Vienna Regulator Clocks

They’re not going to set any record-breaking prices, but in a clock market where the majority of collectors seem to be concentrating on either the very top end or unusual or novelty clocks, the regulator is ticking along nicely.

According to a report in the UK trade paper Antiques Trade Gazette, the regulator – which is the general name given to the highly accurate timekeepers of Regency and Victorian Britain – has benefited from a ‘renewed, post-millennium interest in

technical horology’ along with a greater admiration for Victorian clocks in general, and in some areas the values have doubled in the past ten years.

Although the Vienna regulator falls into the regulator category, it’s suffered from something of an image problem; in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it was just a common household wall clock. In the last decade or so, however, its reputation seems to have undergone something of a revamp, and collectors are beginning to appreciate the quality and reliability of what can sometimes be an extremely ornate but very accurate timekeeper.

The Vienna regulator was first produced in Austria around 1780. These very early clocks (from around 1790 to 1835) belong to what’s known as the Empire period; Napoleon had declared himself Emperor of the Roman Catholic Empire, and Empire-style furniture and architecture were in vogue. The cases of these clocks were narrow, and they were basically rectilinear rather than ornate (the really early clocks were simply three squares, stacked one above the other). This simple style continued through the Biedermeier period (1815 to 1848), a time of censorship and oppression, although clockmakers did branch out a bit by adding cross banding to the cases and engine turned or piecrust bezels.

It was after the revolution of 1848 that the style of the Vienna clock really began to change. Increased business success led to more money within the professional sector, and average people were able to afford items that had been too expensive for them in the past – Vienna regulators included. The clockmakers were finally allowed to express themselves, creating cases with flowing, serpentine lines that were quite elaborate in comparison to the more austere Biedermeier look. Many of the finishes of these clocks were faux-grain, probably because the majority of wood veneers were imported into Europe, making them not only expensive, but hard to acquire.

The Transitional period of 1850 to 1875 was the buffer period of design, forming a link between the early, simple clocks and extravagant later types. Transitional clocks often feature what are known as broken columns, where both the tops and bottoms of the columns have hanging finials, or slender, elegant columns, with the cases typically having fruitwood veneers instead of the faux-grain finish. This led to the development of the Altdeutsch style (1870 to 1895), which tends to epitomise the later Vienna regulator, and is characterised by Corinthian columns in a symmetrical style and porcelain, brass or combination dials, usually with engraved or embossed decoration and very elaborate hands. The lavishly carved Baroque style Vienna, which developed alongside the Altdeutsch, is also very ornate, but can be differentiated by the asymmetrical head and tailpieces on the columns, and the dial bezels, which are usually spun brass with engraved or embossed brass dial centres. They were generally in veneered cases of walnut, mahogany or cherry.

By the time of the Jugendstil era of 1890 to 1920, elaborate decoration was no longer fashionable. Functional forms were the order of the day, and clockmakers responded by recreating the Vienna in its original style - simple and boxy, in solid cases of maple, walnut and fruitwood. Of course, just to make things more interesting, sometimes a clock from an earlier period was modified to conform to the later, more popular style.

The Vienna regulator was also produced in countries other than Austria; German factories began manufacture in the 1850s. The German-made Viennas are usually larger than the Austrian types, with thicker hands and almost always having serial numbers and trademarks to the back plates. This is in contrast to the Austrian clocks, which were rarely marked to the back plate, since the individual maker usually put his name on the dial.

The demise of the Vienna regulator was brought about by another form of timekeeping – the electric clock. People couldn’t be bothered winding a clock when they didn’t have to, even if it was a perfect timekeeper – and ironically, the regulator in all its forms was often used to accurately set the watches and clocks of the very people who then discarded them!


This article is courtesy of Antiques and Collectables for Pleasure & Profit magazine. A year’s subscription (that’s four issues: spring, summer, autumn and winter) is $48. To subscribe visit

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