For clock expert, solving tiny puzzles makes time fly

  • By Andrea Brown, Herald Writer
  • Wednesday, February 19, 2014 3:41pm
  • Life

Christopher Beamish is a horologist.

And, yes, his wife approves.

In fact, she’s the one who got him started in horology, the art and science of timepieces.

Beamish, 65, ticks away the hours tinkering with tiny wheels, gears and springs. To him, clocks and watches are more than objects to tell time.

“Look at these guys,” he says of an array of antique pocket watches, finding character in each of the shiny, round faces. “This guy is what you call a fancy face.”

It’s more than just a pretty face.

“A quartz watch has no soul. These have a soul. These were made by somebody and taken care of by people,” he said. “It’s like collecting artwork. It’s technical artwork.”

His mission is to preserve history and keep the hands of time running.

“It’s not the time that’s important. I can get the time anywhere,” he said. “It’s the device that was made by human beings and the engineering that went into it and the artwork that was applied to the movement of the faces.”

Sure, a lot of people treat watches like a piece of jewelry these days. That’s OK. He does, too.

“I might wind up looking at my phone to get the time,” he said.

Beamish has always liked sporting a nice watch. It made a perfect gift for his wife to get him for holidays. The collection led to a hobby.

“When you collect watches you sort of fall into this anyway,” Beamish said. “If you constantly sent them out, it would get expensive.”

It’s akin to surgery. These timepieces have intricate innards.

“There are typically several hundred parts,” Beamish said. “You have to know how to take one apart with all the gears and all the springs and everything else and make it run and operate as it should be.”

About 10 years ago, he considered going to a horology school. However, he was basically told: “We’ve got to spend the money on students who have a long enough work history to take up the slack of people leaving. The old guys who are doing this are dying off.’ “

No problem. He found the hands-on training he wanted.

“I was quasi-apprenticed by a bunch of old guys,” Beamish said. “I used to take my watches in to them for repair. One basically whacked me in the back of the head one day and said, ‘Boy, I am going to die soon and you aren’t going to have anybody to fix your watches.’ You are going to have to learn how to do this. I expect you to be on the bench at least a half a day a week.’ He would require me to sit down and work with him.”

A kinship exists among those who share this time-honored passion. The local chapter of National Association of Watch &Clock Collectors has monthly meetings at the Edmonds Senior Center. Go into any clock shop — there are still a few around — and find an instant bond.

Fred Kiesel, owner of Country Clock Shop in Everett, said fewer people are getting into the profession, but it’s still needed.

Many clocks brought in for repair are at least 100 years old.

“Most of the clocks have a sentimental attachment,” he said.

Kiesel is self-taught. He started as a Navy computer specialist in 1986.

“I needed something to take my mind off work,” he said. “What attracted me was that it is like a puzzle. It is problem-solving.”

He also takes care of the tower clock in the downtown Everett courthouse.

Beamish doesn’t aspire to climb bell towers. Recently retired, he’s happy not to have to punch a time card. Beamish, who spent years working in management, finds watch repair to be refreshing.

“Doing something of a technical nature tends to be very clear,” he said. “It has a beginning, a middle and an end. It’s nice and linear and fairly black-and-white and tends to be a nice relief from dealing with all of the joys of human problems and business interactions.”

Beamish spends a few nights a week in his Snohomish County workshop surrounded by timepieces big and small, emitting faint purrs or clamors every hour.

Even so, Beamish manages to lose track of time.

“I can come down here at 5 or 6 in the evening and I’ll look up and it’s 11 p.m.,” he said.

Maybe time isn’t of the essence, after all.

“You learn patience,” he said, “or you give it up.”

Learn more

The National Association of Watch &Clock Collectors Inc. is a nonprofit scientific organization that is an educational, cultural, and social resource for its membership and the public at large.

Membership includes admission to National Watch &Clock Museum in Columbia, Penn., the Western Hemisphere’s largest museum devoted to timepieces and timekeeping.

For more information, go to www.nawcc.org.

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