4.06 – Case Materials

Last Update: 07-25-2022 @ 03:05

4.06 – Case Materials

Materials used in clock case making are the sixth point of view of the taxonomy. There are five main categories: wood, metal, plastic, minerals, and other materials.

4.06.1 – Wood

Clockmakers used wood to build both clock movements and cases. This subsection covers wooden clock cases.

Ancient woods

The use of wood in the manufacture of houses, boats, furniture, etc., goes back to the dawn of time. More than 4000 years ago, the Egyptians built houses, cedar ships, etc. Fifteen hundred years Before Christ, they invented a veneer, consisting of a thin sheet of wood glued to another thicker piece to form a solid base. In ancient Egypt, the equivalent of plywood existed, used, among other things, to build coffins of pharaohs. Slices of wood, thicker than veneer, glued to each other, composed their plywood. Romans, Chinese, and Greeks also worked with veneers and plywood.

Wood clock cases

The manufacture of clock cases is a specialty of cabinet making. Indeed, cabinetmakers who often also made furniture hand-crafted the first wooden cases until industrial tools appeared. These tools allowed the automation of the manufacture of cases in the 19th century, along with the manufacture of wooden movements. Eli Terry, in 1806, was a precursor at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. He had agreed to make 4,000 wooden movements. To make them, he equipped his shop with a water machine that provided power to machine tools capable of producing the movements’ parts very quickly.

Wood species

Several wood species have been used in clock cases, from softwoods to hard and semi-hardwoods. Note that the distinction between hard and softwood can be confusing. According to Nigel Barnes (2015), it is better to distinguish coniferous woods from all other wood species that are not conifers. Botanists call gymnosperm, straight grain wood, resinous and cocottes bearers of the pine or fir family, the coniferous wood. Other woods belong to the angiosperm family, or trees producing flowers and seeds. It is also worth distinguishing the wood species used in America from those used in Europe.

The oldest wood species to be used in its solid form was oak, very popular from 1500 to 1670, then chestnut from 1600 to 1795, walnut from 1580 to 1735, beech from 1628, mahogany from 1735 to 1810, yew from 1700 to 1880, pine from 1800, rosewood from Brazil from 1800 to 1875 and cherry from 1804. Most of the veneer of these species for the manufacture of the cases dates back to the 18th century.

Wood Identification

It is difficult to identify the essence of the wood of a case. Generally, the case is coated with stain, not always per the essence of the wood used. Moreover, the clocks were often covered with a protective coating such as shellac or varnish. Robert and Étienne Vernis, two Frenchmen, invented varnish (Vernis in French) in 1730. Also, more than one wood species could have been involved in making an old clock case.

Not all wooden clocks were made of solid wood. Indeed, some clocks were made of softwoods such as pine. But they received a stain, paint, or a thin veneer, such as the Adamantine™ finish. The clock cases’ backs were often made with softwoods such as fir or spruce because less expensive. Finally, many clocks were made in wood veneer or plywood, especially in the 20th century. The parts of wood clock cases were assembled with raw iron nails and glue, often of animal or plant origin. The flat screws were mainly used to attach movement and bezel to the case.

List of wood species in clock cases

The wood species of clock cases that follow are certainly not exhaustive. For each, as far as possible, I give an example of a clock.

4.06.2 – Metal

The use of metal in clock manufacturing dates back to the Middle Ages. They were weight clocks with an iron structure that is called a turret. The first major public turret clock was created in Italy around 1309. In England, the no-deal turret of Salisbury Cathedral’s steeple, still functional today, was installed in 1386. Around 1389, a clock was hooked over a street in Rouen, France, the first to ring the quarter-hour. In 1392, a clock was installed in Wells Cathedral in Somerset county in England. It also struck the quarter of an hour. Besides, it had a dial that displayed the movement of the stars.

