Since they first discovered the patterns of the sun and the moon, human beings have searched for more accurate methods of keeping time. Clockmaking developed into something of a fine art in the 18th and 19th centuries, but by the 1980s, the quartz clock movement rendered much of that mechanical knowledge a thing of the past.
“Once Upon a Job” is a series looking at some of the uncommon skills that are still being put to good use. In this installment, a Bar Harbor man who always has time for yesterday’s technology.
There is very little clockmaker Alexander Phillips doesn’t know about clocks, after 50-odd years in the business. Every surface in this little, dimly lit basement shop in downtown Bar Harbor is covered with American carriage clocks, English case clocks, German wall clocks, novelty clocks and pocket watches.
Many are rare and valuable, and each one reads a different time and bursts into chimes without warning.
“This one winds itself up under barometric pressure and temperature change. It’s called an atmos clock,” Phillips says. “It’s got to be repaired. Very finicky. You don’t put these on a chest of drawers that you open and close. They were popular a while back as retirement presents. Today they’re very expensive.”
He’s always had an affinity for clocks. Growing up in New Britain, Connecticut, in the 1940s, Phillips watched his grandfather tinkering with them as a hobby, and at age 10, young Alexander started tinkering too — to the dismay of his father, himself a machinist, who had other plans for his son.
“I was a pianist, and I started playing at four years old. My father said, ‘That’s what you’re going to be,’” he says.
Phillips had a talent for it too, and as a teenager, he entered the world-renown Manhattan School of Music. But it wasn’t his real love.
Phillips had secretly never stopped aspiring to be a clockmaker. During phone calls home, he says he’d try to muffle the ticking sounds in his room so his parents wouldn’t become suspicious. Eventually, he just rebelled and traded in his tux for a shop apron, staying on in the city to learn all he could about clockmaking.
There were lots of clockmakers in those days, and he was able to apprentice with three different masters before launching his own business.
“Had a shop in New York City for 20 years before I came here. And it was exciting. I was young. I took care of New York City’s tower clocks. Sometimes you felt like Quasimodo way up there,” Phillips says.
Like the famous Hunchback of Notre Dame with his bells, Phillips says he got to know the “personality” of each and every clock. He says he worked on timepieces for the Metropolitan Museum and the New York City Museum and had many loyal customers, including the Rockefeller family.
But in the late ’80s, when his landlord jacked up the rent to $6,000 per month, he and his wife, who had summered in Maine as a child, came to Bar Harbor.
“Dumped New York, dumped Connecticut, and came up here, and that was it. Went from a town house to a log cabin,” he says.
But his retirement to Maine was soon interrupted by calls to maintain all the Bar Harbor city clocks and bank clocks. And he took on more work, until the shop was as busy as ever.
At the moment, Phillips is restoring a clock that was made in 1770. It’s delicate work that requires a rather steampunk-looking monocle. He turns the tiny parts by hand on the 1940s lathe he inherited from his father, and replaces miniature teeth from stripped gears.
Without this kind of skill, he says, old clocks like this one can’t be repaired. At 72, he confesses that a life-threatening illness means he might not be here much longer.
He’s already stopped working on wristwatches because his hands shake too much. But Phillips says he’ll keep going as long as he can.
“I don’t know,” he says, asked what has kept him interested in clocks all this time. “It’s a passion. You know, if you can work in an area that you’re passionate, what better could it be? Now, I retired, but I don’t know what happened. I just — I like doing this.”
This story was originally published Sept. 8, 2017 at 4:49 p.m. ET.