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Clocks are for All Times
by Dr. Oneida Cramer

The approaching millennium has inspired sales of clocks to commemorate the occasion, according to co-owner of Heritage House Clocks, Ltd., Glenda Marchesoni.

People are buying clocks for their children, not just as Christmas gifts, but for New Years. For instance, table clocks, at more than $1000, have sold as gifts for children--a one year old infant, a two year old toddler, and four year old twins. And buyers are adding commemorative plates with phrases like "our love spans two centuries," and "buy one clock this millennium and make it one you love for thousands of years."

"People are emotionally involved in their clocks," says Marchesoni. They're not just inanimate objects. Clocks chime; you wind them. Clock owners tend to keep their clocks inside the family, passing them down from generation to generation. Consequently, antique clocks have become hard to find, and most do not function when purchased, but require service to start running, says Stephen Newsom, co-partners of Homestead Clocks, where repairing antique clocks constitutes half their business. On the other hand, retailers tend to concentrate their stocks on new clocks and reproductions. This year, Promenade is carrying several lines of millennium clocks.

Just about one millennium ago, between 960 and 1360, the first mechanical timepieces were invented, according to Martha Tips in her authoritative book, Tips On Identifying and Appraising Clocks. The 11th century, monastery clocks lacked faces and only sounded out on the hours. In 1286, the first cathedral clock went up. Galileo experimented with pendulums in 1581, three quarters of a century before Christian Huygens patented the pendulum in 1657. Then one year later came the portable spring powered pendulum clocks (bracket clocks), which could be carried from room to room because even kings couldn't afford a clock in every room. The minute hand didn't appear on a clock's face until 1690, and the second hand was added in 1780.

For the past two hundred years, the technology inside mechanical clocks has not changed much, according to Newsom. Principal elements include several interlocking gear wheels driven by a variety of mechanisms such as a swinging weight pendulum and wind up mainsprings. With regular maintenance, i.e., lubrication every three years and cleaning every ten years, mechanical clocks can last almost indefinitely. Costs for lubricating a grandfather clock are around $80 to $100; cleaning varies between $300 and $600 depending on the type of mechanisms.

In 1928 at Bell Telephone Laboratories, W.A. Marrison discovered that AC current caused quartz to vibrate with a constant frequency, a finding that led to a new era of timepieces. Today, a quartz crystal lasts about two years before needing replacement at a cost of about $38 depending on complexity, says Newsom.

Millennium grandfather clocks at $1000, and desk clocks have been selling at Promenade, according to owner James Lee although his most expensive mahogany grandfather clocks at $8500 have yet to sell. Specialty items tend to go once manufacturing stops, says Lee. So, he anticipates a boom after the New Year when the stock depletes and buyers purchase for collectors' items.

Clock collecting has a devoted following. When David Tips bought his first clock in 1968, he didn't know how to wind one. Today, he's a passionate horologist buying, restoring, and selling clocks. Tips is the only Star Fellow from Texas in the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors (NAWCC), which has awarded the title to just 50 of its 38,000 world membership. Tips' wife, Martha, is also an ardent horologist and certified clock appraiser. She lectures about clocks and has produced several books, which can be obtained through the NAWCC, 514 Poplar St., Columbia, PA 15215 (717) 684-8261).

"Buy what you like," advises David Tips. Then, the clock's value doesn't matter when you like the clock. If you really want to get into clock collecting, you need to find books on the subject and learn what to look for in a good clock.

"When you know what's good, the good clocks will come to you," says Tips. If you're uninformed, you tend to pass over the premium clocks, thinking the clock too expensive when it's really dirt cheap for what it's worth.

"Don't buy cheap clocks trying to make an investment," is Tips' second piece of advice. "Save up and buy one good clock."

Larger antique shops are sources for clocks. Auctions, such as Clements and Garretts, are very good sources, according to Tips. And a knowledgeable bidder is likely to avoid a high dollar clock that's not good.

"It's not a matter of how much you pay," said Tips. "It's what that clock is." For instance, an original clock and its reproduction may both be high dollar items. But a savvy buyer can distinguish the two and know when the purchase of a reproduction is a good investment. All in all, new clocks and reproductions, along with the antiques, can add up to an excellent collection.

Collectors often fall into two schools of thought; the American purists and the European importers. Tips leans towards ornate imports, but he also likes American clocks, clocks from the orient, and new clocks.

Fabulous clocks come from Ireland, says Marchesoni, who sells clocks from Belgium, France, Italy, Great Britain, Ireland, and Germany. The cuckoo clock originated in Germany in the 1700's because of the superstition that a bird in the house brought good luck, and the cuckoo clock sounded much like a real bird.

Inspiration for today's moonphase sea clocks can be traced back to when the British government offered an award to the first person who could create a timepiece to measure longitude at sea, where only the moon and stars were guides. John Harrison (1693-1776) dedicated his life to making four chronometers, now at the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich, and won the award.

-by Dr. Oneida Cramer
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