The first metal domestic clocks date back to the early 15th century. They were miniature versions of the great public clocks. We cannot then speak of cases that contained the mechanism. Rather, hung on a wall or placed on a tablet or a piece of furniture, a skeletal metal structure showed all the clock parts. These looked much like the English lantern clocks but without the pendulum that appeared only in the middle of the 17th century.

Here is a non-exhaustive list of the metal most used in the manufacturing of clock cases through the ages:

4.06.3 – Minerals

The French were the first clockmakers to use marble or polished alabaster to make clock cases in the 1850s. In the late 19th century, the Americans became infatuated with these clocks, so much so that they began importing cases from Europe. They embellished them with bronze, brass, or metal trims. They then imported entire marble panels, alabaster, slate, or onyx to make their cases. The clocks of this period are architectural styles, often imitating Greek temples.

Here is a non-exhaustive list of the mineral materials most used in the making of clock cases:

4.06.4 – Plastic

The appearance of plastic in clocks is a phenomenon that dates back to the 1850s with the invention of the first plastics. Much less expensive than wood, porcelain, metal, or marble, plastic became widespread in manufacturing clock cases after the Second World War. Here is a list of the most commonly used plastic varieties in clock cases:

4.06.5 – Other materials

Many materials, including metal, wood, plastic, or stone, have been used to make old clock cases. Here are a few:

Next: 4.07 – National Denominations

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Adamantine™ is a thin veneer created by the Celluloid Manufacturing Co. of New York for which it obtained a patent (U.S. Patent number 232,037) on September 7, 1880. Seth Thomas acquired the rights the following year. And their first clocks with an Adamantine™ finish came out in 1882. Subsequently, other clock manufacturers also adopted this finish. This veneer, very popular for cast iron and wooden clocks, imitated either a solid color, the veins of wood, or marble or onyx. Illustrated a 1900s E. Ingraham with a marbled Adamantine™ finish (left), and a 1920s Seth Thomas with a very dark brown solid Adamantine™ finish (right).

(Images ID192 and ID120: All rights reserved, Bordloub)

Ash probably replaced oak in the manufacture of clock cases because it was cheaper, and the grain was almost indistinguishable. It seems that the Japanese liked to work with ash.


“Beech (Fagus) is a genus of deciduous trees in the family Fagaceae, native to temperate Europe, Asia, and North America. Recent classifications recognize 10 to 13 species in two distinct subgenera, Engleriana and Fagus. The Engleriana subgenus is found only in East Asia, distinctive for its low branches, often made up of several major trunks with yellowish bark. The better known Fagus subgenus beeches are high-branching with tall, stout trunks and smooth silver-grey bark. The European beech (Fagus sylvatica) is the most commonly cultivated.” (Wikipedia)
According to Mallory (2011), solid Beech has been used in clock cases since 1628 (Vol. 2, p. 337).

Birch was not frequently used in the manufacture of clock cases. Nevertheless, at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, I found an ebonized birch clock with a porcelain face with Japanese accents but whose blue and white also suggest a Dutch influence. Lewis Foreman Day (1845-1910) designed the clock, and Howell James & Co. of London manufactured it by around 1880. Its shape recalls a fort with its four posts and roof gallery.

(Image © Victoria and Albert Museum authorized for non-commercial usage)

Boxwood is a small, dark green-leafed shrub that grows mainly in Europe. Its color pulls on cream. It was the preferred wood for inlays in French wooden clocks, like these at the base of that French Portico clock.

(Image ID264b: All rights reserved, Bordloub)

Butternut or white walnut, from Eastern American and Southeastern Canadian forests, is lighter in weight and softer than black walnut. Its grain is straightforward. Butternut is easy to carve, takes polish very well, and is rot-resistant. This weight clock from Canada Clock Co. Ltd (1880-1884) is solid butternut except for the spruce back. The ogee molding gran is simulated. 

(Image ID175: All rights reserved, Bordloub)

This 1980s Westminster clock is in cherry, hence its name: “Howard Miller Cherry Creek.” This one has lost its original finial. An original is very difficult to find, and if you find one, you will pay a lot of money for it. But, this clock has an exquisite movement that produces a Westminster melody very pleasing to the ear.

