Clock collecting and owning antique mechanical clocks is a fantastic interest worth your time and money, but there’s a few essential things you need to know. Considering, learning and applying these suggestions should help skyrocket your horology experience.
When I first began buying clocks it was all about accumulating rather than about thoughtful collecting. I felt savvy snatching up clocks at the best price I could negotiate, but I knew very little about what I was buying and how to care for them. As a result, I made some really bad buys and I damaged a few good clocks due to my ignorance and some avoidable mishandling.
I’ve learned the hard way…by making many mistakes.
Indeed, ignorance can be destructive. At the time, I just didn’t know where to look and who to ask for help. I was driven more by enthusiasm then by solid knowledge. The challenge always was to find clear novice friendly information to guide me through the basics.
I read through many books and web articles, and watched several videos. They helped some, but it was not what I needed as a beginner. Trial and error turned out to be the best teacher – at the time.
Now that I think back, the major “I wish I knew” was: “what do I need to know as a new clock collector?”
I decided to send out a one question survey to a sampling of about 20 horology experts I found through google searches; shop owners, educators, appraisers, and expert collectors.
I asked them one simple question:
What is the most important thing a person must know about owning a mechanical clock?
I was surprised by the engaging and thoughtful responses.
The most important thing I learned was this:
The responses I received reinforced a few common themes. Some offered very unique advice. And, others provided very surprising, but good considerations.
At the end of this post I provide the contact information of the survey respondents, in case you would like to learn more about them and their services. From this experience, I’m certain each one would be very eager to help you with your needs.
In no priority or order, this is what I found out:
1. Understand your motivation for collecting clocks. Personal expectation management is critical in any endeavor. It’s vitally important for collecting, restoring and preserving mechanical clocks. Many new collectors have unrealistic, misinformed or misaligned expectations, which can lead them to bad experiences and soured feelings about clocks.
…before buying a clock, learn about the quality of the clock and what its expected accuracy is. (a weight driven clock keeps much better time than a spring driven clock for example). Steve Kelly, Fredericksburg Clock Shop (USA)
Ask yourself: What is/are the reason(s) you own a mechanical clock?
- To tell time. Mechanical clocks can be very good timepieces. But know that they cannot match the accuracy, price and endurance of a modern quartz or digital clock. There are a variety of factors that will determine their accuracy, like: quality of the mechanism, type and material construction of the pendulum, and power design (weights vs spring). For example, true and well maintained “regulator” clocks can be accurate within seconds each month. Yet, many other types of clocks will struggle to keep accurate time each day. In general, you should expect your clock to keep good time, within a few minutes each week. Don’t expect atomic clock accuracy.
- As a decoration. From the most pompous French clock to the simplest Mission style clock, an antique, vintage or modern mechanical clock can fit into any setting or even make a great centerpiece. But know that a functioning clock is not just a decoration, it’s also a mechanical devise that requires constant attention. You can’t just hang it on the wall. A well maintained and fully functioning clock will always make a better decoration and conversation piece.
- As a Collector or Investor. There are collectors and investors on opposite ends of a spectrum. Most of us are somewhere in the middle – we intend to keep the ones we really like and may sell others off for profit. Knowing where you sit will help you make buying decisions. Collectors will pay what it takes to acquire the clock they want – for the love of their passion. Investors want to pay the least necessary – to maximize the profit potential.
- For personal enjoyment. As a hobby, clock collecting and horology is a fabulous way to explore history, culture, and learn craftsmanship. It’s even more exciting to learn about your clock and share that treasure with family, friends and other clock enthusiasts. But know that it’s not a fast paced activity. It requires care and patience. You’ll need to take your time. Also know that good clockmakers need time (weeks and months) to properly service or repair a clock, to do it right.
- To add life to your home or office. Clocks add life, in many ways, to a static environment. The tick tock sound can be relaxing. The hour strike can provide welcomed reminders of the passing of the day. And my favorite, the hourly (or quarterly) melodies add color and vibrance to any surrounding. But know that clock sounds can also be uninviting, especially at night. There are ways to deal with this and preserve the benefits clocks provide you. Read post #002 on “Noisy Clocks” to give you some ideas on how to deal with clock noise.
