525,600 minutes… Is this — as the cast of the Broadway musical Rent wonders — how to measure a year? Or does one count his days, like J. Alfred Prufrock in T.S. Eliot’s classic poem, in coffee spoons? More likely, we just check our watches.
Like it or not, the vast majority of us participate in the consensus reality of Chronos. We’re motivated by airline schedules, doctor’s appointments, lunch dates, school semesters, work weeks and, yes, deadlines.
I’m musing on this marvelous mathematical construct we call “Time” as I drive out to meet with the local chapter of the NAWCC, the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors. As someone who is perpetually running behind, I’m wondering if these timepiece aficionados will take me to task for being tardy.
Hardly. The assembled members actually have a bit of a chuckle at the notion when I present it. “No,” laughs Gene Volk, a long-time member of Chapter 126 who sits on the Board of Directors of the National Association. “As a group, we’re not particularly punctual.”
But precise? Now that’s something else entirely.
This host of horologists (those who are intrigued by the science of measuring time) has gathered on a lovely summer afternoon to eat barbeque, swap stories and trade in the machinery of minutes: springs and gears, delicate clock hands and decorative clock faces, tiny screw drivers and heavy pendulums. They rifle through cigar boxes brimming with bits and pieces and carefully inspect disemboweled antique clock cases and naked workings — it’s a treasure trove for this lot.
Dan McBride, the current president of Chapter 126, empties his pockets to display his loot: a motley collection of vintage pocket watches, all in less-than-ideal condition. “The three things you look at for quality in a watch are the case, the dial and the movement,” he explains as he points out the virtues of the aesthetic elements. But when he deftly flips open the back and introduces me to the minutiae of the clockworks it becomes clear that the movement—the beating heart of the watch—is his passion.
Dan sometimes acquires old watches simply for their parts, which can be modified for use in the repair and restoration of more valuable specimens. Today’s purchases, however, will become training tools; Dan’s students will be challenged to put them back in good working order. A chemical engineer in his professional life, Dan is a collector of wristwatches and pocket watches and a respected watchmaker (someone who makes or repairs watches), having developed his exacting skills by apprenticing with a master on weekends for eight years.
He now mentors others in the arcane craft, which, for a dedicated collector, is almost an imperative. “The first time I opened a pocket watch and saw how beautiful the movement was, I was hooked,” admits Wayne Arcuri, a dealer in fine antique pocket watches and one of Dan’s protégés. “Eventually, my collection became so big and I was paying so much to have them serviced and cleaned that I learned how to do it myself.”
Providing education in the fine points of maintenance, repair and restoration is a key element in the Association’s agenda. “There are very few schools now that teach watch crafts,” says Gene Volk. “But the NAWCC has an accredited program for clock repair and watch repair—there’s a full one-year program for each discipline. We also have a very comprehensive museum in Pennsylvania and a wonderful library. There’s a bi-monthly newsletter and online archives with articles going back to the 1960s. These are important resources.”
The members’ expertise is also a resource for the community at large. “Right now we’re working on tower clocks,” Gene says. “We’ve restored a number of those in this area: the clock in the First Citizen’s Bank and the Historical Society in Hendersonville, one in Yanceyville and in Hillsboro and we’re getting ready to do one at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Walhalla, SC.”
For the collector, the Association is a wellspring of information. Everyone in the group seems to have a specialty and their conversation is peppered with anecdotes and trivia—tales of prized specimens encountered and small victories over unruly mechanisms. While the objects of their attention range from a diminutive lady’s LeCoultre wristwatch (“about the size of a dime,” says Dan) to a Webb C. Ball Railroad Standard pocket watch to a French Morbier clock to a 5-foot diameter tower behemoth, the fascination is the same. Quality. Precision. Craftsmanship. Balance. Rhythm.
No matter the size or shape of the housing, within the clockworks the amorphous concept of Time is made manifest; yet it becomes almost superfluous. Perhaps it is this dichotomy that has enticed no less a personage than the Dalai Lama to immerse himself in watch craft; the timelessness of a timepiece. “It’s very peaceful to be working on the intricacies of a watch,” observes Wayne Arcuri. “It’s a microcosm.”
And to these collectors, it’s a world unto itself.