Otay Watch Works, c. 1890. They hoped to sell pocket watches to Mexican Indians.
  • Otay Watch Works, c. 1890. They hoped to sell pocket watches to Mexican Indians.
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An early weekday morning in Coronado. A pair of schoolboys about 11 years old are slowly skateboarding down the sidewalk making that clattery train track noise — clack, clack, clack, clack as they cross each crack in the cement. One of them has a pack of Marlboros in his hand; neither carries a book. We’ve been walking parallel to them.

“‘Scuze me,” they call out to us. We look. “What time is it?” “Quarter to eight.” A pause. “Are you late yet?” They mumble something we don’t catch as they skate away. We are New Englanders, bred in the bone, out here in San Diego to look at clacks, and watches too; and to think about time and how it is measured, and why.

My husband, Bob, is the collector — of clocks. I am the chronicler; every family could use one. At least, this arrangement has worked out well for us – for 25 years.

A couple of weeks before we got here, I woke up one morning and told Bob about my dream in which I’d asked an adult — a woman — what time it was and she told me she had never learned to tell time.

“That wasn’t a dream,” Bob informed me. “I read that to you last night, before we went to sleep. That was Emily Dickinson.”

I picked up a book on his nightstand, and read, myself, in Van Wyck Brooks’ New England: Indian Summer 1865-1915 (1940): “At fifteen she could not tell the time: her father supposed he had taught her, but she had not understood him, and she did not dare ask him again or ask anyone else who might have told him.”

But if she didn’t understand clocks, she understood time well enough. “Look back on Time, with kindly eyes --” she wrote.

  • He doubtless did his best –
  • How softly sinks that trembling sun
  • In Human nature’s West –

Eighteen ninety, the year that Dickinson’s first volume of poetry was published, was also a historic year for clocks — and watches too — in San Diego.

In the middle of sagebrush and coyotes, about ten miles southeast of the city, a three-story New England-style brick factory had been built by Sab Diego real estate man J.H. Guion and others who were developing the 27,000 acres surrounding it. With their Otay Watch Works, they hoped not only to attract land buyers but to make some money selling pocket watches to Mexican Indians. The San Diego Union pronounced it to be “the only watch factory west of the Mississippi” and “the newest watch factory on earth,” neglecting to mention that another West Coast watch factory had recently failed, in San Francisco.

“The operatives have come from crowded, murky cities,” the reporter wrote of Otay’s employees. “They can look out upon beautiful scenery and the ocean perpetually,” he added with poetic license. “They breathe as pure air as wafts the fragrance of flowers to the nostrils of man anywhere on the globe. They are citizens; they will have a voice in the community as property owners and taxpayers; they will be respected because they are self-respecting.”

The reporter continued in the exalted style of the day: The factory “will surely father a community of honest, sober, self-respecting people, thrifty, gradually accumulating; it is good to have them; they will help Southern California, as the Otay Watch Works will become known wherever the industry of men is to be found.”

Conditions in Otay Mesa were promising if unhyperbolically so. The climate was good for metal work. And, despite the factory failures in Northern California and elsewhere, the demand for the product was undeniable. Back East, as more and more workers left farms and natural time — measured by the sun — and went to work for wages by the clock, the premier watch works were turning out literally millions of these ingenious little devices, particularly in Waltham, Massachusetts, and Elgin, Illinois. In 1892, the $1 Ingersoll pocket watch — “the watch that made the dollar famous” – would be introduced by U.S. mail-order and chain-store entrepreneur Robert Hawley Ingersoll, while Henry Ford would decide not to get into mass production of watches, having concluded that they “were not universal necessities, and therefore people in general would not buy them.”

“It is a very simple thing to make 10,000 watches,” that same San Diego Union reporter wrote in his article about Otay, “but it is a great undertaking to get ready to make one watch.” He was more or less correct. But Otay never made nearly that number. In existence for less than a year and in operation for barely six months, the factory closed on October 13, 1890, having failed to convince many Mexicans that they needed a personal timekeeping machine. Otay’s attempt to sell to the American market a line of “railroad-grade” watches — the extremely accurate kind that were used by engineers to avoid train wrecks — fizzled too, despite the evocative names it chose for them: “Golden Gate,” “Silver Gate,” “Native Son,” “Overland Mail,” and, simply, “California.” To assist in paying back wages, the sheriff came and auctioned off some of the watches, equipment, and land. As for the building, it was later used for a dance hall.

