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James Moss Horological Conservator, Inc.


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What is the difference between Repairing and Restoration and Conservation?

The short answer is this:

The prime objective of antique clock repairing is to get the clock running long enough so that it will get past the warranty period, take the least amount of labor, and reap the largest amount of profit.

The process is similar to replacing a flat tire on an automobile: it is usually just enough effort to get the clock (or automobile) back in running condition again without expending any extra effort or work. It can involve shortcut methods such as “adding oil” that are sometimes effective but may not correspond to time honored techniques used by most trained horologists or it can involve methods that can harm the clock over time as a result of excessive wear or corrosion.

Usually one of two basic approaches is used by the clockmaker to repair an antique clock: new oil is added to the old oil and some simple adjustments are made or the mechanism is cleaned of dirt and grime and coagulated lubrication and new lubrication is added. Sometimes some additional work is done such as polishing the worn areas of the various parts so that they slide easily or replacing some of the more severely worn bearings. Very little effort is made other than to just get the clock to run past the guarantee period. Checking to make sure that the gearing is engaging properly to allow efficient transfer of power from one gear to the next and to reduce wear is seldom checked or remedied nor is the proper set-up of the escapement addressed to allow for efficient power transfer to the time regulating mechanism (sometimes called a pendulum).

The prime objective of restoring is not only get the clock running long enough so that it will get well past the warranty period, it is usually an attempt to visually replicate what the restorer imagines the clock looked like when it was first made. As most restorers were not present or alive when the clock was made, they really have no concrete knowledge what it looked like originally! The best that any restorer can do is to draw on what little historical information is available to them and there isn’t that much available and then use their imagination!

The restoration process could encompass physical repairs to the casing, dial, mechanism, or other decorative items and the removal of their coatings using non-traditional methods that may prove difficult to redo in the future should such a need arise or the methods may actually damage the clock during the process of removal or replacement. Restoration of missing or damaged components usually does not include documentation of the repair other than a casual note on the invoice if one is lucky nor does it require identification of the replacement component and the identification of the material used for the replication or any chemicals used during the process of restoration. Skilled restorers can make an object appear to be far older than its true age and this skill can be used in forgeries and for hiding repairs to valuable pieces so that their value will not be affected. Many years later after the restoration, it will be most difficult to determine what part of the clock is truly original and what part is not and this could affect the intrinsic value of the object.  At the same time, replication of parts in in-expensive clocks can be done without respect for the object and a serious loss of historical information will occur. Even in-expensive clocks can become rare under the right circumstances……… Return of the original parts is seldom done.

Sometimes restoration involves stripping the old finish from the case or removing the plating or painting from the dial and re-applying another finish either of traditional origin such as shellac, lacquer, varnish, oil, or of a newer origin such as polyurethane. Or, it could include polishing the metal components and re-coating them to prevent tarnish. In most cases, the restorer is more concerned with the visual impact of their restoration than with the long-term effects of their treatments.

Unlike the “painting” world where a great amount in known about a specific painter including their living habits and love life, there is very little known information about the makers of clocks and watches and even less about the products that they made. This lack of information is a result of the “Guilds” and the fact that clock and watch making is perceived as a solitary craft.

The making of a clock or watch involves many people with skills in many different crafts. Usually one individual does not make a clock or watch completely from “scratch”: it is usually a “community” endeavor; a “community “ that can consist of various tradesmen such as plate makers and wheel makers and pinion makers and escapement makers and case makers and dial makers. The clockmaker of yesteryear was a kit builder: a person who combined all of the above components into a mechanism that was able to keep time.

The prime objective of Conservation is to preserve the object for future generations: a Conservator cannot compromise the integrity of the objects that they treat. This means that the object cannot be changed in any manner, not even for the convenience or at the request of the owner: the object must remain in its present condition unless a good and sufficient argument can be made to others in the Conservation profession that there is sufficient reason for change. An example of a legitimate argument for change would be “arresting deterioration” (called stabilization): an illegitimate argument would be “ I don’t like the way it looks, let’s remove the coating and change the color to match the décor ”. Fashions and views change from generation to generation: it is important to preserve to originality of historical objects so that a glimpse into the past can be retained. From a philosophical perspective, do we have the original  “George Washington’s axe” if the handle has been replaced twice and the axe head replaced three times after ol’ George passed away?

Conserving a grandfather clock or watch involves a bit of repair and restoration plus a lot of knowledge of the processes used as well as a keen awareness of the effects that these processes can have to an object over a long period of time. A conservator has to be concerned with preservation of an object and this involves chemical interactions during the treatment process as well as the ability to reverse the process at some point in the future should the need occur.

Conservation involves not only an attitude and deep respect for the object but also encompasses the awareness for the need of complete written and photographic documentation of all the processes and materials used as well as identification of the replicated components so that the next conservator and steward who are entrusted with the preservation of this object will be completely aware of what has been done to it in the past and will be able to devise an appropriate plan for the continued preservation of this object in the future. In addition, conservation requires the return of all original parts and components to the present steward of the clock. So too, the Conservator is required to research the object to be conserved as well as its maker to understand it more clearly, to try to understand the maker’s intent more clearly, and to understand the methods used to produce the object.

