“Their pendulums swing out of sync, generating an arhythmic beat, while their chimes intermittently break this percussive ambience, leaving Greenwich Mean Time to wait outside.”
They are the timekeepers in our midst, the horologists who fix the fusees and keep the dial moving for us. Here they unwind some stories for us about their craft.
“It’s the same as anything else. It’s like a Maguire painting with its style, posture and colours. With clock cases and mechanisms, they have an origin and original feature. That is lost once you start tampering with them.”
The hour hands aren’t striking ten as Kevin Chellar raises the shutters to Timepiece Antique Clocks on Patrick Street. His longcases, brackets, regulators and marble mantle clocks all point at different minutes. Their pendulums swing out of sync, generating an arhythmic beat, while their chimes intermittently break this percussive ambience, leaving Greenwich Mean Time to wait outside.
Since 1986, Chellar has worked in the Iveagh Trust Building, restoring, repairing, sourcing and selling clocks, primarily Irish models from the 18th and 19th Centuries. At once, this place is a shop, so too is it a museum, a glimpse into where art, science and history intersect, displaying timepieces, some almost 300 years old, in what was once a district teeming with horologists.
“It was all in a two-mile radius,” he says. “You had people in Thomas Street, Meath Street, Temple Bar and across the river on Ormond Quay and Capel Street.”
The first clockmakers were in Ireland as early as 1611. By 1901, census records found there were 36 nationwide, with 20 of those in Dublin. Data between those years is unfortunately scarce, having been erased when, in 1922, the Public Records Office was destroyed during the Civil War. Although, what is visible is the decline. In Dublin, the number of clockmakers is a quarter of what it was 120 years ago, with Chellar one of just two still operating in the city centre.
Horology presented itself to him as an opportunity to rebel while growing up in Cabinteely. His father wanted him to become an engineer like himself, “but if he said the sky was blue, I said it was black.” So, he enrolled in the now-defunct Irish-Swiss Institute for Horology in Blanchardstown, and for a while, it seemed watchmaking would be his career-path. Clockmaking modules were kept to a minimum, he says, and “just to get your head right for watches.”
First years began by creating their own tools. “It was to get an understanding of knurling, hardening and tempering. You started with a file and block of wood, then a block of brass, and then steel.”
“They gave you a pocket watch, and put in it wheels that were reversed, so they didn’t work,” says Emily Nerney of Entime, a Swiss watch repairs company in Dublin and Portlaoise. “You had to find out what was stopping it, and you would go through all these minuscule alterations and fix them. It was the best watchmaking course outside Switzerland.”
After graduating, Chellar took work at a jeweller’s in Phibsborough. But quickly, he grew disillusioned with watchmaking as plastic became increasingly more prevalent in the manufacturing process. “The amount of repair needed was nil. Interior plates were plastic. You bolted on a coil, a rotor and a train of wheels and that was it.” Shifting over to clocks instead, he and a friend opened a workshop in the back of a Rathmines jeweller’s and “after about seven years we became autonomous.”
“It took seven years because there’s so much to learn. You need to experience the different mechanisms, the problems that arise in them, how to handle them. You need to learn about their histories, and the historical part continues now,” he says, explaining that in more recently, he has taken to writing on the subject of bracket clocks.
Bracket, or tabletop clocks are a rare commodity nowadays, and in the middle of his store, a dozen or more sit on show. Made from beech, brass, marble and glass, the oldest he dates to around 1725. These, he says, were items which represented great wealth, due to their featuring of a fusee, a pulley-like conical device built into spring-powered mechanical timepieces. Once a clock is wound up, the fusee is there to keep it ticking at a consistent rate as the spring gradually loses strength over the course of a week.
“That technology was expensive in 18th Century Ireland. We had people who could afford grandfather clocks, wealthy landowners. But among the Ascendancy, only some could afford the bracket clock.”
Generally, bracket clocks were placed on a table as to be seen from all angles, with the derriere needing to be as remarkable as the face. His go-to example is an English ebonised fruitwood model, built circa 1730. The front includes a silver chapter ring, while behind, its backplate has been decorated with an intricate pattern of leaves.
The opportunity to peer into a timepiece such as this is a rarity, even for the owner, but it is the kind of experience Chellar actively encourages. He recalls once selling a 19th Century French toleware – painted tin – clock, saying, “I did the mechanics, and it was like jewellery. I told the buyer, ‘Come in and see this, because the minute I put it inside, you’ll never see it again.’ And he saw the whole thing up close. I’m not sure if he understood, but it just had to be seen.”
Few twentieth century clocks impress Chellar in this way. Irish clocks from the preceding two hundred years invoke in him a certain patriotism. Napoleonic-era French clocks captivate him in how their steel and brass is “cut like a tailored suit.” But those standards seem to slip around the outbreak of World War One, he says.
As clockmaking declined during this period, watchmaking rose. The 1901 census found there were 365 watchmakers in Ireland, and on the world stage, a transition was being made from pocket to wristwatches as the latter became a vital tool on battlefields, beginning with the Second Boer War.
“We had in a military watch, an A. Lange and Sohn originally manufactured in the 1940s,” says Charlie Cullen of the Swiss Watch Club, a vintage and pre-owned watch service over Castle Market. “It had to be sent to a specialist as there was a part no longer available and it wasn’t possible to make it here.”
The restoration process took a full year, he continues, but the beauty in such a completion is the client’s realisation that an heirloom, dormant for decades, can spring back to life as if no time had passed. “You see the joy in people’s faces, like they have a new watch.”
