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  1. #1

    Thumbs up REVIEW: Two New Morbier Clock Books

    BOOKREVIEW:

    Two New Morbier Clock Books

    Morbier Clocks – History, Identification and Repair. By Lawrence A. Seymour, re-edited by Rob Reichel. Published 2009 by NAWCC, Columbia, Pa. ISBN xxx xxx xxx. Softcover, 68 pages. A reedition in bookform of four NAWCC Bulletin articles published between 1972 and 1977. 101 photographic illustrations. Available for $ 18 at http://www.nawccstore.org/ or members may borrow it from the National Watch and Clock Library in Columbia PA.

    Die Geschichte der Comtoise Uhren [The History of Comtoise Clocks], a publication in six parts: Volume 1: Picture Atlas (370 p., 2008), Volume 2: Text (394 p. 2008), Insert: Chronology (20p.), Annex 1: Eight Historic Catalogs (134 p.), Annex 2: Eight Historic Catalogs (94 p.), Annex 3: Eight Historic Catalogs (121 p.). By Bernd Deckert. Published by Comtoise Uhren Museum, Suitbertusstrasse 151, D-40223 Dusseldorf-Bilk, Germany. No ISBN. Available only from the publisher and through their website at www.comtoise.com . Volumes available individually. Vol. 1 and 2 cost Euro 85 each (approx. US$135, the Annexes are 25 Euro each (approx.US$35) plus postage. Members may borrow the set from the National Watch and Clock Library in Columbia PA.


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    When American clock collectors hear ‘French clock’ they are most likely to think of highly decorative French mantle clocks with spring driven, short pendulum movements. But in reality France, over the centuries, produced a great variety of clocks, and the French clock produced in greatest numbers is what is usually known in the USA as a Morbier clock. From around 1700 to about 1910, probably around 5 million Morbier type clocks were manufactured in the villages of Morbier and Morez and the surrounding countryside in the French part of the Jura mountains some 30 miles north of Geneva, Switzerland. For centuries up to today they have always been the most commonly found antique clock in France. The French call it “horloge comtoise”, i.e. Comtoise clock, named for the ‘Franche-Comté’ region where it was made. I will use the terms “Morbier” and “Comtoise’ interchangeably in this review.

    These clocks were the first popularly priced timekeepers in France, the clock everybody could afford, the French culture equivalent to the mid-1800s Connecticut shelf clocks in the USA. They were weight-driven, robustly built, low maintenance, striking clocks with a long pendulum, and non-plated movements structurally built from iron straps. These clocks were essentially built to be put into utilitarian, wooden grandfather type cases to be locally built or commissioned by their ultimate owners. While some were exported into select foreign markets the bulk of them initially went all over the rural areas of France. In spite of being one of the most common clock styles ever in the world there are not a great number of them in North America, although collectors can find examples regularly if they look for them.

    Because they are essentially an unglamorous type of clock both from a technical and from an art-history perspective, there are not many books on the subject, neither in France, nor in the English language. Curiously enough, most of the recent Morbier/Comtoise scholarship was published in German. The classic text on the subject was published in French in 1930 by Jean Moreau, and updated in 1976 by Francis Maitzner (La Comtoise – La Morbier – La Morez ). It was translated into English by Larry Seymour, and published in the USA in the late 1980s as “Comtoise Clocks” (no stated publisher or publishing date). It has been out of print for decades, and used copies are hard to find. To date the Seymour translation was the only major monograph on the subject ever published in English. (There is also a smaller, even rarer book by Steve Nemrava on the subject, published privately by the author in Oregon 1975). The only other major recent French book dedicated to this subject is Alain Claudine’s “La Grande Horloge” (in French, Editions de l’Amateur, Paris, 1992, ISBN 285917 136 3) which deals with these timepieces primarily as pieces of furniture. In the mid-1970s, the Dutchman Ton Bollen published a small book ”Comtoiseklokken” on the subject, but given how few people read Dutch that had little impact outside the Netherlands.