Note: it isn’t easy to date Howard Miller clocks. This company does not publish a register of their different models.

(Image ID107: All rights reserved, Bordloub)

Illustrated: an ebonized birch clock with a porcelain face designed by Lewis Foreman Day (1845-1910) and made by Howell James & Co. of London during the 1880s. It has an unusual shape, more like a fort. The face has a Japanese touch, but the blue and white colors are more Danish. The clock is from the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum of London.

(Image © Victoria and Albert Museum authorized for non-commercial use)

Ebony is a very hard, heavy, and black exotic wood. This wood has not been used in ancient American clocks because importing from abroad made it too expensive. On the other hand, ebonized American wood was used. So beware, few old black clocks are in natural ebony. Illustrated: an ebony bracket clock with an enamel-painted dial, from the English clockmaker James Tregent of London (1780s). It is part of the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. For more information about this one, click on the image link below.

(Image © Victoria and Albert Museum authorized for non-commercial use)

Here is a USSR clock from the 1970s with a gloss finish. Difficult to tell if it has been lacquered or varnished. Lacquer is a mixture of shellac and alcohol; we can say that it is a solvent-based product. The traditional varnish used mainly in the 19th century is a combination of solvent (alcohol, turpentine, linseed, or cotton-seed) and resin (gum or shellac). Still, contrary to the lacquer, it is more resin-based. Before the 19th century, especially in America, cabinetmakers mainly used natural shellac. They prepared it themselves by hand from the glitter of the secretion of an Asian scale, diluted in alcohol at 95 degrees proof. Nowadays, polymer-based polyurethane, a synthetic resin, replaced varnish and lacquer. Maybe it is the case for the illustrated clock.

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Leather has been used in the clock cases to adorn either the bottom of the dial as in this English desk clock (left) with support, an F. W. Elliot whose back of the brass dial is leather “chagrin” or as the coating of a wooden case as for this bedside clock from 1890 that we restored, manufactured by the first mass manufacturer of English clocks, The British United Clock of Birmingham, founded in 1885 by the Davies brothers.

(Images ID001 & ID190: All rights reserved, Bordloub)

Mahogany wood usually has a reddish hue that the photographs do not reproduce correctly. Illustrated: a probably restored Seth Thomas (1886) clock, the Dayton (Ohio), belonging to a whole series bearing city names. 

(Image ID102: All rights reserved, Bordloub)

Here is an E. Ingraham alarm clock from the late 1930s whose main body and footing are maple, the darker sides are probably walnut or stained maple. The model’s name on the dial is Maplewood.

(Image ID085: All rights reserved, Bordloub)

This category is essential because it is often challenging to put a wood species name on a case unless you are a specialist. Here’s an obvious example: a Triple 5 (5-5-5) Chinese clock from Shanghai (1984). It is probably made in exotic and dyed wood. The right-hand carved trim, typically Chinese, is in another unknown species of wood.

(Image ID232: All rights reserved, Bordloub)

It is pretty easy to distinguish softwood from hardwood. Still, it is challenging to distinguish soft or hardwood species, especially when it comes to European or Asian wood with which we are less familiar. That is the purpose of this category. Illustrated: an 8-day Korean Cotrin bought in an auction – even the lining of the pendulum stem is made in an unknown wood.

(Image ID020: All rights reserved, Bordloub)

Illustrated: a kitchen clock in oak, the hardwood preferred by American manufacturers to stamp, with the help of a mechanical press powered by steam, the motifs so characteristic of these clocks. They were usually placed on a shelf hanging on a kitchen wall. These clocks were trendy in the early 20th century. This one is an Ansonia, model Kenmore (c. 1920), that I have completely restored.

