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Clockmaker keeps tradition ticking

The Baltimore Sun

The musical chiming of about 200 clocks - cuckoos, mantels, grandfathers - in a Havre de Grace shop carried down the stairs into the basement under the showroom.

Dusty wooden shelves filled with antique and vintage timepieces lined the sides of a dimly lit aisle leading to a workbench where John Stephens Jr. used a lathe to chisel a small metal clock part.

"What appeals to me most about clocks are the littlest parts and pieces," said Stephens, the owner of Stephens & Stephens Clocks Ltd. on St. John Street in the city's historic district. "Clocks are amazing barometers of the times."

The 53-year-old Havre de Grace resident has spent 32 years working as a clockmaker. And Stephens' skill cleaning and repairing clocks has resulted in a clientele list that includes the State House and the governor's mansion.

But Stephens, one of about 2,000 clockmakers left in the United States, is part of a dying breed.

"When quartz watches came out, the need for watch- and clockmaking greatly diminished," said J. Steven Humphrey, executive director of the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors based in Dayton, Ohio.

"As a result, schools that offered classes in clockmaking closed because of the decreased demand."

Similarly, the NAWCC has experienced a sharp decline in membership, from 38,343 in 1994 to 22,300 last year. Humphrey attributes the drop to the advent of the Internet, which provides people an alternative for researching and buying timepieces.

And people generally consider today's clocks more as disposable items than as finely crafted keepsakes, he said.

Stephens made his mark among clockmakers when antique clocks were still in. He first became intrigued with clockmaking when his father, John Stephens Sr., took it up as a hobby, repairing clocks on the pool table in the family's home.

"Clocks are a harmony of a whole bunch of things working beautifully together," Stephens said. "Working on antique clocks is a chance to look at something 200 years old that was made in an attempt at mechanical immortality."

From 1973 to 1977, Stephens attended classes in clock- and watchmaking at the now-defunct Bowman Technical School in Lancaster, Pa.

Working with timepieces came naturally, but attracting and retaining customers was a challenge, Stephens said. After completing classes, he opened the shop and his father came to work for him.

"Having my father work for me was the most interesting role reversal," Stephens said. "For the first time, I was in charge."

While the majority of the clocks he works on are brought in by customers, he purchases some at antique shows and estate sales.

"I look for the clocks that seem the most unusual," Stephens said. "Whenever a clock comes in, I do what I can to find out what I can about it. I think it's a crime that we don't know more of their history."

He also repairs watches, and during the years he has bought thousands of watch faces from pawnshops.

"People bring in these beautiful old watches that they don't care about anymore," he said. "The new generation doesn't wear wristwatches; they look at their cell phones to get the time."

With about 250 clocks waiting to be repaired, Stephens and his two apprentices keep busy, he said. Repair charges can range from $125 to $2,000 per clock, he said. A current repair under way is a musical grandfather clock made in Amsterdam between 1730 and 1740, he said.

"I'll pull the dial and hang the weight and put the clock through the paces," he said.

Having been around so many clocks for so many years, Stephens said he doesn't even hear the chimes anymore. "I have effectively tuned the chiming into the background noise," he said.

The sound of a clock ticking is another matter, however.

"I always listen to ticking clocks," he said. "If there's a clock ticking, I'm diagnosing it."

On a recent morning, Stephens showed some of the unique items in his shop, which he said resembles a retail museum. The clocks vary widely in size, style, cost (ranging from $200 and $15,000) and age, with some dating to the early 18th century.

He pointed out a banjo clock, shaped like a banjo with a hand-painted glass front. Another clock has a porcelain casing adorned with hand-painted flowers.

As he walked around the showroom, Stephens gestured toward a clock with a locking door.

The clock harks back to a time some 200 years ago, when clocks typically were owned by the wealthy and had to be set by nearby church bells or the sun, he said. Owners didn't want anyone to mess with the dials.

The dawn of the Industrial Revolution, which brought inexpensive clocks that began to pop up in all households, marked the beginning of the end, he said.

"People couldn't wait for the rooster to crow," he said.

"But even the cheap ones were well-built. Today we've perfected the art of making junk."

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