clock & barometer repairs
 
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carriage clocks to avoid

I recently received a request to replace the two mainsprings and click springs on a "fine" French carriage clock. The owner lived 200 miles away so agreed to post it. As soon as I opened the parcel, my heart sank. Far from a fine French repeater with alarm and French hand-painted Sevres-type panels, it was a modern reproduction from China.

I nearly made the mistake of buying one of these beasts myself ten or twelve years ago. And boy would I have been bitten. I got as far as 'winning' the bidding at nearly £100 (I always think 'winning' is a rather perverse term on fleabay- it just means you were prepared to part with more cash that anyone else on the planet). Just before I paid, I had a couple of friendly emails from better clock enthusiasts than I warning me that I had either struck an incredible bargain (not likely) or had fallen for the old trap of thinking that no one else had spotted it. Well, it was too good to be true; it was a recent Chinese copy that had been categorised as pre-1900 so I was able to cancel my bid for misdescription.

The top image shows how the case of these clocks is generally adorned with colourful enamel poured into tiny 'honeycomb cells' created out of flat brass strips soldered to the surface of the case. Blue is the commonest but they turn up in green or red as well. The Chinese are experts at this "cloisonné" technique and their tourist factories are crammed full of it. It looks very like early French champlevé work where cells are formed in the base and filled with enamel. But whereas the French ones are 150 years old now and fetch thousands of pounds, the Chinese versions are new and cost less than £50 in the street markets of China. Many are designed to look old, chemicals being used to age the brass, but anything deeper that a cursory look reveals how poorly made they are. In an online image, however, it's easy to deceive and the blue one at the top sold for £170 in July 2011 on fleabay after 13 bids.

The second image shows an alternative to the complex white dial; it's hand-painted porcelain done in dirty, dangerous factories by child artists paid about a bowl of rice a day. It might be hand-painted but it isn't unique as at the end of the production line, they all look the same. The first odd thing is the sweep seconds hand, rarely found on anything but extremely important French clocks. The smaller subsidiary dial is for the alarm function, exactly as it is on many French originals.

From the side (third image) everything looks fairly normal except that an experienced clock repairer will immediately be surprised by how thin the brass plates are compared to a French clock. Given all the features of this clock (strike, repeat, alarm), the plates need to be thicker, but of course that would make it more expensive to manufacture.

Next is the backplate (fourth photograph) and this may look impressive at first sight but that's more to do with the camera lighting than the quality of the brass, which is rather dull. The oddest thing here is the bell, which is brass rather than much harder bell metal, and in particular the two holes drilled in it to allow access to the winding squares. I suppose a French maker somewhere might have made a bell like this at some time but if he did, I've never seen it.

Finally, there's the platform (fifth image) - the part that sits on top of the movement carrying the balance wheel escapement. This one's made of steel, presumably in an attempt to resemble a silvered brass one that might have surmounted the real thing. The brass washers should be blued steel, however, and my only surprise is the dedication to using slotted screws in place of modern crossheads!

There's a story that the Chinese one was modelled on the early French ones by an Englishman, who placed an order for hundreds of them to be made at a Chinese factory. It was so successful that he placed further orders and there must now be thousands of them in shades of blue, red and green. I hope you haven't got one thinking it's French.

Regrettably, I had to send the one needing new mainsprings back to the owner with an explanation that it was not worth spending money on it. Even if I had done the work, the clock would keep coming back for repairs time and time again.


CHINESE CARRIAGE CLOCK

  • A common Chinese fake carriage clock
  • A handpainted dial from a fake Chinese carriage clock
  • Identify a fake Chinese carriage clock by its thin plates
  • Illustating a fake Chinese carriage clock by its odd bell
  • The platform from a fake Chinese carriage clock