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French clockmaking came into its own in the 17th century, when highly ornamented clocks covered in gilt bronze, known as ormolu, were produced to keep pace with the new standards for opulence set by King Louis XIV’s Palace of Versailles.

There were two general styles of antique French clocks during this period. One was known as boulle, which refers to a clock cased in tortoiseshell and inlaid with brass, pewter, porcelain, and ivory. The second type was called religieuse, in which brass and pewter overlays were set in ebony veneers on oak.

18th-Century Clocks
During the Regency period from about 1715 to 1723, bracket clocks, which had been popular a century before, came back into use. These clocks could be hung on a wall or placed on a table, making them a flexible timepiece compared to the longcase clocks that clockmakers were also producing at that time. Rococo pendule, for pendulum, clocks featured curvaceous profiles and seemingly endless decorative detailing.

From 1775 on, a new art movement, Neoclassicism, influenced the style of French clocks. The This style originated as a reaction to the excesses of the Rococo and through the popularity of the excavations at ancient Herculaneum and Pompeii, in Italy. Clockmakers did without the excessive ornamentation and overelaborate designs of the preceding Rococo style so typical of the Louis XV reign.

Clocks produced during the reign of Louis XVI and the French First Republic incorporated classical designs, allegories and motifs. In the case of the Louis XVI pieces, clockmakers combined white marble, alabaster, or biscuit with gilded and/or patinated bronze. While some clocks were more architectural in design, others displayed classical-style figurines.

By the time Louis the XVI assumed the throne 1774, clockmakers were producing highly accurate regulators, skeleton clocks whose exposed works were protected from dust by glass domes, and mantel clocks festooned with everything from bronze Greek and Roman statuary to cherubs.

This was also the era of cartel, or frame, clocks. Housed in elaborate cast-bronze or gold-leaf-on-wood frames, these French wall clocks often featured Roman numerals on white dials surrounded by gilt garlands and figurines. One of the many makers of these sorts of clocks was Frederick Japy, whose firm Japy Freres would become the leading French clockmaker in the 19th century.

The French wall clocks from this period became known as oeil de boeuf, or bull's eye clocks. Some had movements that were versions of the Pendule de Paris, the movements found in marble and standard French mantel clocks. These clocks, most with a flower shape, were often decorated with mother of pearl and had lift-up fronts.

Until the end of the 18th century, the French clockmaking industry had been centered in the Jura region because of its nearness to the Swiss and the German clockmaking industries in the Black Forest and the skilled craftsmen who worked there. In the early 19th century, a couple of clockmakers moved closer to Paris, where they made standard mantel clock movements. One moved to Saint-Nicholas-d'Aliermont, which was attractive because like Jura, it offered a pool of local craftsmen.

The black marble cases used by French clockmakers were assembled in Rance, using marble from the Dinant area. This practice changed slightly, however, when Belgium became independent— the French grabbed a piece of the Dinant marble fields and imposed import tariffs to undermine the industry in Rance.

During the 1790s, the production of gilded-bronze increased considerably as working conditions became easier. The freedom of trade initiated by the French Revolution allowed many casters, who during the ancien régime worked in workshops strictly limited to making bronze, to develop large factories. They took advantage of this opportunity to execute all stages of bronze making within one factory and drew, cast, gilded, assembled and sold objects from their own workshops. Artisans still benefitted from pre-Revolution training and worked according to the standards of a luxury art from the ancien régime, but they had better means of production and organization.

Towards the end of the 18th century, round clock movements became a reliable mass- produced product. Known as Pendule de Paris, or Paris or French clock movements, they were an 8-day movement with an anchor escapement, silk-thread suspended pendulum with a count wheel striking on a bell every hour and half-hour.

19th-century Clocks
In the 1800s, Gothic revivalism swept France, and French antique clock cases began to resemble Gothic cathedrals. Other clocks featured objects animated by the clock’s movement. Some of these even incorporated a music box to give the clock and its animated elements its own soundtrack.

The first decade and a half of the 19th century ushered in the French Empire style of the Napoleonic Empire. Clockmakers continued to produce elaborately decorated mantel clocks throughout the Bourbon Restoration from 1814 to1830.

Although there were a great diversity of case shapes, the most common and popular ones were the clocks with a rectangular or oblong base sustained by four or more legs of different forms and patterns. Clockmakers usually decorated the pedestal front with either garlands, acanthus tendrils, acroterions, laurel wreaths, scrolls, flowers and other classical decorative motifs, or depicted finely chased mythological and allegoric scenes in relief as a frieze of a Greek-Roman temple. On top of the base, in the center or to one side, sat the plinth that accommodated the clock dial, however in other models it was also placed in cart wheels, rocks, shields, globes, tree trunks, and such.

They embellished these mantel clocks with fine bronze figures of art, sciences, and high ideals allegories, gods, goddesses, muses, cupids, classical literary heroes and other allegorical or mythological compositions. Sometimes historical personages such as Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, George Washington, Napoleon Bonaparte, philosophers and classical authors, were the main theme as well. Hence they are also known as figural or sculptural clocks.

Classical sculptures and paintings also inspired clockmakers. The classical gods served as models and symbols for the era. For instance, the chariot clocks or pendules au char were an exceptional category within the Empire clocks. Apollo, Diana and Cupid depicted as triumphant chariot drivers, were the most popular gods used. It was habitual during the Napoleonic times and particularly under the "Directoire" and "Consulat" regimes that clocks glorify the conduct of warfare.

By the 1850s, clockmakers produced two types of French clocks in large numbers. They made mantel clocks from 1850 for both the local and English markets. The design of the English versions was naturally more sober than the bronze ormolu, white-marble base, porcelain dial, and gold-handed clocks made by clockmakers such as Raingo Freres for French customers.

20th-Century Clocks
At the turn of the 20th century, French clockmakers incorporated the aesthetics of Art Nouveau and Arts and Crafts into their finished products, but they really shined during the Art Deco Period. Clockmakers regularly produced mantel clocks made of marble, onyx, brass, glass, and chrome. Many of these clocks featured columns on their sides and Roman numerals on their dials.

Figurines and statues, which had been favorite devices of French clockmakers in the 18th and 19th centuries, continued to flank the faces of French clocks during the Art Deco era. Bronze human forms from myth and history were popular, as were animals—from lovebirds to springboks.

French Art Deco clock designers included Edgar Brandt, whose hand-wrought, forged iron clocks typically sat on marble bases, and Cartier, which made all sorts of clocks, including square travel clocks with gold hands and black enameled handles. Compagnie Industrielle de Macanique Horelogere sold clocks under its JAZ brand. Its line of Art Deco clocks, introduced in 1934, were usually geometric (round faces in horizontal cases), colorful (blues, greens, and gold), and often incorporated mirrors into their designs.

Unlike the clocks built in the 18th century, the majority of which were signed, the makers of many of the Empire ones remain anonymous, making it difficult to attribute one particular work to a certain bronze sculptor, such as Pierre-Philippe Thomire, Claude Galle, André-Antoine Ravrio, Louis-Stanislas Lenoir-Ravrio. Experts consider their timepieces to be works of art—sculptural études, where the balance in composition and the study of objects, animals and the human bodies forms and expressions are carefully and meticulously reflected in the bronze figures, achieving a high degree of realism, perfectionism and delicacy.

It was a common practice among bronziers to sell pieces to each other and even to copy or readapt each others' designs. When signed, they usually bear the bronzier's name as well as the retailer's name or the movement maker.

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