(Image ID014: All rights reserved, Bordloub)

Pine was mainly used to manufacture clock cases because it was cheap and abundant in North America. It is the case for the Twiss brothers’ grandfather clocks, for example. But very often, pine has been used to be painted instead of being varnished like hardwood clocks. It’s the case with these famous black American clocks in the shape of a Greek temple, commonly referred to as Black Mantel. Illustrated, an E. Ingraham black mantle from the early 20th century.

(Image ID149: All rights reserved, Bordloub)

Here is a restored Waterbury O’Gee from the 1900s. The front is in rosewood veneer. The clear glass at the bottom is not original. It is modern because it is very uniform. And the somewhat recent pieces of wood used as retaining brackets are poorly fixed. The rest of the clock is original.

(Image ID236: All rights reserved, Bordloub)

O’Gee, Cottage. Kitchen or Parlor clocks etc. has most of the time spruce back. As a result, these backs on which the movement is fixed are often split in two, as the dried spruce is not very resistant to stress. Here’s an example: the split back of an 1874 Waterbury Parlor clock that I restored.

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Syroco™ is a blend of wood pulp and flour that could be molded, manufactured by the Syracuse Ornamental Company  (1890-2007). The Syroco was used to make gadget-style objects. Over time, the company introduced polymers into their blend, which was eventually wholly replaced by plastics. Here, a small mechanical cuckoo, timepiece only, from the 1930s, an A. C. Keebler, model Bluebird, manufactured by Westclox after a similar model of Lux Manufacturing, a company specialized in Novelty or Gadget clocks. The little cuckoo swings to the rhythm of the pendulum.

(Image ID136: All rights reserved, Bordloub)

The tilia tree (Linden in Europe, Lime-wood in England, Basswood in North America), from the family of gymnosperms, is the wood of the original cuckoos of the Black Forest. It was abundant in the forest. And remember that the clockmakers who designed them came from the world of agriculture. Illustrated is a contemporary reproduction (2001) of a cuckoo chalet by the German company E. Schmeckenbecher. It has a music box and dancers who come to life to the sound of two tunes, one for hours, Edelweiss, the other for the half-hours Derr Frehliche Wanderer.

(Image ID092: All rights reserved, Bordloub)

Cabinetmakers of old clocks may have used wild cherry trees to make clock cases, but I do not have an example at this time. However, I found a shop in North Carolina that made wild cherry battery clocks. It is an excellent example of this type of wood. I took the liberty to reproduce an image from the Southern Highland Craft Guild site

(Image reproduced under “Fair use for educational purpose“)


This French wooden clock photographed by the author in an American antique shop was initially black. A previous owner repainted it to make it more attractive for resale. But be aware that it devalues it, especially if, like this one, an amateur in the wrong sense of the word did the work. A non-specialist has also redone the gilding, it shows. In addition, some manufacturers of clock cases have, for cost reasons, used conifers wood to make them. By painting them black or another color, they erased all traces of wood defects. As a result: several American clocks are known as Black Mantel. These clocks made generally in pine, are not as heavy as the ones made with hardwood.

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This clock from the 1930s is in African Zebrano. Note the distinct layers of this solid hardwood. The piece on the top is Catalin™, a kind of plastic that predates the Bakelite™. It has been used extensively for the manufacture of radio cases. We have reason to believe that the case of this clock is Inglish because some hardware used is England made, and there is nothing in this case that looks like a German Lenzkirch, from which the movement derives.

(Image ID243: All rights reserved, Bordloub)

Stainless steel is a low-carbon iron and chrome alloy, rust-proof, not magnetized. If you’re not convinced, try sticking a little gadget with a magnet on your stainless steel door fridge! This 1960s Seth Thomas is made of walnut with the base, top, and bezel of brushed stainless steel.

(Image ID135: All rights reserved, Bordloub)

This E. Ingraham alarm clock from the 1940s is the Mecca model. It is an art-deco-style clock made of painted aluminum. It has the same movement as the E. Ingraham Maplewood alarm clock seen in the wood species section (see Maple).