So much for Otay, a collectible watch today – collectible, that is, if you can find one. Though the factory’s daily average capacity was advertised to be up to 250 watches, only about 1200 of them were ever made.

Jon Hanson, a noted watch collector who is based in Wellesley Hills and Beverly Hills – Massachusetts and California, respectively – claims to have the largest Otay watch collection in the world: about 50. He estimates that they are worth between $1000 and $4000. These aren’t vast sums for antique pocket watches. “Here’s the deal about them,” Hanson says. “The basis of interest of those things is the California connection. It was a peculiar place to make watches, when the whole industry was in the East and Midwest. It’s the romance of that place out in the middle of nowhere, with the little railroad station and tumbleweed.”

Just as Otay was leaving San Diego, the man who was responsible for what is probably the most famous public clock in the region was arriving. The clock has, in fact, gained a national reputation, at least among clock folk.

He was Joseph Edwardus Jessop, a 39-year-old English watchmaker and jewelry store owner, who packed up and left Lytham (near Blackpool) with his wife, Mary Carter Jessop, and their seven children in search of dry-weather relief from his serious asthma. Before selecting Southern California, his family chroniclers say, Joseph Jessop had also considered New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa, after studying weather reports in his dozens of foreign newspaper subscriptions, including the San Diego Union. But some acreage in what is now Scripps Ranch had proved irresistible to him, even sight unseen. And he and the family arrived in New York on the Cunard line, then took a series of trains across the country.

To be a gentleman farmer was Joseph Jessop’s plan, with perhaps a little watchmaking on the side. For he had been led to believe by the traveling real estate agent who had sold him the property – “a man with a beard,” as his son Alonzo recalled in an oral history he recorded for the San Diego Historical Society – that it was possible to cultivate that terrain.

What happened next is, apparently, a variation on a common turn-of-the-century California land-deal theme.

“When they got there, it was night,” says his 46-year-old great-grandson, James Carter Jessop, a fifth-generation jeweler (his great-great-great-uncle, George Jessop, was in the business in England), and what they found in the morning when it got light was just rocks smaller than boulders, but bigger than pebbles.”

“We were too trusting,” noted Alonzo in his oral history, “and believed everything we heard. And with the little funds that [father] had, the first thing we knew we were busted.”

So Joseph Jessop went to work for K.C. Naylor, at the time one of the big downtown San Diego jewelers. And 10-year-old Alonzo and his 14-year-old brother, Armand, went to work doing farm labor for E.W. Scripps on his Miramar Ranch.

For extra money, Joseph Jessop also did freelance work, rowing out to ships that had anchored in the harbor to check on their chronometers. These are the extremely precise timekeepers that sailors used as a navigating tool because longitude can be determined by them. Navigation is, in fact, one of the main reasons why we really did need to learn to keep accurate clock time. Before the chronometer was invented by the 18th-century British clockmaker John Harrison, dead reckoning, based on educated guesswork, was one of the rather risky navigational methods employed at sea, as the term itself inadvertently implies.

In three years Joseph Jessop had saved enough to open his own downtown jewelry store at 1317 F Street. Alonzo recalls that their next-door neighbors were a barber and a real estate agent and that the wooden floor of the shop smelled of wine – the previous tenant had been a barman. The senior Joseph actually took up residence there, living in a small room in the back of the shop, along with Armand, who at 17 had become his apprentice. Only on the weekends did father and son go home, a rough, three-and-a-half-hour horse-and-buggy ride away, where Mary Jessop had given birth to three more children.

Eventually, six Jessop sons joined the business, each one specializing in a piece of the trade – clocks, watches, jewelry, engraving, optical work (lens cutting used to be a part of a jewelers business), and finance. The Jessops prospered. In 1901, they moved to Coronado; and as successful businessmen everywhere often did, they went into real estate. All told, they built 35 houses there. The shop moved to a better location too – 910 Fifth Avenue; then, a little later, 952 Fifth Avenue. A 1903 photograph shows four of the brothers in a row, each one bow-tied and sitting at a bench with the tools of his trade in front of him. Brand-new black mantel clocks are lined up on the shelves behind them.