Conservation is like taking a photograph of an object “this instant” and maintaining it in that condition forever (with the caveat, of course, that its present condition is not harmful to the object).

So, the question you may be asking is:

Is Conservation the way I want my clock to be treated or should I just get it repaired and be done with it?    

Let me pose some Philosophical arguments and observations while you ponder the above question:

bulletEvery clock or watch has a finite number of objects produced be it one or one million. Over a period of time some percentage of this production number will be lost due to natural causes, fires, wars, carelessness, handling, moving, and a lack of appreciation for the object. If the object is a “one-of-a-kind” then the loss of that object will spell a major loss of horological history: if the production run is small (in the order of 10 to 20), then the loss of even one will have a major impact on the information that was available. Even those clocks and watches whose production run was in the millions can and have been affected by losses and if the current trend of “Ho-Hum” continues, major non-recoverable losses will occur during the next 500 years.
bulletAfter viewing a major museum collection of very early clocks dating from the early 14th century, I found that not one of them was original! The outside cases were relatively preserved but the clock movements had been so badly tampered with that very little historical information remained. After only 500 years, we have lost a major amount of historical horological information! The field of Conservation was not in place during those 500 years but it is now and there is no need to continue the history of ever increasing loss of historical information.
bulletThe majority of very historical and valuable clocks and watches still reside in private hands: NOT IN INSTITUTIONAL COLLECTIONS! It is obvious that each one of us participate in the preservation of all historical objects.
bulletIt may be reasonable to start preserving new clocks and watches now rather than wait until unscrupulous work people have irrevocably damaged them?
bulletSince your clock was made, governments have changed and economies have risen and fallen. The monetary value of your clock has, in many cases, fluctuated wildly YET; the intrinsic value of the clock has not lost anything but most likely has gained. Chances are that the casing and the mechanism have not changed significantly whereas the amount of money that people are willing to pay for your clock has. The Cost to preserve your clock or watch has nothing to do with what the public perceives as “value” therefore basing your decision using a comparison between the cost to preserve and the “value” may not be valid.
bulletNot one new client of mine has been able to confidently tell me in detail what has been done to their clock in the past: “It was cleaned” is not sufficient detail!
bulletThink about George Washington’s axe!
bulletThe next time you visit a museum, ask yourself what it is that you are looking at. Are the objects displayed in original condition or are they a shadow of their former selves?
bulletIf you run your clock, then you are causing it to wear and you are incurring a maintenance cost. If you add up all of the maintenance costs over the years, then, most likely, you will have exceeded the “value” of your clock already so you will not make a “profit” if you sell the clock. A conservation treatment will minimize wear while treating the object with the respect that it deserves.
bulletIf you have inherited the clock and haven’t done anything to it, then you are at the pinnacle of profitability!
bulletClocks and watches do not run forever without some type of maintenance! Try driving your car for 100,000 miles without maintaining it! No tires, no plugs, no grease, no oil, no new wipers etc. This is what many people try to do with a clock but one of the differences is that a clock runs 24 hrs a day for 365 days a year for 7 to 10 years without any maintenance!
bulletMost clocks and watches are over-powered so they tend to run far longer than they should between maintenances. Because they are over-powered, repair people can get them to run by loosening up the old dried and coagulated oils and greases by simply adding more lubricant: this is abuse of the highest order. Remember that at the point where your clock or watch becomes unreliable, it has already worn significantly and that wear needs to be compensated for before the clock is asked to work again.
bulletConsider this thought: in the grand scheme of things, you do not "own" the clock or watch: society as a whole does. Even if you "purchased" this object with an equivalent of "cash", it does not give you the right to damage or destroy or treat this object inappropriately. The very fact that you have this object in your possession puts you in the position, by proxy, of being its caretaker or steward. This means that you have a responsibility to the rest of society to care for and maintain this object so that it can be passed safely and without damage nor change to the next steward.
bulletWhen you get to be as old as your clock, you will expect to be respected by your Doctors and other attendants.

A Final Suggestion:

If you feel that you cannot pursue a true Conservation Treatment to your clock or watch and you want to preserve it for the future, then let me suggest that you have nothing done to it as a short term measure BUT instead do the following…..

bullet Do not run the clock or watch: keeping it running will only damage it.
bullet Keep it out of the sun or fluorescent light to protect it from UV damage.
bullet Keep it in an area whose temperature and Relative Humidity are relatively  stable: a temperature range between 65F to 72F and a Relative Humidity range between 45 to 50%.
bullet Display it for all to admire and tell stories of its history OR pack it carefully (check with your local conservator for safe methods) and make sure to label the box so that it will not get thrown out by mistake.
bullet Make sure that the next steward knows that they are the next steward AND train this future steward on the proper methods for caring for this object.

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