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A Handmade Clock with a Long History–The Morbier

I placed this picture of a 1940s television in my blog a few weeks ago.  In case any clock collectors happen across it, I thought I should explain the mess-of-a-clock that is hanging to the right of the TV. 

It’s a project that I have been working on very slowly.  Since it ended up on the web, I felt obligated to go ahead and finish it.

 The clock looks much better now.  It is a particular style of French clock called a Morbier; or sometimes a Comtoise.  These clocks were built by the combined work of villagers and clock makers from the 1700s until around World War One.  Here is my clock with all the parts in place.

From what I understand, the Morbiers were the Wal-Mart clocks of their time.  They were somewhat cheaply made to sell cheaply.  Most used crude weights hung by simple string.  Many, like mine, don’t even have a maker’s name on the face.  They were not made in factories or in the shop of a skilled clockmaker.  Like some German clocks,  the parts for Morbiers were made by families who each specialized in a certain part or parts.  These families were many times farmers who had time on their hands during the winter (no pun intended).  One or two local, skilled clockmakers would combine these parts into working clocks. 

 Here are some Morbiers on their way to good homes (I found this picture on the internet several years ago—I can’t remember where).

The names Morbier and Comtoise are the names of a village and the region where these clocks were made.  The exterior of most of the clocks are tin around an iron frame. Most have an elaborate face surround stamped out of very thin brass sheeting to doll up the cheap clock a bit.  Many also have a heavily ornamental stamped brass pendulum. 

 Some village carpenters built cases to convert the clocks into tall-case clocks such as were found in Britain.  Many of these cases were made of cheap wood cheerfully painted or finished in a faux wood grain.  They have a home-made look about them.  Because of the huge pendulum, Morbier cases to have a pregnant look quite different than British floor clocks.  A case for a Morbier wasn’t just a cosmetic upgrade.  A wall clock with a large open pendulum can be stopped by a gentle breeze floating through the room.

 A very unusual feature of the Morbiers is that they strike the hour twice.  They ring on the hour, then about two minutes afterward as well.  Some call these prayer repeat clocks–the first chime is a call to prayer, and the second signals time to begin prayer.  Most Morbiers have a large bell on top for the chime.  It definitely can be heard throughout the house.

So why did I want a Morbier?  The Morbier clock movements are beautiful machines to look at.  They use larger parts than many clocks, making them very gratifying to watch.  Their very cheapness makes them even more appealing to me.  A typical high quality British clock of similar size would use heavy brass plates to hold the gears and pinions. 

 A late 1700s British tall case clock. . .


. . .and its movement with thick brass plates


Such plates make for a very stable clock movement but hide the inter workings of the movement.  To reduce cost, the Morbier movements use a few straps of iron that give a skeleton clock appearance. 


Everything is more visible and interesting.  In fact, the skeletal iron frame makes the Morbier look like a miniature tower clock (the big clocks found in church belfries and county courthouses).  I decided that I would find a relatively cheap Morbier and display it without the case.  Sure, it would get dusty, but that’s what canned air is for.  All to say, the perfect authenticity of a prime example was not what I was in the market for.

 Some friends at a The Uncommon Market had an incomplete and damaged Morbier that came with a general shipment of antiques from France.  It was missing the hands and weights.  Someone had cut the pendulum to change its length (was it borrowed from a clock designed for a different pendulum length?).  It also had been dropped on its face hard enough to bend the internal frame.  It was just what I was looking for!  I swapped some work on other items for the clock and started working on it. 

 Mine is a rather late clock.  Unlike most Morbiers, it has an alarm—that made it even more interesting to me.

 I had an elaborate plan to cast some authentic looking weights from lead.  I turned wooden forms on my wood lath and made plaster of Paris molds from the forms.  The rest of that story didn’t turn out so well—I’ll learn to cast lead for a different project!

 I travelled to another antique shop which specializes in clock restoration.  I knew the owner had some Morbiers and as I hoped, he had a pile of Morbier weights.  I bought two.  I still needed two weights for the alarm—a heavy weight to drive the alarm and a light weight to hold tension on the string.  I ground down a discarded cuckoo clock weight to match the shape of the weights I purchased, then turned an oak weight on my lath for the string tensioner.


The gears associated with chiming are on the right side of the clock.  The time-keeping gearing is on the left.  Earlier Morbiers used a verge and crown gear escapement. 

A verge escapement from Wikipedia: 


Not being quite so ancient, mine uses an anchor escapement. 


The big parts make a robust chink-chink sound that I find soothing.  I enjoy listening to it as I work at my computer.  

 My clock does have a crown gear though.  It is not in the escapement, but part of the alarm. 


What an alarm!  The crown gear causes a double sided hammer to rattle that big bell feverishly until the alarm weight drops to the floor.  It sounds like those big electric bells that announce class changes at schools.  If it can’t wake the dead, it gets close.


I’m thinking of replacing the elaborate pendulum with a simple one made of iron strap and a brass bob.  I’ve seen those on some Morbiers.  That will fit my minimalist look of an open clock.

 So after a few years of puttering around, I’ve finally have my clock in decent shape to display. 

 Many styles of clocks have equally interesting stories.  A large number of surviving examples were made before the advent of clock factories—made by hand using parts and methods that are fascinating to study.  I have not dived in as deep as I would like, but I want to devote more time in the future to studying the mechanical and social history of clocks.

 If you want to see more Morbiers, visit the museum website of comtoise.com below:


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