An earlier shop photo of what came to be called J. Jessop & Sons shows the outside of the shop and an advertising sign over the door – a clock in the shape of a giant pocket watch and, below that. A pair of giant spectacles, complete with eyes, like the oculist Doctor T.J. Eckleburg’s sign in The Great Gatsby that Nick Carraway rightly finds so ominous. Later, a bigger pair of seeing eyeglasses was posted above the door. But Jessop pere had an even grander advertising scheme in mind for the future. In 1907, the great Jessop street clock was completed and installed on the sidewalk outside the store.

The clock stood in that spot for 20 years. It has since been moved – twice – along with the business. The first relocation, in 1927, was to 1041 Fifth Avenue, and it was a relatively easy undertaking, according to Jessop’s son Joseph Jr. (1898-1996), whose chronicle of the clock appeared in an issue of The Journal of San Diego History in 1987. “Labor was cheap and plentiful,” he wrote, “and the whole town became involved, not only with volunteer help, but an oversupply of sidewalk superintendents,” who watched as the clock inched down the block all in one piece, In 1985, when it was moved for the second time, to Horton Plaza, the task was much more difficult, requiring its complete disassembly and the use of trucks and cranes to maneuver it into place.

You can see the far-famed clock at Horton Plaza today. It’s there in the middle of the hubbub, looking too dignified, too formal to be flanked, as it is, by wagonloads of tourist T-shirts. Painted glossy black and gold, insured for $1 million (and valued at twice that), it has a magisterial air; yet it’s full of whimsy too – like somebody’s ancient eccentric great-uncle who has come overdressed to the carnival.

I found at least one advantage to the location, however. It is possible to see the clock face-to-face, so to speak – from Horton Plaza’s upper level.

It’s a huge clock, 22 feet tall, with a four-sided, four-faced dome that looks like the headgear for a giant old-fashioned deep-sea diver. Emblazoned with the Jessop name, it is adorned by lions’ heads with rings in their mouths and fleurs-de-lis and crowned by an eagle, wings spread, ready to take flight. Indeed, as seen from eye level, the whole dome appears to over, lighter than air, like a helium balloon on a string, ready to rise above the smells of scented soaps and Chinese food from the Panda Express.

In actuality, the dome with its 16 separate dials, each one of them a “slave” to the “master” clock in the glass case in its base, weighs 1000 pounds. And it’s firmly anchored. The 55-pound pendulum, along with its 100-pound weight, extends below the sidewalk.

A lot of the excitement for real clock lovers is in those partly hidden works. To them, the clock’s movement is just as remarkable as its outward appearance. In all, the mechanism consists of 300 moving parts and 17 jewels from the Jessop mine on Mount Palomar – native San Diego stones of tourmaline, topaz, jade, and agate. And it measures not only San Diego time in hours, minutes, and seconds, but also the hour in 12 other cities around the world: New York, London/Liverpool, Paris, Berlin, Milan, St. Petersburg (changed to Leningrad in 1924, then changed back again in 1991), Calcutta, Cape Town, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Melbourne, and Mexico City. It also keeps track of San Diego’s date, month and day of the week.

It is called a universal clock, or world-time clock. And it was the very newest kind of clock when Joseph and Mary Jessop saw one like it on a trip to Switzerland’s capital city, Bern in 1888. Greenwich mean- time had been declared only four years earlier, along with the 24 time zones, all of which had been made necessary by developments in wireless telegraph communication around the world. Many of these clocks were made for the offices of steamship companies. In 1905, J. Jessop & sons hired Claude M. Ledger, a 25-year-old German immigrant, recent graduate of the Elgin Watchmakers College in Illinois, and the first nonfamily employee, to work at the shop. It was he who made the Jessop clock, following Joseph’s sketches and design.

J. Jessop & Sons, as many San Diegans know, is no longer in existence. In 1970, 15 years before the move to Horton Plaza, the company, which by then operated several other stores and a warehouse, was sold to Dayton Hudson, the department store chain; in the 1980s, it was sold three more times, and then it started on its decline. In 1998, only the Horton Plaza store remained. Finally, in July, it, too, went bankrupt and closed. In the early fall, signs at Horton Plaza said the new tenant, J. Crew, was preparing to move into its empty retail space.

