Bare Bones History of the Skeleton Clock

Tuesday 10th October 2023 - Cara Bentham


Bare Bones History of the Skeleton Clock

It's that time of year again, and as the spooky season approaches, what better time to explore the fascinating history of skeleton clocks?

With their intricate and captivating designs, skeleton clocks have long been admired for their beauty and precision. These timepieces often feature exposed gears and a minimalist frame, and they have a rich history. In this article, we will journey through time to explore the origins and evolution of skeleton clocks, shedding light on the craftsmanship and innovation that have made them a cherished part of horological heritage.

The Birth of Skeleton Clocks

The story of skeleton clocks began in the late 18th century when skilled British clockmakers sought to showcase their craftsmanship and mastery of intricate movements. The concept was simple yet revolutionary: create a timepiece with a transparent frame, allowing the observer to witness the mesmerising dance of gears, escapements, and balance wheels.

One of the early pioneers in the development of skeleton clocks was the renowned English clockmaker Benjamin Lewis Vulliamy. In 1810, Vulliamy created a skeleton clock with an exceptionally delicate and intricate frame, setting a standard for future generations of clockmakers. This masterpiece, along with others of its kind, paved the way for the widespread popularity of skeleton clocks.

The Golden Age of Skeleton Clocks

The 19th century marked the golden age of skeleton clocks. Clockmakers and designers embraced the challenge of creating more exquisite and complex timepieces. These clocks often featured ornate brass frames and meticulously crafted dials, making them functional and stunning works of art.

John Harrison, the legendary clockmaker known for his groundbreaking work on marine chronometers, also contributed to the development of skeleton clocks. His precision engineering skills were reflected in the design of his marine chronometers, and some of these principles found their way into skeleton clocks, further enhancing their accuracy.

The Victorians and the Aesthetic Movement

During the Victorian era, skeleton clocks were popular as decorative items in affluent British households. These clocks, often placed on mantelpieces or display cabinets, were admired for their elegance and served as status symbols.

The Aesthetic Movement, which emerged in the late 19th century, embraced the idea that art and beauty should be a part of daily life. This movement significantly influenced the design of skeleton clocks, leading to more elaborate and artistic creations. Clockmakers began incorporating elements of nature, such as leaves and vines, into the frames, adding a touch of romanticism to their designs.

Innovations and Advancements

As the 20th century dawned, the tradition of crafting skeleton clocks continued to thrive in the UK. Clockmakers embraced modern materials and techniques while staying true to the artistry and precision of their forebears.

One notable development was the use of glass domes or covers to protect the delicate movements of skeleton clocks while allowing them to remain visible. This innovation preserved the clocks and made them a focal point in homes and museums.

Contemporary Revival

In recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in skeleton clocks among collectors and enthusiasts. Horologists have continued the tradition of crafting these exquisite timepieces, combining traditional craftsmanship with modern technology. These contemporary skeleton clocks often incorporate features like automatic winding mechanisms and improved materials for enhanced accuracy and durability.

The enduring appeal of skeleton clocks lies in their intricate designs and their ability to bridge the gap between art and engineering. These timepieces serve as a testament to the skill and creativity of British clockmakers throughout history.

Skeleton Clocks: Collectors Tips

Collecting skeleton clocks can be a fascinating and rewarding hobby, offering a glimpse into the intricate world of horology and fine craftsmanship. Here are some valuable tips to consider when embarking on your journey as a collector:

Research and study

Start by learning about the history and different styles of skeleton clocks. Understanding the evolution of these timepieces will help you make informed choices. Use internet sources and reference books to study these fascinating clocks and how they evolved over time. Visit auction houses, antique fairs, and museums to see some fine examples in person, and search lots on easyliveAuction to see what's currently on the market across the UK. 

Set a Budget

Determine how much you're willing to invest into your collection. Skeleton clocks can range from affordable to high-end luxury pieces; having a budget in mind will guide your choices. You may want to start small and hunt for bargain pieces to begin your collection. Live online auctions are a great place to find hidden gems at a fraction of what you might pay elsewhere. 

Authenticate and Verify

When purchasing a skeleton clock, always verify its authenticity and condition. Look for hallmarks, maker's signatures, and historical documentation to ensure you're acquiring a genuine piece. If you're unsure what to look for, research and study before investing.

Consider Restoration

Some antique skeleton clocks may require restoration work. If you're comfortable with carrying out this work yourself, factor in the cost and effort of bringing a clock back to its former glory.

Seek Expert Advice

Collector communities or horological experts can provide valuable insights and recommendations from first-hand experience in the field.

Variety and Style

Diversify your collection by exploring different styles, time periods, and makers. This adds depth and richness to your collection.

Display and Care

Properly display and maintain your collection. Protect them from direct sunlight, humidity, and dust to preserve their beauty and functionality. Consider investing in a display cabinet to keep your clocks safe, well-preserved, and beautifully displayed.

Patience and Passion

Above all, collecting skeleton clocks requires patience and a genuine passion for these timepieces. Be prepared for the thrill of discovery and the joy of ownership. Take time to seek out the best possible additions to your collection based on your preferred style as well as quality and value.

With these tips in mind, your journey as a skeleton clock collector can be fulfilling and enjoyable, allowing you to appreciate these exquisite timepieces' artistic and mechanical wonders.

If you’re looking for inspiration to begin or expand your skeleton clock collection, we have some excellent examples in our upcoming auctions:

This French miniature brass skeleton clock goes under the hammer on October 26th at Gardiner Houlgate auction house with an estimate of £200 - £300.

This impressive English brass Westminster Abbey skeleton clock goes up for sale on October 19th at Burstow and Hewitt auction house and is expected to fetch £1000 - £1500.

To stay informed about upcoming lots, you can register for an account and set auction alerts to notify you when skeleton clocks come up for sale.


Skeleton clocks have woven themselves into the fabric of British horological heritage, captivating generations with their mesmerising movements and artistic designs. From their humble beginnings in the late 18th century to the Victorian era's grandeur and the innovations of the 20th century, skeleton clocks have stood the test of time.