Frank E. Cummings III (American, born in 1938)

Object Place: Long Beach, California


Overall: 172.7 x 61 x 40.6 cm (68 x 24 x 16 in.)

Accession Number


Medium or Technique

Ebony, ivory, African blackwood, 14 kt gold, black star sapphires, glass

Not On View


Americas, Contemporary Art



Ebony and ivory case with three curved glass panels. The case rests upon a free-form stand made of ebony with ivory caps. All parts of the clock works are visible. The handmade wheels have outer rims of African blackwood, and centers of hand-carved ivory. Pinions and arbors are made of highly polished ivory, and each pinion is capped with a star sapphire set in gold. The clock is operated by two ivory and ebony weights with ivory pulleys. The two-day clock chimes on the hour; the resonater is made of African blackwood.

This tall-case clock by Frank E. Cummings III represents the height of technical virtuosity that emerged in the field of studio furniture in the 1970s. While other artisans at that time were also intrigued by the challenge of building handmade wooden clockworks, Cummings took the art to a new level by using rare precious materials and an idiosyncratic design. This clock’s ebony and ivory frame is enclosed with three curved glass panels to reveal its intricate works, including gears delicately hand carved in ivory and African blackwood and pinions mounted with black star sapphires set in gold. Nearly a year in the making, the clock is perhaps the ultimate “super-object,” reflecting the period’s emphasis on technical prowess and exotic materials.

Cummings designed and built the clock intuitively, having no training in clock making. He learned some rudimentary principles of gear mechanics by examining nineteenth-century wooden clocks owned by a local clock repairer, but created his own elaborate calculations and drawings for his clockworks. He manipulated the materials with great deliberation; the African blackwood used in the gears was chosen for its extreme hardness and durability, and the grain of the wood and the grain of the ivory in the gears were set in opposite directions to prevent warping. An admirer of the inventive experimentation of Leonardo da Vinci, Cummings took pride in developing his own way of making a functional clock.

Cummings teaches at California State University, Fullerton. He makes furniture and turned vessels with a variety of precious materials, emphasizing time-intensive workmanship. Inspired by the spiritual meanings of everyday objects in Africa, where he has also studied and taught, and by the religious significance of simple, well-made Shaker furniture, Cummings seeks to reinvest meaning and beauty in functional objects.

This text was adapted from Ward, et al., MFA Highlights: American Decorative Arts & Sculpture (Boston, 2006) available at


From the artist's collection.

Credit Line

Museum purchase with funds donated anonymously and from a Gift of the Seminarians in memory of William A. Whittemore and Beck F. Whittemore, and with funds donated by Anne M. Beha and Robert A. Radloff, Susan W. Paine, The Doran Family Charitable Trust, and by exchange from a Gift of J. Templeman Coolidge, Gift of Miss Ruth K. Richardson, Gift of Richard S. Fuller in memory of his wife, Lucy Derby Fuller, Gift of Miss Annie J. Pecker, Gift of William E. Beaman, Gift of George R. Meneely, Gift of Joseph Randolph Coolidge IV, Bequest of Mrs. Ethel Stanwood Bolton, Bequest of Dr. Samuel A. Green, Bequest of Miss Eleanor P. Martin, Bequest of Miss Kate A. Gould, and Bequest of Sarah E. Montague


© F. Cummings III 79