Looking for that unique gift – how about an antique or vintage mechanical clock?

Ah, the holiday season is upon us, what to buy? Are you are looking for a unique gift for a friend or family member. An antique clock may not be anything you have ever considered but wouldn’t it make a terrific gift. And, it’s timely!

Mauthe time and strike wall clock from 1895

If you know a little about antique or vintage clocks or you know nothing at all, you may need some help finding the right clock for that special person. I will give you a few pointers plus an explanation of some of the terms you may come across.

Why buy an antique or vintage clock?

A year ago I sold a clock to a young woman who was looking for a unique gift for her father. She responded to my advertisement by saying that it was exactly the clock she was looking for because it reminded her of the family clock when she was young.

Sentimental reasons, satisfying the need to acquire anything antique, or the uniqueness of an old mechanical clock top the list for reasons to buy an old clock.

What is the difference between antique and vintage?

It is not easy to tell the age of a clock, or, for that matter, anything in an antique store and, ads for clocks seldom tell the year it was produced although it might hint at the period it was made, for example, “mid-century”. A quick trip through the world of Google will give you a general sense of how old something is give or take a few years.

Vintage Kienzle wall clock from the 1930s

An antique is anything over 100 years old and vintage is less than 100 years but more than 30 years old. Anything that is less than 30 years old may be considered vintage but more often called collectible.

Mechanical or something else

This article focuses on mechanical clocks but there are a lot of different types of clocks out there and online auction sites are filled with every type imaginable. It can be confusing to the shopper.

As a general rule quartz clocks have limited value and very few would be considered collectible.

Electro-mechanical clocks have a traditional mechanical movement, which keeps time with an oscillating pendulum or balance wheel powered through a gear train by a mainspring but uses electricity to rewind the mainspring with an electric motor or electromagnet. Something quite different is the electro-magnetic clock, popular in the 1950s. Both types can be highly desirable but leave that to the professional collector who knows specifically what they are looking for.

In the 1930s electric shelf, desk and wall clocks were introduced into homes everywhere. Some have value but most are not worth the trouble.

Sessions 3W electric table clock
Sessions 3W electric table clock 1927

They are great timekeepers but are often quite worn, dangerous to work on, and can be difficult to repair. I would not give one as a gift unless you know that it was serviced by a competent professional.

My advice is to stick to an antique or vintage mechanical clock.

One last note; beware of conversions, clocks where the mechanical movement was taken out for whatever reason and replaced by a quartz movement. They are worthless but some people fall for this sinful and deceptive practice.

Type of clock and placement

Space is the biggest consideration.

Seth Thomas alarm clock
Antique Seth Thomas alarm clock from around 1910

In the trend towards smaller homes, there is not always space for a clock. Mantel clocks require a shelf or table to put them on.

Simple time-only or time and strike clocks can be quite small but others may have more a complicated Westminster chime movement in a larger case. Alarm and desk clocks occupy the least space.

This 1917 Gustav Becker Vienna Regulator is 51 inches long

Wall clocks are easier to place. Wall clocks come in all shapes and sizes from the diminutive cuckoo clocks to large box clocks and Vienna regulators.

Floor clocks, otherwise called grandfather or grandmother clocks, tall case, long case or hall clocks are the most difficult to place. Unless the person in mind would appreciate one and has sufficient floor space I would not recommend one.

Working or non-working clock?

A working clock that has been recently serviced by a competent clock repairer is the most desirable. However, if the clock will be a decoration or part of the decor and a working clock is unimportant, you might find them less expensive to purchase. Perhaps one with a replacement quartz movement might be okay as long as you know that’s what you are getting.

Clock buying tips

1990s Ridgeway grandfather clock takes up space
  1. Look for a working clock over a non-working one. Chances are it has been better cared-for over its life span.
  2. Facebook Marketplace, eBay, your local online for-sale site (we have kijiji in Nova Scotia), reputable estate auction sites, antique stores and word of mouth are among the best sources.
  3. Most common clocks are priced reasonably. Clock prices have generally fallen over the last 5 years but expect to pay more for rare clocks or those with a special provenance.
  4. Stay away from Chinese made or Korean clocks or most anything that has directional arrows around the winding points. They have very powerful mainsprings and will potentially harm the user if the springs break.
  5. The maker of the clock is largely unimportant. For example, all American clock producers made cheaper and more expensive lines of clocks.
  6. A little research is always helpful before you make the purchase. A little knowledge might be a dangerous thing but knowing nothing is worse.
  7. It may or may not be important to you if the clock has been altered in any way but it is nice to know. For example, many old ogee clocks are attractive but have had a replacement movement installed when the old one failed. In the clock world these are called marriages and it makes a difference to some people.
  8. Try to inspect the clock in person before you buy. Surprises are never nice when you discover something sent to you is not what you expected.

Well, if you are looking for a clock for that special person I hope I have given you something to think about before you put your money down.

I should say that I am not in the business of selling clocks but will sell the odd one locally to keep my collection manageable.