The invention of the pendulum clock by Dutch horologist and physicist Christiaan Huygens was a significant moment in the history of clockmaking. With this technology, not only was there an increase in the accuracy of a clock’s mechanism, but also, less friction and wear-and-tear on the clock’s moving parts because of the narrow swing of the pendulum.
Soon after, many European clockmakers adopted Huygens’ design. However, that is not the case for French clockmakers. The 17th century was a period was marked with opulence and grandeur, especially during the reigns of King Louis XIV and King Louis XV. French clockmakers produced highly ornamented clocks, focusing on artistry rather than the accuracy of timepieces. These brilliant experts were the founders of the many beautiful antique clocks that we have for sale.
Styles of French Antique Clocks
The most popular styles in French clockmaking are the boulle, ormolu, and religieuse.
Boulle timepieces were named after André-Charles Boulle, one of France’s most talented furniture designers during his time. His technique, commonly referred to as Boulle or Boulle Marquetry, in furniture making and decoration features the combination of metals such as brass and pewter with tortoiseshell and ivory. These materials were cut and arranged in elaborate patterns then glued onto wood, typically oak. Boulle is not only famous for using this technique in designing cabinets, but also in making clock cases, writing tables, and armoires.
Ormolu, also referred to as gilt bronze or bronze dorée in French, is a technique of applying gold to bronze objects. Ormolu furniture were commonly used during the Baroque period by aristocrats to decorate their homes.
This style of French clocks features brass and pewter overlays that are set in wooden cases, typically of ebony and oak. There were also antique religieuse clocks that combine the Boulle and ormolu techniques, being that they were made with tortoiseshell case and ormolu stands.
Famous French Antique Clockmakers
Besides Andre-Charles Boulle, below are some of the famous French clockmakers from the 18th and 19th centuries.
Julien Le Roy (1786 – 1759)
Julien Le Roy is one of the most skilled French clockmakers during his era. He produced timepieces for many of Europe’s royal families, including Louis XV. According to historians, he supervised the production of over 3,000 timepieces during his lifetime.
Antoine Thiout the elder (1692 – 1767)
Antoine Thiout wrote the Traité d’Horlogerie, which is one of the most widely read treatises on clockmaking during his time and until today. He also designed a fusee cutting machine and versions of the marine clock and equation of time clock.
Pierre Le Roy (1717 – 1785)
Pierre Le Roy is one of the sons of the famous French horologist Julien Le Roy. He designed a version of a sea clock or marine chronometer which had a detent escapement, isochronous balance spring, and a balance that compensated for changes in temperature. For these innovations in marine clocks, he was awarded with a Meslay prize by the French Academy of Sciences.
Ferdinand Berthoud (1727 – 1807)
Berthoud developed marine chronometers based on the works of John Harrison and Pierre Le Roy. Like Le Roy, the chronometers he designed underwent sea trials, though did not best Le Roy’s works. However, he said that over 50 of his marine clocks were used in about 80 test voyages. One of Berthoud’s weight-driven marine clocks inspired the works of William Bond, a renowned American clockmaker from Boston.
Abraham-Louis Brequet (1747 – 1823)
Although Brequet was born in Switzerland, he made his mark as one of the principal French horologists of the 18th century. His most notable invention was the tourbillon, which made timepieces less prone to errors whilst being carried. Brequet also developed an improved version of the balance spring, called the overcoil.