A Home without a Ticking Clock is just Dead. The Ticking Sound creates a mood of serenity, A firmness of stability, and Smiles on the faces of the young on Winding day. Jeff Champion, Champ’s Clock Shop (USA)
- As memories of the past. Clocks have a powerful way of keeping us connected to our warm and enduring memories of family and friends. They are extremely popular as family heirlooms. You may want to purchase a clock to pass on to your children. But know that you need to invest the time to teach them about their significance and value as a family memory. You need to plant the seeds of legacy with your family.
If you do not have the joy or privilege of inheriting another’s clock, at the least, you can develop memories and a connection with a new one that can be passed down to the next generation and one day when that person hears the clock chime they will think of you! Michael Gainey, Master Clock Repair (USA)
- As a symbol of stability. I have to admit, I added this last one because it resonates loudly with my family. As a military family, our clocks give us a sense of stability in the midst of the uncertainty of military life. Our frequent moves and family separation is tough for us. Seeing and hearing our dear grandfather clock provides us a sense of stability. We cherish this!
2. Learn About Your Clock. To heighten your horological experience to the next level (after understanding your motivations) you should learn as much as you can about its historical, cultural, social and industrial significance. Knowing something about your clock will help you appreciate it more and increase the value you place on it.
…the owner of a mechanical clock should be aware that he owns something that embodies a wide array of cultural, social and industrial interest and that this inheritance should not be wasted. Carel Hofland, Dutch Clock and Watch Museum (The Netherlands)
- Historical, Cultural and Social. Across history, clockmakers have almost always woven their respective culture into their creations. Its design, decorative attributes, science and material construction normally clearly point to culture (place of origin) and period (time in history). Knowing the historical and cultural significance of a clock will help you understand the design and function of your clock. Within the essence and history of each clock, you can also learn about its social significance. The social tiers – such as rich/poor, or community/family/individual – each utilized different types of clocks at different periods in history. For example, the advent of cheaper mass produced clocks in the early 19th century created a flood of many types of clocks due to their affordability and accessibility by more people. Knowing the social significance of a clock will also help you understand the construction and value of your clock.
- Science and Industry. Clocks are more than just a product of craft, but are also a product of science and industry. From the line of Galileo, through Christiaan Huygens, and through present day clockmakers, horology is a practical application of science. On the industrial front, in 1814, Eli Terry created one of the first instances of a mass production industry (clocks). Know that the mechanics, design and art in your clock represent a long line of scientific and industrial achievement.
3. Learn the Basics. On the practical side, you should know the basics of clock ownership, otherwise be willing to pay someone else to do it. To keep your clock happy, functioning, and preserved, there are a few front-line things you can very easily learn to do yourself and avoid costly visits to your local clockmaker. Know that these are easy things to learn.
- Winding. Sounds pretty rudimentary and intuitive? But, many new clock owners don’t know or are overly cautious when it comes to adding power to their clocks. It’s a simple matter, so don’t be afraid of winding your clock. Know that some clocks require daily winding, and others require it at least once each week. Include the winding of your clock in your routine. You can find more information on winding from various sites, but the best one I’ve seen can be found at the Tick Tock Tony Antique Clocks Website.
- Handling and Moving. Most of the damage I’ve caused on my clocks was directly related with how I handled or moved them. Recently, I broke the pendulum crutch on a French Portico clock due to careless handling. You bet I was mad! Know that it’s best to minimize handling or moving them when they are functioning properly (except those designed to be portable). If they have to be handled or moved, be cautious and protect their most delicate parts.
- Regulating. Know that a clock needs to be regulated when it’s not keeping proper time (running slow or fast). “Regulating” a clock refers to adjustments made to the pendulum to effect the speed of the movement. Know that there are many factors that contribute to your clocks speed: pendulum length, weight, material construction, temperature changes, and its hanging/sitting position. You can find more information about regulating a clock at Bowers Clock and Watch Repair website.
