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Tall Case Clocks
An Interview with Joel Lynn

 Expert Collecting at Biddington's

Editors note: Randolph Biddington interviewed clockmaker Joel Lynn, between customers, at a recent antique show in Virginia.

RB: How long have you been in the clock business?
LYNN: Ten years.

RB: What were you doing before that?
LYNN: (Reluctantly.) I was a stockbroker.

RB: (Realizing we all have our crosses to bear, RB tactfully moves on to the topic at hand.) And how long have you been interested in clocks?
LYNN: (Brightening)I have liked clocks since my early childhood.

RB: Really? Because of their mechanics? Or because someone in your family was interested in clocks, too?
LYNN: Well, my grandfather had numerous tallcase clocks and it was always a rather magical experience seeing all these enormous clocks.

RB: I can imagine! So your grandfather had many tallcase clocks, (which I usually call grandfather clocks). Do you think this interest is a genetic pre-disposition?
LYNN: Joking aside, I think perhaps it is:

Quite recently, I was surprised to learn that I had an 18th century forbearer who, in fact, was a clockmaker. This ancestor accompanied Mason and Dixon on their celebrated survey. They were taking celestial observations to locate their survey. This required an accurate means of determining their location, and that activity required an accurate timepiece. Mason and Dixon had brought over a regulator from England, and my great-great whatever was the person responsible for securing the regulator. He went on to make clocks of his own later.

RB: You weren't aware of this when you chose the clock business?
LYNN: Nope. My cousin sent me this information. He ís more interested in genealogy than I am. My brother, who is an engineer, also has more than an average interest in clocks.

RB: Your grandfather's home must have been very noisy. Did all these tallcase clocks chime at the same time?
LYNN: Yes, but not every 15 minutes. They would strike the hour all at once. In the 18th and 19th century, clocks would strike only the hour. Quarter hour chimes are a fairly modern, turn-of-the-century, innovation.

RB: That surprises me. I think of the quarter-hour chimes I have in my house--the Winchester--as going back a fairly long time. But, you are saying this is quite a new invention?
LYNN: Well, the chimes themselves certainly go back a long time. But having clocks chime on the quarter hour is certainly something from the late 19th--but more like the early 20th century. This is particularly true of those clocks made for domestic use.

Now, there are older clocks which quarter-strike where you might have a numbering of the quarters: "ding-ding" for the second quarter, and "tang-tang-tang" for the hour. Chiming would be something relatively recent in domestic clocks.

RB: (Slightly puzzled.) When you say "domestic" clocks, you are differentiating them from another kind of clock, say "professional" clocks?
LYNN: From tower clocks.

RB: Oh, more like public city clocks.
LYNN: For instance, the clock that is erroneously referred to as "Big Ben" (dating from the 1860's) would be a tower clock.

RB: What ís the most complex clock you've ever seen?
LYNN: A colleague of mine actually designed and made a clock which is very complicated. It is a chiming clock with a very elaborate and complicated chiming sequence. It also includes a perpetual calendar which means it takes into account leap years, the year 2000 (of course) as well as 30 and 31-day months.

RB: Impressive. Did he sell this clock
LYNN: He had some offers that were high dollar figures, but then he would never sell it. It was probably one of the more expensive clocks around.

RB: At Biddington's, we do have an interest in commercial values. Can you put a dollar figure on this clock?
LYNN: It would sell for around $100,000.

RB: Real money. Joel, could you tell me a bit about the inner workings of clocks and watches. Are they similar?
LYNN: No, clocks have a different kind of escapement (that part of the watch or clock which controls the speed or beat). You usually associate a pendulum with a clock. Whereas with a watch, you have a timepiece that ís designed for portability. Typically, a watch uses a balance wheel in lieu of a pendulum.

So, there are different skills required in dealing with one versus the other. The average watch is simpler than the average clock because it does not strike the hour. Still, watches are somewhat complicated because of the fact that they are designed to be portable. That means you have to design features into them so that they do not have position errors.

RB: What is the part of the clock that is the most often in need of repair?
LYNN: The mainspring, if it is a spring-wound clock, would be the most common element that fails. The escapement is one of the most critical parts of a clock and that is the zone that most often needs repair.

RB: Did you have to have professional training in clockmaking?
LYNN: I served a lengthy apprenticeship with a third generation clock maker who--at the time--was in his 70's. He was an Italian gentleman whose grandfather had been a clockmaker in Italy. My mentor's father--also an accomplished craftsman--immigrated to this country. Besides the apprenticehip I did take some formal classroom training: Oklahoma State University has a department of horology, and I studied there.

RB: I have been eavesdropping on your conversations today about the clocks you have for sale. You seem to have feeling for each of them.
LYNN: I do. I feel that I am just giving them a safe haven until they find a proper home.

RB: We are at an antique show today, is that how you primarily sell your clocks?
LYNN: Shows are almost exclusively how I sell the clocks. But I do have some listings at your auction, too.

RB: You don't maintain a retail shop?
LYNN: No. Because the bulk of my work is repair and restoration, I do have a workshop in my home. Basically, it is set up for fabricating parts: to cut gears & pinions. I can literally make a clock movement. This means then that when I find a clock that is missing a part, or has some part so severely damaged that it cannot be repaired, I have the capability of fabricating a new part.

RB: Could Claire come to your repair shop to film your work for CREATIVE PROCESS? She loves to learn how objects are made.
LYNN: I'd be delighted.

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