(Image ID168: All rights reserved, Bordloub)








Silver, an Ag chemical symbol, is a good conductor of electricity and heat and capable, like no other metal of reflecting light. Silver is considered a precious metal. Generally, an original silver object carries a punch from its silversmith. I don’t have any silver clock in my collection yet, but I have a watch that belonged to my grandfather born in the 19th century.  E. S. Gagnon, Escanaba, Michigan, is engraved on the dial and movement, Escabana being a small port town in Delta County. It also has a punch to prove that it is indeed a silver pocket watch. I have found that there was a jeweler and confectioner named Stanislas Gagnon in Escabana in 1889. It could be that he was the one who made or sold the watch.

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Bronze is mainly but not exclusively an alloy of copper and tin in proportions that can vary from one foundry to another. For details, see Wikipedia. While brass could be mistaken for bronze, it is rather an alloy of copper and zinc. If you want to check if you’re dealing with bronze, use a magnet. Bronze is not magnetized. Bronze is also much heavier than spelter, with which it can sometimes be confused. Unlike brass and spelter, bronze retains its color, and there are no black spots observed on old spelter pieces. In the world of clocks, it was common practice to gild bronze, as for this timepiece French Japy et Frères from the very beginning of the 20th century, in a Rococo style case.

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Gilding or Ormolu is a technique that involves coating bronze with fine particles of an amalgam of gold and mercury. Here is an example from the 1930s of the German clockmaker Schmid.

( Image ID029: Tous droits réservés, Bordloub )

Brass is mainly, but not exclusively, an alloy of copper and zinc. Cheaper to produce than natural bronze, brass has been widely used in clockmaking for both movements and cases. Brass is not magnetic and does not rust. See Wikipedia for more information. Illustrated: a Smith Empire marine clock in brass from the 1950s.

(Image ID048: All rights reserved, Bordloub)

Spelter is an alloy of tin or lead and antimony. For more details, see Wikipedia. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, several statuettes, candelabra, girandoles, etc., were made with zinc alloys much lighter and more fragile than bronze or brass. So clockmakers could give them a bronze-like hue. It is straightforward to identify because, over time, the golden or coppery hue reveals the greyish hue of the zinc. In addition, there are many of these objects on the market with a missing piece or with obvious cracks. Finally, the spelter is not magnetized. Illustrated a small New Haven boudoir clock in spelter from the early 20th century. See the grey metal that stands out with the outrage of the years. It doesn’t happen when it’s gilded bronze (ormolu).

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Gold has been chiefly used for gilding cases whose base was in another metal such as bronze or brass for price clocks. This Seth Thomas desk clock from the 1960s made of an unknown metal, probably sheet metal, is gold-gilded. 

(Image ID125: All rights reserved, Bordloub)

To identify the metal of this small Lux desk clock from the 1940s, I had to use a magnet. As the front of it attracts the magnet, I concluded that it is a white metal that has been gold-gilded. One would have thought that it is in a gilded spelter, in which case, the magnet would not have stuck.

(Image ID083: All rights reserved, Bordloub)

“Copper is a chemical element with the symbol Cu (from Latin: cuprum) and atomic number 29. It is a soft, malleable, and ductile metal with very high thermal and electrical conductivity.” (Wikipedia). Illustrated a copper clock with chandeliers.

(Image reproduced under “Fair use for educational purpose“)

In the 1930s and subsequent years, chrome was often used for clock bezels, but it was also widely used for the case itself, combined with other metals. It is easy to confuse chrome with stainless steel or polished tin. As for the clock opposite, the chrome is much brighter, a 1940s electric Sessions photographed by the author at an American antique fair.

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The symbol of Nickel is Ni. Nickel is ferromagnetic. In most applications, nickel is mixed with other metals such as iron or brass. For more information, see Wikipedia. Nickel clock casings were necessary when needed rust protection, such as the illustrated Seth Thomas marine clock. Used in a ship’s engine room, it served to control an instrument or a bell connected by the two wires coming out the bottom of the case. Although it is more than 100 years old, it has no sign of rust either outside or inside the case. A double-barrel mechanical movement was doubling the running time of the clock. It has no bell inside.