- Setting the Beat. A clock is in “beat” when the escapement oscillates (back-and-forth) at even intervals. A clock that is in beat will produce a smooth and evenly spaced tick tock sound. A clock must be in beat to function properly, otherwise it may stop or run incorrectly. Know that clocks can very easily get out of beat by handling or moving them, from existing damage, due to dirty mechanisms, from temperature changes, or from bad orientation. Depending on the type of clock, getting it back into beat can be an easy matter or may require expert help. Know that if a clock is not in clean working order, it may require servicing by your local clock shop before you try getting into beat. You can find more information on setting the beat from this tutorial at the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors website.
4. Handle it Gently. This was the most common suggestion. Many respondents noted that careless handling of a clock was a significant reason for damage and problems. The two most important considerations mentioned were:
- Don’t move the clock if it’s working properly. Most clocks aren’t designed to be portable and will last generations if maintained and left to run in one good location.
- If you have to move the clock, remove the pendulum and weights (if any), and ensure any loose parts (like hammers) are secured.
5. Care for it. The second most common suggestion I received was to care for your clock. Many of the clock experts explained that much of the repair work done is related to improper handling and neglect. Neglected clocks can run for years. But know that clocks should be serviced every few years to avoid problems. Most experts suggested that a good interval is about every 3-5 years. To care for your clock properly you should: keep it clean and keep the oil from drying up in the mechanism. A dirty clock and a dry mechanism leads to problems.
…clock owners should know that you can’t leave any mechanical device running 24 hours a day and never service it. Darryn Clark, Timemenders (South Africa)
6. Learn How to Value Your Clock. Every clock owner wants to know what their clock is worth! Perhaps this is the most common question in all of antique collecting. Valuing a clock’s selling worth is extremely hard to do, is almost always inaccurate, and entirely at the mercy of an unpredictable market. Know that the value you place on your clock may not line up with what the experts say and what other collectors are willing to pay. If you have a clock you plan on keeping, the value you place on it is all that matters.
Personal value tends to be personally subjective, an appraised value tends to be based on expert assessment of condition and collectibility tempered by market trends, and actual selling price is always a wildcard dependent on what collectors are willing to pay.
The value of each horological item is determined by the maker, date of manufacture, complications in the movement, style, material of the case, originality of all the components, availability or rarity, and the present condition. Smiekel Patrick, Timely Investments (USA)
These are several considerations when assessing the value of your clock, or a future purchase:
- What condition is it in? Clocks in “textbook” condition are worth more than those requiring much attention – regardless of how collectable the type of clock it is.
- Does it have all the original parts? If it does not have all its original parts, its value decreases significantly.
- What type (or style) of clock is it? For example, ornate antique French clocks are more collectable than mass produced American Kitchen clocks.
- What type of mechanism does it have? The complexity and construction of a mechanism is a significant consideration. For example, a clock with time, strike and melody (three “trains”) is normally valued more than one with just a time train (some refer to a single train clock as a “timepiece” and not a “clock”). Also, clocks that have to be wound daily are less desirable than eight-day clocks.
- Is the clock labeled, stamped or marked with the name or trademark of its maker? Clocks that have identifications on the face, mechanism or case are more desirable than those that do not. Unmarked clocks are hard to value because you are left to guess about its period, origin, and maker.
- Is it from the correct Period or is it a Reproduction? For example, an original early 19th century Simon Willard Banjo clock is valued much higher than an early 20th century reproduction of the same style.
- Is it Collectable? This is a wildcard that is almost entirely dependent on supply and demand. For example, there are so many American Kitchen “Gingerbread” Clocks out in the market that their retail value is very low in comparison to a rare one-of-a-kind marked English Bracket clock from the same period. Certainly, rare clocks are highly collectable. They can be rare because few exist. They can also be rare, although many may exist, but owners do not want to sell them.