    For many years the ‘bible’ of Morbier clock collectors around the world was Gustav Schmitt’s book from Germany. The second edition of his “Die Comtoise-Uhr” (in German, Villingen, 1983, ISBN 3 920662 05 9) had long been the standard textbook on the Comtoise clock. Schmitt was a collector who excelled in meticulously recording his discoveries, and the many clocks described in his book became the ‘database’ by which most others classified and judged their clocks. But Schmitt was not a historian; he spent little time searching for documentary or physical evidence in France to create a definitive history for that type of clock.

    Another major milestone in publishing on the subject came in 2005 when the German collector Siegfried Bergman published “Comtoise-Uhren”, which was essentially a massive 480 page color catalog of his own collection. That made life easier for collectors of Comtoise clocks: the number of published examples had doubled overnight, and the pictures were larger, better and clearer than anything else that had been published. But the Bergman book also represented a lost chance because it essentially was a book of pretty pictures – a very well done photo-documentation, but essentially a book without much hard information or scholarship.

    Unwittingly and unbeknownst to it’s author, Bergman’s book had another effect. The Duesseldorf (Germany) based founder of the Comtoise Museum, Bernd Deckert, had recently also been working on a massive and comprehensive publication on the history of the Comtoise clock. When Bergmann’s publication surprised Deckert in 2005, Deckert initially became discouraged because he concluded that there was no market for two new, large – and expensive - Comtoise books in Germany at the same time. Later, Deckert apparently became upset because Bergman’s book had added only many more known examples of these clocks but added little new insights on their history, their technology and the relevant iconography of the dial surrounds. So Deckert soon redoubled his efforts to write the definitive book on the Comtoise clock.

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    “Die Geschichte der Comtoise Uhren [The History of Comtoise Clocks]” is the result. The publication became available in early 2009. Deckert chose a multi volume format: The set consists of six physical publications, totaling together 1153 pages, and an additional volume has already been announced for the future. There is no doubt that Deckert has accumulated over the decades an immense experience and knowledge about these clocks, and has a genuine desire to share that experience with others. Comtoise clocks have been his passion ever since he was a teenager. As he explains in the preface, as a student in economic history in the late 1970s he had started to work on a book on the history of the Comtoise. That text was to be his thesis, but also be published commercially. As Deckert was nearing completion, the Schmitt book hit the market, and Deckert’s dream of financing his thesis through a commercially successful book evaporated , because he feared that the German market place could not simultaneously support two Comtoise books. He discontinued his studies and turned his hobby into a profession, becoming a clockdealer specializing in both antique and reproduction Comtoises.

    In the late 1970s there was a wave of Comtoise clocks moving through Europe. Particularly in Holland, Switzerland and Germany it was becoming fashionable to add an antique clock to one’s home décor. The potential buyers knew little about clocks, the local antique trade had not enough in stock, and the sturdy movements from Morbier fit a need. In France, the clocks had gone out of style and possibly as many as a million of these virtually undestructive mechanisms languished unwanted in basements and attics. A handful of dealers, particularly from Holland, started scavenging for them and imported them by the truckload, the movements stacked like bricks. Workshops were set up to get them going again, and to match dials, pendulums, dial surrounds and hands to the movements. Small factories producing ‘spare parts’ and components sprung up. Wholesalers distributed them to the ‘Antique’ dealers. It is not surprising that in this environment ‘marriages’, i.e. mismatching movements, cases and dials, or clocks that have otherwise ‘been messed with’ seem to be the rule rather than the exception. Soon some Dutchmen were having whole reproduction movements produced in Hungary. Deckert became an active part of that trader network and a major dealer for reproduction Morbiers, but continued to build his personal collection of originals, which he eventually turned into a private museum in Germany dedicated to the Comtoise clock.

    The first volume of the book under review is essentially a catalog of the 280 Comtoise clocks shown at the Dusseldorf museum. In the book the page numbers from 1 through 280 correspond to the museum inventory numbers 1 to 280. Pages 281 through 370 are dedicated to 90 noteworthy other examples from private collections (some identified, some anonymous). Each of the 370 pages has one to six color photos of one specific clock. On each page there is a full frontal view of the dial. On some pages that is the only illustration, filling most of the page, but usually there are several additional pictures showing distinguishing and unusual details of movement, case, hands or pendulum. Two or three sentences describe each clock and comment on particularities. Exact dimensions are also given.