(Image ID104: All rights reserved, Bordloub)

You might think that a Big Ben of Westclox, Style 1, produced between 1918 and 1935, is made with nickel because of its color, but the magnet thing tells us that it’s not the case because the metal of Big Ben is magnetized; nickel is. So it’s a tinplate clock nickel-plated.

(Image ID028: All rights reserved, Bordloub)

Tinplate is a kind of thin sheet steel that can be painted. For more information, see Wikipedia. Painted tinplate was widely used, especially after the First World War, for the Novelty clock cases and alarm clocks because they were much cheaper to produce and relatively easy to model.  Here is one example, a W. L. Gilbert, an ivory-painted alarm clock from the 1950s. 

(Images ID082: All rights reserved, Bordloub)

Cast Iron is an alloy of iron and carbon. In black cast iron, carbon is in the form of graphite. For more information, click on Wikipedia. Cast iron was prevalent for making clock cases as it looked like black marble and was much cheaper to produce. Illustrated: an 1886 Ansonia Black Mantel made entirely of cast iron with porcelain enamel-finished dial and gilded spelter trim.

(Image ID091: All rights reserved, Bordloub)

Cast-Iron lends itself well to gilding. Here is an example of a novelty clock made by the great children’s toy manufacturer Hubley in the early 20th century. Unfortunately, the photo does not do justice to the color of the old bronze.

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The cast iron also lends itself well to color painting. Illustrated, the same Hubley of the 1900s, except that here, it is painted with colors over the gilded bronze seen in several places.

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Since marble is much more expensive than cast iron, some manufacturers have produced black clocks in the Greek temple style with cast iron with a marble-like finish, thanks to the Adamantine™ process. Sometimes marble or black slate clocks can be confused with black cast iron clocks. A magnet will do the trick because iron magnetic, marble is not. You will discover that some of the inlays in these marble-like black clocks are marbled cast iron. Here is an example of a cast-iron clock with an Adamantine™ marbled finish, a New Haven from the 1920s.

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Alabaster is a variety of white gypsum with fine or slightly tinted grain. Alabaster is slightly translucent, less hard than marble, lighter, more delicate, and more absorbent. The word comes from the old French “alabastre” itself from the Greek “alabastros”; note that it is very close to the English word “alabaster.” Illustrated, a white marble Napoleon III-style clock from the Auckland Museum. Note the absence of stripes like the white onyx.

(Image authorized under Creative Commons CC BY 4.0 International via Commons Wikimedia)

Marble is a variety of crystalline stones derived from limestone.  The word comes from the Greek “marmaron.” Unless you are a specialist, it is challenging to distinguish the kinds of marble or its career of origin. Also, marble and slate are difficult to distinguish. A trick to determine if it is marble or slate: choose a not very apparent corner of the clock, sand a small part with fine grade sandpaper to bring out the raw finish, pour a drop of vinegar, and observe with a magnifying glass the effect of vinegar. If it sizzles a little, it’s marble. The real marble clocks are very heavy. Here is a fine example of the collection of a friend, an amateur horologist. It is a French clock in black marble, probably imported from Belgium, with pink marble inlays. 

(Image CP: All rights reserved, Bordloub)

Sometimes we will confuse black marble with slate, a clay shale, while marble is a crystalline stone. There are methods to distinguish them, and I will come back later on this matter. Most of the French clocks black marble come from Belgium. Here is a French Napoleon III clock from the city of Blois, in black marble with reddish marble appliques. It is often the case that French clockmakers add on the dial the name of their city and their name. This clock is original except top ornament. It should have been in the same style as those on both sides.

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The slate is a stone of the shale family. It is resistant with a very fine grain so that once polished with appropriate techniques, it can look like black marble but lighter. Clock manufacturers, especially American, have used it to make clock cases cheaper than black marble, which was to be imported mainly from Belgium, while slate available in North America. Illustrated, an Ansonia in black slate with a visible escapement.