7. Treat Antique Clocks as Artifacts. Many antique clocks are rare or carry much historical significance. See yourself as preserving articles of history, culture, science and industry. They may also be an article of your family heritage and legacy. Having this mindset will also help trigger careful handling and patience when working with them. You should also expect clockmakers and clock shops to treat your clock in the same way. Most do. For this reason, a good clockmaker will also require time to care for your clock during servicing and repair work. Don’t rush your clockmaker!
Mechanical clocks are an important part of our industrial history and are actually artifacts of an earlier time and should be treated as irreplaceable bits of history. Tom Tempe, Extreme Restoration (USA)
8. Enjoy and Gain Experience with Clocks. Finally, the best way to learn about clock collecting and ownership is through experience. You need to get out there and expose yourself to the world of clocks:
The best way to gain expereince is to see and pay attention to as many clocks as you can. In time, you will be able to develop an eye for consistency. This way you can more easily recognize a replaced part, modification and improper repair. John Tope, Tick Tock Productions (USA)
- Explore the antique stores and markets. You’re not necessarily looking for a buy, but to discover and learn something new, and gain a sense of how the proprietor values their product. A great book to prep you for your “clock-sploration” is “Extreme Restoration,” by Tom Temple. The first few chapters provides a brief, but well done, survey of key considerations when shopping for or exploring clocks.
- Visit your local clock shop. Create a relationship with your nearest clockmaker. They’ll become your best resource for advise and help. Support their business with servicing and repair work. They can also help you with finding parts and with do-it-yourself projects.
- Buy project clocks. Don’t just look for and buy pristine clocks. Buy clocks to restore and to learn how to repair. Before you work on a valuable clock, start with inexpensive ones.
- Take them apart. Learn about how a mechanism works by taking it apart. Don’t be scared about this. Before starting, always take pictures or make drawings to remind you of how the parts fit together. Buy one good book that provides a good reference with schematics of a mechanism. One I highly recommend is: “Practical Clock Repairing,” by Donald de Carle.
- Read books. Many books on clock repair are difficult to follow for a beginner. But there are several that you’ll find extremely helpful. Check the Resource page for a few suggestions.
- Visit a Web Site. There are many good sites to help you. You can start with the list provided at the end of this post.
- Join a horology organization. There are many horological organizations that provide a wealth of resources and support. Many countries have them. A few that I’m aware of are:
- Get involved with a local horology community. You are likely to find an active chapter of one of the horology organizations that meet close to your home.
- Attend conferences and workshops. Every year the horology organizations hold regional and national conferences and workshops. These events are treasures for learning, motivating and building your network with other clock enthusiasts. The best way to find out about these events is to subscribe or join one of the horology organizations.
- Buy videos. This one is a must, because most will never have the privilege of learning under the instruction of an experienced clockmaker. Next to learning through an apprenticeship, learning through a recording of a clockmaker is valuable. For example, watching some one demonstrate the proper way to let down a main spring may save you the pain of hurting yourself by doing it the wrong way. At the Resource page, you’ll find several suggestions.
- Participate in forums. There are a number of horology forums with topical discussions and opportunities for you to post questions. These are a few to try out:
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Good luck with your clockventure!
The Clock Experts.
- Darryn Clark, Timemenders (South Africa), timemenders.co.za
- John Tope, Tick Tock Productions (USA), www.ticktockpro.com
- Michael Gainey, Master Clock Repair (USA), www.masterclockrepair.com
- Smiekel Patrick, Timely Investments (USA), www.timelyinvestments.com
- Carel Hofland, Dutch Clock and Watch Museum (The Netherlands), mnuurwerk.nl
- Jeff Champion, Champ’s Clock Shop (USA), www.champsclock.com
- Tom Tempe, Extreme Restoration (USA), www.xrestore.com
- Steve Kelly, Fredericksburg Clock Shop (USA), thefredericksburgclockshop.com
- Timesavers (USA), timesavers.com