But the clock itself has never left the ownership of the Jessops and continues to be held today in a limited liability partnership by a group of 20 to 30 family members.

James Carter Jessop is one of them. He is also the only Jessop left in the jewelry business. “Three years after the Dayton Hudson sale, my father – Joseph Jessop’s grandson – opened George Carter Jessop Jeweler, because he found out he didn’t like working for anybody else,” he told me. “And now, since the Horton Plaza store closed, a lot of people are calling me up to tell me how sorry they are that we went out of business, not realizing that it isn’t us anymore.”

But George Carter Jessop Jeweler is alive and well, Jim Jessop would like San Diego to know. In fact, he is now the owner of the two jewelry stores of his father’s namesake, one at 401 West C Street, where we spoke, and the other in the Galleria at the Hotel Del Coronado.

Two other things he wants to make clear are, first, he has bought back the name J. Jessop & Sons; so it, too, lives on, although he isn’t sure yet what he’s going to do with it. And second, although he agrees that Horton Plaza does not show the clock to its best advantage, the family is in no great rush to move it yet again. Besides, they are under contract to leave it there until December 31, in the year 2000.

A suggestion that the grounds of the Hotel Del might be the place for it is brushed aside by Jim Jessop, who wears a ring with a bright green stone that looks like a lozenge. True, his store is there; and yes, it would fit in well with the architecture. “But,” he says, “I feel very strongly that it should stay in San Diego proper.”

He also believes that it shouldn’t go to a museum, even though he often hears from ones that would like to have it. “It’s a working clock, not a museum piece.” He feels, furthermore, that it should be part of a business environment. “It’s an advertising clock. A street clock. And right now Horton Plaza is the closest we could come to a street location where it’s also safe and protected.”

The earliest mechanical clocks were alarm clocks – bells without faces -- to wake monks up to pray at the appointed hour. The word bell in medieval Latin is clocca; in French, cloche; in German, glocke. The Jessop clock doesn’t make a sound, but another prominent public clock of turn-of-the-century San Diego certainly did: the tower clock on top of the county courthouse that used to be at 220 West Broadway.

Clock people outside San Diego are familiar with this one too, because it was made by Seth Thomas, the Connecticut company whose tower clocks used to grace courthouses – and schools and churches – all over the world. They found their way to the top of a few unusual buildings too. The famous Bromo-Seltzer tower clock in Baltimore is a Seth Thomas. Built in 1910 for the Emerson Drug Company, it’s all that’s left of the building today – and its 357-foot tower, which used to have a rotating Bromo-Seltzer bottle on top of it, 10 million times the size of a real one. (It was removed in 1936 for safety reasons.)

Ian Roome, a clock collector formerly of Costa Mesa, but now living in Southbury, Connecticut, has been researching the history of Seth Thomas since 1980. “I started collecting clocks in the mid-1970s,” says Roome, who works as an account manager for IBM. “But my collection had no focus, no center. I decided I should specialize, and what I chose was Seth Thomas because those clocks to me were the most aesthetically pleasing.” Seth Thomas’s longevity also appealed to him. “Here was a company that started in 1813 and is still making clocks in Norcross, Georgia, even if in a very small way, almost 200 years later>”

According to Roome’s research, only about 137 Seth Thomas tower clocks were made for California customers in the 70 years between 1872 and 1942, when the company closed its tower-clock department, because both the fashion and the need for public timepieces had ended. In the years since, many tower clocks have been allowed to go to the pigeons or else got destroyed completely when the buildings themselves caught fire or met the wrecker’s ball. So only a small number of vintage American tower clocks – of any brand (the E. Howard Company of Boston was another famous name of the era) – still exist in working order today.

Photos I found at the historical society show that the original San Diego courthouse, designed in 1871 by Comstock & Trotsche, had no tower clock, or even a tower at first. Only as San Diego grew were architectural flourishes added. The tower clock went up in 1890, along with two new wings and a third story. Statues of six classical Greek goddesses depicting the various Virtues were part of the package, as was a larger seventh goddess on top. Ten foot tall, Justice holds scales and a sword, although flouting tradition, she isn’t blindfolded. Along with the rest of “the zinc ladies,” she was meant to remind all San Diegans that, in the court’s opinion, good people lived by the clock. Never mind that the ladies were sometimes used for target practice by the San Diego police, according to Sally West. The historical society assistant archivist who helped me with my research.

