Swiss canton of Jura for an exceptional clock as a gift to the city of Quebec for its 400th anniversary. This two-sided clock will take its place in the Gabrielle Roy library. Its interior display will be visible in the library’s lobby and its exterior display from Place Jacques Cartier. The clock was officially presented at the Sommet de la Francophonie and will take its place in the library in around two years’ time.

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