    The amount of raw information contained in that volume is overwhelming, and the Comtoise enthusiasts can spend countless hours browsing through the ‘printed museum’of volume 1. While the serendipity of discovery is most pleasant, the usefulness of the book alone as a reference tool is most limited due to its structure. That is why the author has produced a physically separate ‘Insert’ of 20 pages, that contains black and white thumbnail illustrations of the 370 clocks sorted chronologically. This helps navigation somewhat, but an index by names, features etc or organizing the book chronologically in the first place would certainly have helped even more.

    The second volume is considered the ‘textbook’ although it contains countless illustrations as well. Its 394 pages are organized into 27 chapters. After preface and introduction, all of chapter 3 deals with defining a Comtoise clock. While these clocks fall under the truth that there are no rules without exceptions, a good working definition is: Comtoise clocks have side by side time and strike movements in a fixed iron cage, with trains mounted between removable vertical iron bars, and usually feature a crownwheel or anchor escapement driving a long pendulum, powered by weights on ropes, with a striking mechanism that restrikes the hours a few minutes after the hour, with dials of white enamel.

    Chapter 4 and 5 deal with the history of these clocks, quoting liberally from original source documents, and exploring the socio economic context of their manufacturing. Chapter 6 deals with their distribution. Chapters 7 through 12 describe with the various styles in roughly chronological order: a) The original “Mayet” style with brass or pewter chapter rings, b) The 12 (or 13) piece enamel dials, c) The brass casing tops with rooster, sun, eagle, star, or other revolutionary or Napoleonic symbols, d) the transitional style, characterized by early repoussee dial surrounds, e) the Louis-Philippe style of 1830 to 1848, and f) the final period which includes both plain dials (simple brass ring) as well as those with opulent repoussee pendulums . After a short section on towerclocks in the Comtoise style, Chapters 14 & 15 deal with the escapements and movements, Chapter 16 with dials, 17 with pendulums, 18 with accessories (hands, bells, weights and keys). The next four chapters cover niche products (calendar movements, spring driven movements, musical movements, oddities). Chapters 23 and 24 discuss modern reproductions, mismatched movement and dials, and fakes. A keyword index, a bibliography and a postscript conclude the book.

    There is an overwhelming amount of information in this book, much of it never published before. The material is all there for a great book on the history of the Comtoise clock, and countless sources are cited. However this reviewer found working through the book difficult and not necessarily enjoyable. The more I read, the clearer it became that the author had attempted to convey to the reader everything he knew about these clocks, but that he had not spent the same amount of time worrying on how the information was presented. Ultimately, the book came across as a wonderful first draft for a potentially great book. At one stage the author remarks himself that he decided not to use an editor (or even a proofreader) in order to “retain the author’s original voice”. I believe that was a big mistake. A memory-dump - of even the most knowledgeable expert - alone does not make a good narrative; just like doctors should not be their own health care providers, authors should not be their own editors. A reorganization of the material, a tightening of the content, and a linguistic review of the text would have immensely improved the readability and usefulness of the book. It its current ‘stream of consciousness’ format it is difficult for the reader to distinguish between key insights and anecdotal supplementary information.

    The two volumes can be purchased separately, as can the three Appendix volumes. Each of the three Appendix volumes contains full facsimile re-editions of eight historic, illustrated catalogues from the years between 1890 and 1910 from manufacturers or wholesalers offering Morbier type clocks. This kind of original source material is extremely rare, and even specialized horological libraries have virtually no material like that.

    Writing a review in an English language periodical about a book written in another language always raises the issue of how useful this book would be to someone who does not read the language. There is no doubt in my mind that such a person, presuming he is an enthusiast or collector of Morbier style clocks, will get great enjoyment out of Volume I, as well as out of all three Appendix volumes. Getting much use out of Volume 2 would be much more of a challenge. But fortunately for the English speakers there is another, very different, new publication that was released about Morbier clocks also in 2009.