(Image ID132: All rights reserved, Bordloub)

Onyx is a variety of agate. But there is also the onyx of Algeria, which belongs to the family of calcites, and sardoine, to calcedoines like onyx. And sometimes, the white onyx is similar to white marble. Illustrated, a white onyx clock from my collection, an Ansonia (1881) with a porcelain dial and a visible escapement. Look at the long stripes of a brownish color. Onyx is very heavy but fragile because it is softer than marble. Often, there is a crack in old cases like this one. There are also clocks in green onyx, but they are less frequent than white.

(Image ID173: All rights reserved, Bordloub)

Malachite is part of the mineral carbonate group. Its color is a beautiful green, quite distinctive. Ancient clocks in malachite are very expansive. We find them in museums like this one: a desktop malachite and gold clock by Faberge (1901) from the Moscow State Historical Museum. Officers of the Labour Guards of the Equestrian Regiment presented it to a Prince.

(Image by shakko, authorized under Creative Commons CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

Sometimes it’s difficult to accurately identify the material in which the case is made, even if it is a stone. Thus, as we have seen, it is not always easy to distinguish black marble from slate, white marble from alabaster, marble from onyx, etc. This category fills our ignorance.

Celluloid™ is the ancestor of plastic. It is a compound of camphor and cellulose nitrate. Alexander Parks and Daniel Spill invented it in Birmingham, England, and named it “Parkesine” in 1856 and “Xylonite” in 1869. But they did not succeed at marketing it. The brothers John and Isaiah Wesley Wyatt perfected the product, patented it, and successfully marketed it under the name Celluloid™. It was used to make small clock cases, clock dials, and some Greek-temple-style black mantel clocks columns. Unfortunately, this product was extremely flammable, and it lost its popularity very quickly, later replaced by Bakelite™. See Wikipedia for details.
Illustrated: a Waterbury alarm clock from the 1920s, Ivory Du Barry engraved at the back. Celluloid™ has sometimes been called “Ivorine” because it resembles the hue of ivory. 

Pyralin” is another name for celluloid. It is rare to see such marks on a small celluloid alarm clock.

Also illustrated is an unmarked alarm clock from 1913, whose peculiarity is to have two shades, because generally, the Celluloid™ has a characteristic yellowish color, like the Waterbury. 

(Images ID234, ID234tm and ID058: All rights reserved, Bordloub)

Bakelite (/ˈbkəlt/ Bay-kəl-eyet; sometimes spelled Baekelite) or polyoxybenzylmethylenglycolanhydride was the first plastic made from synthetic components. It is a thermosetting phenol formaldehyde resin formed from a condensation reaction of phenol with formaldehyde. It was developed by the Belgian-American chemist Leo Baekeland in Yonkers, New York, in 1907. Bakelite was patented on December 7, 1909.” (Wikipedia). The Bakelite™, when it is very dry, can be brittle. I have experienced it. Illustrated: a Bakelite™ English wall kitchen clock, typical of the 1950s, a Smiths-Enfield. 

(Image ID196: All rights reserved, Bordloub)

Catalin‘s patent™ (1927) belongs to the American Catalin Corporation of New York City, which developed it following the acquisition of the Bakelite™ patent. It is a polymer variant easier to polish than the Bakelite™ to make a smooth surface, and above all, it is translucent and can even mimic the ribs of marble. It is a material that resists heat and is less breakable than Bakelite™. In the 1930s, Catalin™ was used extensively for radio cases and jewelry. It is difficult to identify because it is often confused with Bakelite™, which is opaque. Illustrated: a 1940 Catalin™ electric table alarm clock, the Westclox Moonbeam, made in Canada, from the Canadian Clock Museum.

