January 28, 2021 5 min read

The different types of mantel clocks can be defined by three categories of design: Movement, Case Style, and Construction Materials. Mantle clocks have been in use since the mid-18th century and the invention of the spring mechanism. Instead of descending weights, the tension in a wound spring provided the power to run the clock. This allowed clockmakers to produce smaller clocks that could be placed on a raised surface, not the floor or hanging on a wall. In most homes, the focal point of the living room was the fireplace, so the mantelpiece was the obvious choice. These smaller clocks soon became known as mantel clocks as a result.

Type of movement

1.      Mechanical / Key wound movement

Antique mantel clocks will always have a mechanical movement that must be wound with a key. These are usually ‘8 day’ movements that must be wound once a week to tighten the spring. 14 day and 31 day movements do exist, but these are much less common and therefore more expensive and hard to find. The key is inserted into a hole in the clock face for winding, although some clocks have two or three holes. If present, the second hole powers the strikes to sound every hour and half hour. The third powers the chimes that play a melody every hour.

2.      Quartz movement

Quartz operated mantel clocks are battery powered and keep more precise time than those with a mechanical movement. Aside from occasional battery changes, they need no maintenance and often have an array of extra features. Although they use a modern power source, traditional and antique styled battery powered clocks can be easily found. They also tend to be much cheaper as, being modern, they are easy to manufacture and more widespread.

Mechanical clocks will need regular cleaning, oiling and servicing to work properly, whereas those with a quartz movement will not. Although winding may seem a chore to some owners, many enjoy the feeling of connection with their clock that this brings. The clicking as the key turns, the building resistance and the sensation of the gears winding make up for the few minutes this takes.

Style / Case design

Although there are literally hundreds of different individual mantel clock designs, several classic styles have evolved over the centuries. Many of these are still prevalent, albeit with minor variations and idiosyncratic flourishes.

1.      Tambour

Instantly recognisable, this is one of the most common designs, particularly in 20th century British homes. The round face defines the case structure of an upright drum which curves out, tapering to an extended base.

2.      Bracket

With a roughly square case, often fitted with a handle on top, these are named after the wall brackets that held 17th and 18th century examples. These wall mounted versions had long pendulums that hung below, so needed to be hung up. The handle allowed the clock to be moved from room to room, as few households could afford more than one clock.

3.      Carriage

Smaller than most mantel clocks, with a narrow, sturdy rectangular case with a handle, usually made of metal. These were designed to be used for timekeeping during travel in carriages, hence the name. The solid construction was intended to cope with rough, bumpy travel that could damage more delicate clocks.

4.      Steeple

Originally designed in 1845 by Elias Ingraham, an American cabinet maker commissioned to produce a new style of clock case. The triangular, peaked top, flanked by columns was a homage to the Gothic architectural styles popular in America in the 19th century. Resembling a church steeple, with variations such as the beehive and double steeple, these mantel clocks are still popular and produced to this day.

5.      Art Deco

A massively popular art and design style in the 1930s that informed all elements of furniture and home décor, including mantel clocks. Predominantly made in France and Switzerland, the geometric sleek style continued to inform mantel clock design until the 1960s.

6.      Skeleton

As the name suggests, this style forgoes a case entirely with an open frame exposing the clock movement. Although eyecatching, these clocks can be difficult to maintain as the movement is open to contaminants such as dirt and dust in the air. Some examples, especially contemporary German designs, incorporate a plain glass case to avoid this.

Construction materials

1.      Wood

One of the oldest materials used for mantel clock cases, mainly due to availability and low cost. However, many premium woods (eg Mahogany) have been used and contrasting inlays, carvings and metal fittings added. All of these add to the craftsmanship, aesthetic appeal and value of the clock.

2.      Metal

Brass was particularly popular in early French mantel clocks as it can be polished to a high shine and is easy to work. This allowed clockmakers to create intricate, highly detailed decorated cases befitting the rich households they occupied. In the 20th century, aluminium, stainless steel, polished nickel and other metals gained popularity, particularly in Art Deco and more contemporary styles.

3.      Stone

Onyx, marble and slate have all been popular choices for mantel clocks in the past, despite their weight and hardness. These tend to be expensive due to the cost and scarcity of materials and difficulty in working them. Again, these materials are very popular in Art Deco designs due to the sleek, sharp edges that can be produced and their smooth, glossy finish.

4.      Porcelain

While unusual in modern mantel clocks, several famous clockmakers in past centuries specialised in porcelain clocks. Often these were highly decorative, with painted designs and finishes specific to the individual clockmaker. Antique examples can be hard to find due to the fragile nature of the porcelain.

5.      Plastic

Although modern clocks using plastic can feel flimsy and cheap, even when coated with decorative veneers, it has been used to great effect in the past. From the 1930s to the 1950s, Bakelite (the first synthetic plastic) was used to create solid black modernist mantle clocks. During this period Catelin, with its translucent butterscotch finish was also a popular choice. As early as 1892, Adamantine, a celluloid based veneer was used to replicate onyx and marble finishes.

The style of Mantel clock you choose will ultimately depend on your personal taste and the style that best suits your home. Mantel clocks have as much of a place in modern homes as ever before, providing a complementary focal point to your living area.

Clock Corner is a family run business selling exclusive, premium timepieces from all eras from the 18th century to the present day. We stock a wide range of mantel clocks of many styles, antique, vintage or modern, with mechanical and quartz movements. Whatever your needs, contact us, our friendly expert staff will be glad to help.


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