Thursday, March 24, 2016

The Unique Beauty of Swedish Clocks - No two are alike!

If you’ve ever been in our shop or on our website and looked at our collection of Swedish clocks, one thing you will notice is that every single one is unique. They come in all sorts of different sizes and colors and the embellishments on the bonnet or the body are never the same. And the bodies too are different. Some are narrow and straight while others are slim and balanced and some are bottom heavy with a shape resembling a snowman. You will simply never find two antique Swedish clocks that are the same.

Why might that be? Because every Swedish clock – sometimes called Gustavian, Fryksdahl or Mora clocks – was made by hand… or more accurately, by a series of hands. In the mid to 18th century the farming community of Mora in central Sweden was burdened by poor soil and several years of drought. As a result many of the citizens decamped to Stockholm for new opportunities. Some of them returned however, and brought with them a new skill, clock making. By this time longcase or tall clocks had been around for about a century, the pendulum clock having been invented by Dutchman Christiaan Huygens back in 1656. (Huygen’s original clock was not a tall clock, but something more akin to what we call a cuckoo clock. Taller case clocks evolved after the discovery that longer chain pendulums made for more accurate timekeeping.)

The struggling community decided to use this new skill to supplement its economy and embarked on a clock building enterprise that would flourish for a century until competition and sophisticated manufacturing processes in the US and Germany put them out of business near the end of the 19th century. Their success inspired other communities around the country to follow their lead. (Swedish clocks are sometimes marked with the inscription from the town where they were manufactured. Those from Mora sometimes have "A A S Mora" on them, with the AAS in this case standing for Krång Anders Andersson of Östnor, traditionally known as the first clockmaker in the district of Mora.) And indeed they were successful! By the time Swedish clockmaking met its end in the 19th century, it’s estimated that the families in Mora and other towns had manufactured in excess of 50,000 clocks, with output in some years reaching over 1,000 clocks!

And it was actually families who manufactured these clocks, rather than large manufacturing facilities. Each of the families who participated in the community’s endeavor would manufacture a different element or part of the clock. Some would make the cases, others the faces, others the brassworks while others would paint and others work with the glass. It is this lack of assembly line manufacturing that gives us the wide variety that characterizes Swedish clocks.

The variety we see in the clocks is extraordinary. Some are quite tall, reaching up to 8 ft in height, while others can be much shorter. Some bonnets are covered with elaborate carvings and etchings while others are simple, plain, round affairs. The bodies can be narrow with simple lines or they can undulate and have a variety of roses or faux medals or musical instruments carved into them. And then there is glass. As glass was relatively expensive at the time, some clocks came without the window through which the pendulum could be seen, and a few even lacked the glass covering the face. What’s more, sometimes the clock mechanism and the body were sold separately. A buyer would purchase the face and the mechanism for the clock then engage a carpenter to build a case based on their design and specifications. That’s why, although it’s rare, some clocks have family crests carved into them.

And then of course there is the paint. One of the most recognizable characteristics of Swedish clocks is that they are typically – although not always – light in color, often a grayish blue or green or beige. That’s by design as Sweden gets so little sunshine through much of the year. The lighter colors would help reflect what light there was so as to help illuminate a room. There are clocks however with much darker colors. These were often in the homes of the wealthy where there was no dearth of candles. Not surprisingly these darker clocks frequently featured gold or silver etchings as well.

So there we have it… a quick look at Swedish clocks. They make great additions to a room as their elegant subtlety can capture one’s eye without overpowering the room itself. At the same time the wide variety of designs means that somewhere out there is a clock to fit almost any room.

The quintessential Swedish clock... with simple lines, a rose on the bonnet and rosettes on the neck.

An elegant clock with a sun under the neck and ribbons adorning the door.

A somewhat less common clock (actually from the Danish island of Bornholm) with its straight lines, right angles and flat top.

This clock is bare wood with a star in the middle and flanked by delicate volutes.    

The face of a clock upon which can be seen the initials of Krång Anders Andersson

gorgeous clock with minimal embellishments but a darker blue color.

A clock with a carving on the bonnet that resembles a French Phrygian Cap.

As this clock features a delicate Chinoiserie on a dark color, it very likely belonged to a wealthier family where candles were abundant.  

This clock features a lovely pewter ring face with Roman numbers.