A specialist who does minor repairs, Cullen was born in the ‘70s and wears a Rolex Submariner, chosen because it was originally sold on his date of birth. He took to the trade as a boy, being fascinated by his grandfather’s skeleton watch. After his family moved to London, he learned the trade during school holidays, working part-time at a jewellers, before later joining Watches of Switzerland, an official Rolex retailer.
Today, he and his wife Suzanne co-direct Cullen and Co. Jewellers, and it is on the first floor of their store where he talks while screwing open the bubbleback of a golden Rolex Oyster Perpetual, revealing several tiny initials and serial numbers inscribed within, the final of these signatures entered in sharpie.
“This is from the 1940s,” he says. “When it was made, it was a man’s watch, but it’s very small, 33 millimetres. Today this would be regarded as a lady’s.”
Like the bracket clock in the 18th Century, the Swiss watch today is a statement piece. “In the case of a Rolex, it’s a status watch,” Cullen says. “A client wants it to say, ‘I am successful.’” But rather than being an overt show of wealth, it serves more as a show of progress or upward mobility. “Most buyers are buying for a reason, an achievement, whether a promotion or a marriage.”
“We get people who, I suppose, covet a particular watch out of their reach financially,” he continues. “So, I recommend they buy a watch they can afford, and trade for something more expensive, maybe three or four times before they get what they really want. It’s a lovely story.”
Flawlessness, however, is not necessarily what is desired in a vintage watch. Nor is precision sought much either. These are dress-pieces, Cullen says. Clients often wear them on one wrist, while strapping digital devices to the other. “Vintage watches gain or lose anything from five to ten minutes a week,” says Emily Nerney. “The reason you’re interested in them is for the investment.”
A watch without patina is a watch lacking character. “You get an old dial, and a customer wants it repainted, but unless that’s necessary, I try not to encourage interference with vintage watches,” Nerney continues. “If you get a new dial or change the glass, the value drops considerably. Most people, they want a vintage watch because the dial has stained over the years, or the hands are faded. It’s the look of it.”
On the other side of horology then is Richard Lidwell, a clock and watchmaker situated out in Finglas. He calls himself a “general practitioner”, taking in whatever locals need mended, whether an Omega watch or a Lidl-bought cuckoo clock. The goings-on inside a watch or clock may fascinate him, but what enthrals him equally, if not more, are the personal stories behind the items.
“I did an old postman’s clock once,” he says. “A husband had left it in for his wife, and later, he came back to collect the clock. She came in and started to break down crying. She said, ‘this brings me back right to the time when I was a child. I hadn’t seen it going in so long.’”
Lidwell’s own workshop is next-door to his home. The interior is overwhelmed by the frantic cacophony of ticking, which bounces against each of the four walls, growing louder as he shuts the door. Unfazed by this, he places a black loupe between his cheek and brow to inspect a wristwatch, carefully picking out its tiny plates as to clean them in a beaker filled with a yellow liquid.
Every item, he describes gleefully, going from a torsion clock in a glass dome, more decorative than reliable, to each of the wall clocks which customers have forgotten to collect for several years already. But when he grabs a brown twin-bell analogue alarm clock, “the kind sold in Clery’s that you fire across the room every morning”, how he frames its value far exceeds the “two pounds, fifteen shillings” it probably cost.
“Watchmakers had to have a few of these to lend to people. It was for guards or postmen, people dependent on a clock. They’d come in with their own and ask you to fix it, but you wouldn’t have it done until Friday. What do you do? You give them this. It wouldn’t be great, but it’s for the people who really need them.”
Inevitably, this talk of dependence brings us to onto the fact that both trades are on the decline. As he turns the pages of an old annual report from the Irish-Swiss Institute, filled with class photos and snaps of professors in white lab coats, he notes that graduates were often employed at airports or headhunted by computer manufacturers.
“It’s a pity there isn’t someone to pass this on to and keep the trade going. People were prepared to go into apprenticeships and not get paid much, but you couldn’t live anymore as an apprentice in this job.”
Producing, then, from another shelf his “bible”, a tattered 1960s illustrated guide to watch movements the world over, the Bestfit #111 Encyclopaedia of Watch Material, more than anything else, this detailed volume reads now like the dictionary for a dying language.
“I remember I was up on Parnell Street, buying spare parts. All the watchmakers were there, and a man was in to get a strap on his watch. He stood about for ten minutes as the rest of us were saying; ‘I need a 184 for a UT 680’, ‘I’m looking for a 210 for an AS9 A4.’ ‘It’s a 705/1.’ Eventually he said, ‘You’ve all been speaking to one another in numbers for ten minutes and I don’t think I heard a word of English.’ You could actually get yourself across with a minimum of words.”
It is towards the end of his tour that Lidwell unveils a clock movement, dating back to 1860, faceless and caseless, but which he proudly says would go well in a museum. Comprised of several gears between two thick brass plates, this is the beating heart of any good timepiece, and within it is a fusee, that feature which horologists speak of with reverence.
And in many respects, the fusee is what the current batch of horologists are, a valuable component which keeps the seconds ticking steadily as the spring loses its power. The only hope is that, once the fusee has performed its duty, someone is around to wind the spring back up again.
Words: Michael Lanigan
Photos: Killian Broderick
Timepiece, 57-58 Patrick Street, Dublin 8. Open Tuesday to Friday, 10am-5pm and Saturday, 10am-3pm.
Richard Lidwell, 50 Jamestown Rd, Finglas North, Dublin, D11 X9T3. Ph: 01-834 5117
Swiss Watch Club, 7 Castle Market, Dublin 2. Open Tuesday to Saturday, 10am-5pm.