Originally, the clock was designed to strike a two-and-a-half ton bell, which counted out every hour; it also struck once on the half-hour. But the noise, by day, disturbed court proceedings – some judges claimed it actually shook the building by night, it jangled the nerves of people trying to sleep in neighboring hotels. It is also said to have occasionally been mistaken for the fire bell, causing false alarms.

To keep the hotel guests happy, it was silenced from 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 a.m.; then, to appease the judges and fire department, the striking mechanism was shut down altogether. That was in 1919. Twenty years later, the city began to worry about the stability of the tower, and so, in order to prevent the bell from crashing through the courtroom ceilings, it was retired to Mission San Luis Rey in Oceanside – an appropriately ecclesiastical resting place, considering how clocks originated.

In 1959, more progress came to San Diego: the building was demolished, the clock movement was put in storage, forgotten, and the plans for a new, “modern” courthouse, erected on the same spot in 1961, did not include anything so antiquated as a tower clock.

Almost 20 more years passed before members of the San Diego Bar Auxiliary remembered the clock, took it out of mothballs, and asked a clock-shop owner in El Cajon to tackle the job of restoration. It was Richard G. Marsh’s first tower-clock job.

Dick Marsh and Joe Kunkler

Dick Marsh and Joe Kunkler


“And the last,” the 87-year-old Marsh said by phone from his Kensington home, which is filled with a collection of 500 clocks that he is in the process of moving to his second home “out in the country,” in Everett, Washington. On a late-summer trip to Everett, he bought yet another clock, in an antiques shop “on the edge of Canada.” So he’s not done collecting yet. It’s a figural clock featuring a metallic statue of a male warrior.

Marsh says he got interested in clocks because “it was in my blood.” His grandfather’s brother was the Connecticut clockmaker George Marsh, a principal in the firm of Marsh, Gilbert & Co., active in Bristol and Farmington from 1828 to 1834. The Marsh clocks became the standard in the 1830s when Yankee peddlers took them south, and west too. “It was the clock of its day,” says Thomas E. Grimshaw, president of the American Watch and Clock Museum in Bristol.

Born in Winsted, Connecticut, Marsh grew up nearby in Seth Thomas’s company town, Thomaston – formerly Plymouth Hollow – where he went to grade school and junior high school with Seth Thomas II, grandson of the founder of the company.

Seth Thomas II “had no interest at all in clocks,” reports Marsh, who at the age of seven started going to the town dump to retrieve the clock parts that the factory threw away. With his mother’s permission he brought it all home to the chicken coop. “That was my first clock shop,” he says.

He traveled a familiar route to San Diego: Navy. When he got out in 1934, he stayed. “Peddling laundry” was his first job here – that is, driving a laundry truck. During World War II, he “made airplanes.” After that, for 30-odd years, he worked for the telephone company, starting out as an installer, retiring as a switchman. From 1965 until 1980, he ran his clock shop, the Yankee Clock Peddler.

Help with the courthouse project came from ten volunteers who, like Marsh, belong to a local chapter of the National Watch and Clock Collectors – NAWCC for short. You can see their handiwork today, completed in 1981. But you don’t have to climb a tower. It’s down in the courthouse lobby, open to the public every weekday from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.

Line up first at the X-ray machines at the door. “All persons entering are subject to search.” Refrain from making the obvious pun about the possibility of “doing time.” Note that there is an immediate fluorescent feel to the place, unpleasant, unsubtle – but unambiguous too, like good clockwork.

The clock is still without its bell, or any bell, and will doubtless stay that way. But it is making noise. You can hear it loudly ticking away even before you get up close to it.

The swinging steel-and-brass pendulum is new. The oak pendulum stick is semi-new: Marsh made it from the handle of an old stevedore’s hand truck. The faces, you’ll note, are also reproductions. And the wooden cupola in which it’s housed is only a stylized reminder of the tower. But the movement, enclosed in a glass case, is the original, rebuilt with nearly all of the old parts. And even if you have seen many tower-clock movements, it is still an impressive sight.

It looks like a slightly flattened A, on four legs. About waist-high – or the height of a table saw – it was designed for the ease of those who built it, those who would work on it later, and especially those who would hand-crank it every week, although the task is now accomplished by an electric motor. (The Jessop clock, since its move to Horton Plaza, is now wound that way too.)