This orange clock is topped with a brilliant starburst.

This beautiful clock features a stunning base adorned with volutes and foliage.

Monday, March 7, 2016

When is money more than just money?

Money makes the world go around! Well, technically, it doesn’t really do that... but it sure can make things easier. How, you might ask? Well, imagine you’re a farmer and all you own is a cow. How do you go into town and shop at the grocery store, get a haircut and eat at a restaurant without money? Your cow is not exactly easily divisible… and you can’t exactly carry it in your wallet.

Money is something that represents a store of value. It’s something that the citizens of a nation or members of a group recognize as having value beyond its intrinsic value. A dollar bill is worth a dollar despite the fact that the paper it’s printed is only worth pennies.

In much of the west coins were the money of choice for millennia. Later paper currency was introduced, and today virtual currencies like Bitcoin, that only exist online, are trying to replace tangible money altogether.

Well, around the world there are places where money is not only not like dollars or coins, but doesn’t look anything like what we are familiar in terms of money. (It just goes to show how creative people can be!) Here are some examples:

Mbole Copper Currency

In the Congo there is a small tribe called the Mbole. From the 18th to the early 20th century they made copper currency bracelets which were used as currency for major transactions. These large, shiny pieces could be used to purchase property, pay off a significant debt or even act as something of a wedding ring for a bride.

These substantial pieces were hammered out of single sheet of copper ingot and, once flat, formed to give it a round shape. In this case the value of the bracelet was closely associated with the size, as copper was an expensive material and forming one took a great deal of time and effort. Worn on an ankle or wrists, these bracelets were seen as a symbol of status, much like diamond rings or fashionable watches in the west.

Kina Shells

In the verdant highlands of Papua New Guinea beautiful Kina Shells play the role of money. Kina Shells are actually made from Gold Lip Shells...a type of Oyster similar to the Black Lip shells that contain pearls. With great care they are carved and shaped and polished to give them their stunning beauty.

The Kina Shell currencies are often made into necklaces or breastplates which are worn for ceremonial occasions. Color may be added to the shells during the process and cowrie shells may be added for additional decoration. Although the Kina Shell currencies have largely been replaced with paper currency (which not surprisingly is called the Kina…) in some places the shells retain some, if not all of their status of money. Indeed, because of their value, they are sometimes used to pay for major purchases or are given as dowries to the parents of brides.

Tajere Currency – sometimes called Mumuye Currency

These long and thick currency pieces are forged from iron in eastern Nigeria. Typically there is a thick center with two tapered rods that exude in opposite directions. This distinctive style was a hallmark which indicated that they were likely forged by members of the Mumuye tribe. Other tribes living in the western part of the country, which abuts Chad and Cameroon, sometimes used these pieces as well, included the Fulani and the Juken.

Dating from the 16th to the 20th centuries, these pieces sometimes had shapes worked in the ends for differentiation and decoration. Some were simple fans while others might be formed into animals or other shapes. These pieces could be used for major transactions such as dowries as well as smaller, less significant transactions.

Yua Wenga

We return to Papua New Guinea where Yua means money and Wenga are clam rings. The Yua Wenga currencies are carved from giant clam shells using pieces of bamboo. Like the other currencies discussed above, Yua Wengas are used for major transactions, including property sales and marriages. Unlike the Kina shells, which were primarily used in the mountainous regions of the country, the Yua Wenga currencies were more often found among the tribes living near the coast.

Konga Legband / Copper Currency

These legbands were both currency and status symbols for the Mongo tribe of northwest Congo. They were made by pouring hot copper and tin into molds set in the ground. Once formed they were removed and bent around trees until they had
the appropriate size.

Because they could be heavy (up to 20 lbs) women would wrap fabric and leaves – called Litelele – around their feet to keep from damaging them – the feet that is! Typically they were worn for celebrations and relatively short periods, but on occasion brides might actually wear them for months at a time!

And so it goes. Apparently with money, sometimes there's more than meets the eye. Money pieces can act as decorations, status symbols and of course, currency to transact sales… or weddings. These pieces may not be as convenient as a $20 bill or a credit card, but they’re a lot more convenient than a cow! Think about them the next time you’re unhappy because you left Quik Trip and the cashier gave you some change that is now jingling in your pocket!

Mbole tribe members wearing copper currency