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    In the introductory part to this review I mentioned that both English language books on the Morbier clock were out of print. I have also mentioned the series of 4 articles in the mid 1970s by Lawrence Seymore in the NAWCC Bulletin. In 2005, Larry suggested that the publishing office of NAWCC turn these into a book titled “Morbier Clocks –History, Identification and Repair”. Because the original articles predate electronic publishing, and in order to do it right (rather than reproduce only a facsimile image of the old article) the text had to be reset, the author provided new prints of the old photographs which were then scanned at higher resolution than was possible 30 years ago, and Bob Reichel edited the new digital files.

    The result is the first English language book on Morbier clocks (or Comtoise clocks as the Europeans prefer to call them) in more than 20 years. Unlike the recent European titles by Bergman and Deckert, this book does not attempt to document the entire history of clock making in the Franche Comte region of France , but has more modest aims: To provide only a short introduction to their origin, and to then focus on more practical matters by explaining how their movements work, and outlining hands-on tips for their restoration and repair. And –as modest as the publication appears at first- it fulfills is aspirations extremely well.

    The result is a compact 68 pages , including 101 clear, sharp and large black and white photographic illustrations. The prepublication subscription price was a very reasonable $ 18. The book is organized into four chapters following the four Bulletin articles which were its origins. Chapter one summarizes the history, distinguishing three periods: a) Early 1680-1750 (with brass or pewter chapter ring dials), b) The cast brass tops of 1750 to 1860, and c) The repousee brass decorated ones (subdividing these further in early [1840-1880 with crown wheel escapements] and late [1880-1915 with anchor escapements]). Chapter two analyzes the construction of the time train in some detail, while Chapter three does the same for the striking train, explaining how the automatic repeat of the hour strike a minute or two after the full hour works. This is probably the most noticeable feature of Morbier clocks. The clocks all have rack and snail strike; a countwheel mechanism cannot work for the Morbier style of repeated striking.

    For most of the readers Chapter 4 , dealing with ‘Restoration and Repair’, will be of most use. Morbiers are robustly built clocks and their movements are inherently service friendly. But because their construction and layout is so different from most of the work encountered by most American clock repairers they seem to intimidate many clock people. This chapter takes you through the disassembly one step at the time, and the large photographs here are a great help to the novice. Cleaning and reassembly are covered in the same manner.

    This little book is well written and well produced and it serves its purpose. It is the book any professional clockrepairer in America should have on his bookshelf. It will pay for itself in saved time the first time a customer walks in with a Morbier that needs attention. And it is the booklet that every clock collector who happens to own a Morbier needs to read in order to understand how his clock functions inside and what its roots are.

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    When after many years without publications on a subject two books appear on that subject within a few weeks many people will ask themselves “Which one should I buy?” The answer –as so often- is “It depends”. For the reader who has practical concerns because his Morbier needs attention, the Seymour book is clearly the better choice, and if price is a major consideration, clearly go for that book as well. But for the serious scholar of horological history, especially if that reader has even a tiny comprehension of the German language, the volumes by Deckert are hard to ignore because they contain such vast amounts of hereto unpublished information on Morbier clocks. Both titles clearly fill a niche, and the horological literature is richer today than it was a year ago due to these publications. The authors and publishers deserve a ‘Thank You’ for making both of them available.


    Fortunat Mueller-Maerki, Sussex NJ
    June 2009
    Fortunat Mueller-Maerki, -Chair NAWCC Library Com./ Editor & Publisher of BHM
    Mem.NAWCC Mus.Coll.Com. / VP, USA Sect. Antiq.Horolog.Soc.

  2. #2
    Registered User Dave T's Avatar
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    Default Re: REVIEW: Two New Morbier Clock Books (By: Fortunat Mueller-Maerki)

    Just tried to order the Morbier book and received a permanent delivery failure.

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