Just Like Clock Work

Master horologist John Metcalfe takes us inside his “hospital for clocks,” a precisely-tuned world where time never stops.

By | December 6, 2012

As a young boy growing up in London, John Metcalfe found an old clock in his grandmother’s woodshed. “I wouldn’t go as far as to say I repaired it,” Metcalfe told me during my first visit to his Beekman Street workshop in downtown Manhattan. “I put some oil in it, shook it, and it started to work. I have been working on clocks ever since.”

The 1960s, as Metcalfe recalls, were a great time to take up clock restoration as a hobby. Many people were throwing away nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century clocks as junk, and he eventually amassed some 150 of them in his childhood bedroom. “Some of them were good clocks and some of them awful, but I didn’t know enough to discriminate between them,” Metcalfe says.

After attending the British Horological Institute in East London for three years, he found it difficult to land a job in clock repair, and instead taught clock repair classes, followed by a stint as a musical box restorer in North London. Eventually, a colleague who hoped to leave his own clock repair business in Covent Garden asked Metcalfe to rent the place. In the late ’80s, a job offer to be the curator of the National Watch & Clock Museum in Columbia, Pennsylvania, brought Metcalfe to the U.S.; he worked at the museum for six years, traveling across the country to lecture to chapters of the National Association of Clock and Watch Collectors.

While visiting a friend’s clock repair workshop in New York City in the mid-’90s, Metcalfe was asked if he knew of anyone who’d like to take over the shop. His response: “Yes, me, now.” He has been here ever since. In addition to repairing clocks in his workshop, Metcalfe does house calls on weekday mornings. His clients include museums, auction houses and private residences.

Metcalfe doesn’t own a cell phone, a computer or a digital clock.

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Emon Hassan, Narratively’s Director of Video & Multimedia, is a New York-based filmmaker and photographer. He is the founder of the music website Guitarkadia and a regular contributor to The New York Times. You can follow him on Twitter.

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