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My grandfather’s clock…
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My grandfather’s clock…

Friday, 28 November 2008
By Eric Othenin-Girard
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Eric Othenin-Girard

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3 min read

In this day and age, mention clocks to anyone familiar with the songs of Jacques Brel, and they’ll think of “Les Vieux.” Mention them to anyone else and they’ll think of… nothing. For clocks are a long-gone feature of our mantelpieces and dressers. Yet rare as they may be, clocks never completely disappeared.

Fifty years ago, it wasn’t unusual for households to come and go to the tick-tock of a clock. To own a clock wasn’t just a way for the whole family to read the time; it was also a sign of good taste, even wealth depending on the clock in question. Then came quartz, and digital displays, LCDs and alarm-radios gradually knocked the clock off its pedestal, or rather the mantelpiece.

Miniaturisation and electronics very nearly relegated table clocks and other domestic timepieces to memory lane, as one after the other, companies that had been on fine form until the early 1970s began closing their doors, their order books desperately empty. Even at such foremost brands as Zenith, famed for its Neuchâtel clocks, Jaeger-LeCoultre with its renowned Atmos clocks, or Cartier and its mystery clocks, these examples of an outstanding horological art were almost condemned to a life as museum pieces.

Desk clock, Notebook Collection 2008 © Cartier
Desk clock, Notebook Collection 2008 © Cartier
Thirty years in the wilderness

Still, these companies kept their clockmaking activity alive, perhaps because they saw themselves as repositories of a savoir-faire, or indeed felt a certain responsibility towards a centuries-old craft. They would be joined by other, less prestigious but equally well-known names: Suiza, which took over the delightful Matthew Norman brand, and a handful of others that had managed to keep their head above water by making clocks, especially travel clocks, for customers who balked at the idea of packing an electronic clock in their case.

Three difficult decades went by until finally, in the early 2000s, the public took new-found interest in clocks. Not that new generations were nostalgic for the tick-tock of their grandparents’ days. No: the real reason was that Art Deco was back in fashion, and clocks brought the perfect finishing touch to furniture in this style.

And so new interest was sparked in clocks that can openly reveal the secrets of their workings, or carefully conceal their movement to maintain an aura of mystery and magic. Specialist manufacturers seized the opportunity, with models that brought an ingenious modern twist to the finest clockmaking tradition. In no time at all, decorative clocks were again all the rage.

Preserving the applied arts

While this new-found appreciation of finely-crafted decorative clocks hasn’t translated into large-scale production, it has kept numerous artistic crafts alive. Indeed, while the movement is the work of a clockmaker, the rest of the clock, meaning the case, bronzes, enamelwork, gold, marquetry, stone-setting and other decorative techniques, call on talented artisans. To make a clock worthy of past endeavours requires time and no small financial means, given that today’s table and desk clocks are veritable works of art;

However modest it may be, this revived interest in clocks is a blessing for the artistic crafts it helps preserve. Indeed, it is essential that we should keep these métiers d’art alive, and that talented young men and women should be able to learn, alongside more experienced masters, the savoir-faire that has always been one of the treasures of Swiss horology.

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