Rewinding the gift of an heirloom timepiece
By Kevin Lewis » Photos by John Patota
Graduations and Father’s Day bring about special gifts among family members, from a gold ring with a family crest to a watch once worn by a beloved grandfather. Old jewelry, pocket watches, clocks and other such sentimental items are passed on when a special family member dies, the jewelry itself frequently remade into a more current design. The watches and clocks, however, may remain with the heirs but are often tossed into desks or dressers and safety deposit boxes, especially if they are cumbersome pocket watches. Sometimes grandparents pass the watches on to grandchildren, where they are again stored away. Many just stop functioning because they are not rewound, or the pivots and bushings deteriorate. As vintage clothing and jewelry continue to trend, it’s time to resurrect some life into these old timepieces.
Watch or clock repairers are getting more difficult to find. It can be expensive because parts cannot be found or must be remade. North Carolina has by estimate only about five master watch and clock repairers. The Sandhills has at least two who serve the area, and they both share a father/son lineage.
With over 40 years in the business, Otto’s Watch and Clock Repair is perhaps the oldest. The shop of Edgar “Otto” Gibbons, Jr is in Balous Jewelers in Sanford where many Moore County residents make pilgrimages to him, hoping that he can make their family heritage go like clockwork. “Ninety percent of my business is sentiment,” he says. His pleasure is making these memories beat again. A memorable job was rejuvenating the desk clock with eight chimes that resided on the White House desk of President Abraham Lincoln. The heir brought in the clock with documentation. Otto cleaned the clock, replaced deteriorated parts, and the clock chimed again. Both Gibbons and the heir looked at each other and beamed because they realized they were listening to the same chimes that Lincoln heard every day some 165 years earlier. How momentous!
Clocks defined economic civilization in Europe. The man who owned a clock, Gibbons explains, was often the most important person in the city. The original clocks only advanced by the hour. It was the advances in mechanism construction in clocks and then watches that could record minutes and then seconds that eventually led to the development of computers. Gibbons notes that it was the railroads in the 19th century that advanced the crucial need for exact time. Railroad watches are highly collectible because they were the most precise watches for their time. They had to be by government regulation. A historic train crash occurred because two watches along the railroad line were 10 minutes apart in time, because of a fast or slow mechanism, confusing the track signaling device. The exact time mattered.
Gibbons is often frank with his customers. If they are going to put the watch back in storage, he suggests they save their money. He wants these watches to be used and appreciated. He will educate the heirs in their maintenance, including proper watch rewinding. Often pivots and bushings must be replaced, which will only deteriorate again in dormant state. Gibbons, who is now 58, started rewinding watches and clocks for his father, Edgar Sr., when he was six years old. “My father was a dealer and service center for Timex and many other watch manufacturers. In 1969, Timex was a mass-produced watch and accounted for one in every three watches sold in the United States, and being an inexpensive watch, he wasn’t convinced that people would have them repaired, so he decided to add clock repair to the business, thinking that if watch repair slowed down, he would be able to make it up in clock repair.” Gibbons Sr. repaired timepieces from 1953 to 2005. He was a true artisan, who imparted that passion for excellence to his son.
Business is brisk. Gibbons estimates that he accepts an average of 70 watches a week and 30 clocks a month, which includes quartz watches as well as Swiss mechanism. “I accept everything but Korean watches,” he laughs.
He can fix clocks and watches faster than many in his trade because of his long experience. He prides himself on making his repairs affordable because he genuinely wants a timepiece to be doing what it was meant to be: tell time. But the work is rarely easy. Some of the timepieces brought to him date from the 1600s or earlier and he must make parts from scratch after extensive research of drawings from antique trade books. Hundreds of tools are lined up in front of this work desk. Optical machines magnify tiny parts. A woman’s watch about a half inch square from the Art Deco 1930s is placed in the palm of my hand, so small and thin I can barely grasp it with my fingers. How one places the parts in the back of that tiny watch with surgeon precision boggles the mind.
A yellow pre-Bakelite bedside Chippendale-style clock from around 1910 catches the eye, one that might be on the set of a Golden Age movie. Gibbons is restoring it back to its glamour days. One wants to live in this shop of beautifully designed carved wood wall clocks, mantle clocks and Grandfather’s clocks.
In downtown Southern Pines, Jonathan Coté of Coté Timeworks, has a steady customer base of an estimated 15,000 for his dual watch and clock repair business plus his retail watch and clock business which opened in 2013. Coté is from New Hampshire and moved here with his wife to be near her parents. Some of his new watches, like Ball, and his fairy tale style children’s wall clocks may become tomorrow’s heirlooms.
Coté, who repairs watches and employs a master watchmaker Jacques LeJeune, has a passion for antique watches and clocks. A glance around his store reveals many wall and mantle clock work orders. “I want to educate the public about taking care of their watches.” Like Gibbons, he believes watches that are repaired should be used and regularly wound. He, too, learned his trade from his talented father, Larry, in New Hampshire.
Women bring vintage watches to Coté often to be reset into necklaces. And they don’t necessarily want grandma’s delicate watch. They often repurpose a father’s heirloom watch. Coté notes that in the Sandhills, “The horsewomen want the large men’s watches.”
So, watches have a different perception among people than other antiques. There is a renewed love of timepieces because they serve a function in a person’s life. Yet there is a shortage of skilled watch and clock repairers, mainly because of the precision and concentration involved, and not surprisingly, the need for just plain excellent eyesight. “My business has quadrupled,” Gibbons states. Coté agrees, but notes that new watches also have popularity and a following.
Brad Stockham of Carolina Gold and Coins, which has shops in Sanford and Aberdeen, brings watches that need to be repaired or cleaned to Gibbons. A dealer in gold watches and coins, he also is a pawnbroker with a heart. Oftentimes, an heir must pawn a beloved watch. I asked him if that becomes the final break in the family line. No, he says. “Most of the time people redeem them.” He is patient with people if he realizes the family sentiment.
So, time may march on but the memory lingers on. As graduations, wedding season and Father’s Day commence, the family heirloom watch may be just the gift for emotional support and reverie.