(Image published with the permission of the Canadian Clock Museum)

Polymethyl methacrylate or acrylic, also known by one of its trade names, Plexiglass™, Crylux™, Acrylite™, or Lucite™, was developed by several chemists in 1928, and marketed under the name Plexiglass™ in 1933, by the German company Rohm Haas AG. It replaced glass in small dials and watches because of its solidity and resistance to scratches. Here is a little Linden Black Forest alarm clock in translucent tinted acrylic, made in West Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

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For the same reasons that we define indefinite wood categories, we do it for plastics. Some plastics are tough to name because they can imitate several materials. I give here the example of a small 8-day desk clock with 7 jewels, from the 1960s-1980s, branded Linden Guild, manufactured in France. One would swear at looking at it this is mother-of-pearl, but it is plastic from an unknown category.

(Image ID050: All rights reserved, Bordloub)

The use of ceramic or porcelain for clock cases dates back to the mid-18th century. At first, they were inlays in metal cases, and then the whole case was made of ceramics or porcelain. In the 1940s and 1950s, ceramic with a glossy enameled finish was very popular in manufacturing small wall kitchen clocks, often in art-deco styles, such as this 8-day Forestville. 

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The all-glass cases are crystal variety, more or less refined depending on the price. Crystal is glass heated at a very high temperature at which a minimum of lead has been added. Here is a small German mechanical alarm crystal clock from the 1960s.

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Delft ceramic or Delftware have often been used in clock cases as it approached Chinese ceramic in quality, thanks to its excellent enamel and distinctive Dutch designs. It’s a tradition that dates back to the 17th century. This type of ceramic has become so famous that it is called Delft Faïence or Delft Blue. Here’s an example from the 1950s: a kitchen wall clock with a German 8-day Kienzle movement.

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Glass is very present in clock cases, even at the dial, fronts, and sides, sometimes in wooden cases, glass globes, and glasses of lantern-style cases. Illustrated: a glass and polished gold finish brass case of a Seth Thomas Crystal Regulator, the Empire no. 1 (1909), with a false mercury pendulum.

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Ivory, nowadays, cannot be used for clock cases, for good reasons. But prior to the 20th century, ivory was used mainly for decorations of the clock case, as the one illustrated. “This elaborate alarm clock is a ‘memento mori’, probably of English origin. Memento mori translates from Latin as ‘Remember you must die’ and such objects were literally meant as reminders of death to prompt people to think about the shortness of life and the inevitability of death.  The clock is in the form of a coffin with an ivory skeleton reclining on top. This rests upon the bell and one hand holds a sand timer and a candle. The coffin also sits upon four ivory skulls. These symbols are typical of memento mori. The skeleton’s other hand rests upon a ship’s wheel, inside of which is a small thermometer and barometer. Two wells are at each end of the coffin, presumably to hold candles. It appears that when the alarm bell chimed, a small card running up the skeleton’s spinal column retracted to make the jaw open and the eyes roll.” The clock is made of ebony, glass, ivory, mercury, unknown metal, and wax. (Source: Science Museum Group Collection)

(Image and “text” from the Science Museum Group, London, authorized under Creative Commons CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 Attribution-Non Commercial-Share Alike  International)

Some clocks were made with papier-mâché mainly by The Litchfield Manufacturing Co. of Connecticut from 1850 to 1855. Paper slats mixed with glue are superimposed, each time hardened, to form a compact set, later coated with a black lacquered finish decorated with floral or mother-of-pearl motifs. Here is an example of a papier-mâché clock encrusted with mother-of-pearl from the middle of the 19th century, photographed by the author at an antique fair in Quebec.

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Porcelain is a fine ceramic produced at very high temperatures, which gives it its hardness and strength. Here is a fine example of a well-preserved porcelain case. The floral patterns and gilding are in excellent condition.  It is an L. Gilbert No. 415 from 1910. The most sought-after and expensive American porcelain clocks are the Ansonia Royal Bonn. Ansonia imported its cases from Germany and installed its movements. Gilbert’s porcelain, unmarked, comes probably from the German Royal Hanover Bavaria.

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