The name M. GERMAN is painted in large block letters in gold in two places. He was the local jeweler who maintained the clock when it was on top of the courthouse – for $100 a year and all the free advertising his name could muster (it was seen only by the clock winders, however). Alonzo Jessop mentioned M. German in his oral history. Describing him as “the one who used to do all the auctioneering” – “a faker from way back but a very spectacular fellow.” Seth Thomas’s name is written in much smaller letters.

The workings of its large, heavy, finely made gears and the steady unlocking of its escapement can be mesmerizing. On a recent morning, however, nobody seemed to be paying any attention to it. Young women with children sat on the newspaper-strewn built-in benches that surround it. Their backs faced it as they waited for trials to begin. What they watched instead was a small 1960s-style wall clock, with only dots and dashes indicating the hours. (If you take the time to look, you will see, for better or worse, many clocks of this style built in to the exterior walls in 1960s-era buildings in San Diego and elsewhere.) Upstairs, in the courtrooms, these same young women soon would see classroom-style electric clocks, with highly readable Arabic numerals all around. The signage in the long hallways outside these courtrooms would leave no room for misinterpretation wither, “Please keep shoes of wall,” those who wait without seats are instructed. Inside the courtrooms themselves, it’s “No hats, no gum, no smoking, no radios, no eating.” Not even reading is allowed.

That does it. It’s time to leave, but first we have to find our way out of this place. We follow signs that promise to lead us a cross a bridge to what is called the Hall of Justice. That sounds hopeful — a place to which to aspire: a good destination for us all.

If you decide to make the journey yourself, there is a bonus waiting for you. Enter at the lobby level (the street address is 330 West Broadway), and you’ll see the regilded Lady Justice standing just five feet inside of the door. Usually she’s at the Museum of San Diego History, where we saw her last fall, looking quite dramatic with that sword in her hand. For the remainder of 1999, however, she’s in the Hall of Justice, helping to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the San Diego Bar Association.

In the Boston airport, waiting for our flight to San Diego, we heard a man and woman talking about their “regulators” and listened longer. Were they, like Bob, clock collectors, by chance? A regulator is a highly accurate clock used as a standard for timing other clocks. But no. The subject was their scuba-diving equipment – the device that controls the flow of air from the tank and into the diver’s mouthpiece. The man was wearing a T-shirt proclaiming his participation two years earlier in an underwater photography competition. Both he and the woman were tanned and muscled. Not Bostonians, but San Diegans, we surmised.

Plenty of people here are interested in the other kind of regulators, however.

Friday, September 25 8:45 a.m. in Del Mar, about 600 people, including us have gathered for the opening of the NAWCC Southwest California Regional at the fairgrounds. (By the end, the organizers estimate there will have been close to 1000 participants.) It’s fitting that it’s taking place in the shadow of the 35-foot four-sided tower showing Don Diego with a guitar in one of his hands and a clock dial in the other.

The crow is a mix of hobbyists and owners of clock shops and watch-and-jewelry stores, although there isn’t always a clear line between them. All of them are either members of the NAWCC or their guests—a picture ID is required for entry. An overwhelmingly white male crowd, many of retirement age. The only women here are, like me, one-half of a husband-wife team.

The sponsor is San Diego’s local NAWCC chapter, officially Chapter 59; its co-host is Palomar Chapter 136. (They switch sponsor and co-host roles of this annual event in alternating years.) And, so far at least, it promises to be identical in format and feeling to all the other NAWCC meetings we have ever attended in Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, Florida, Louisiana, Rhode Island, Vermont, Connecticut, and our own state, Massachusetts. Although there will be speakers, a sit-down meal tomorrow, and a semi-scholarly horological display (of English bracket clocks, this time), the main event is, as always, the mart, where for two days clocks, watches, horological tools and parts will be bought and sold and traded, often with a feverish intensity.

Someone’s walking around with a T-shirt that says “I Made Mine Collecting Clocks.” A few other people’s T-shirts are patterned with pocket-watch motifs.

A man with a watchmakers loupe attached to his glasses is wearing a fishing vest and baseball hat and a large-print name tag that says Fred Cooper/Rolex buyer.

We don’t have to read the name tag of the Massachusetts watch dealer Joseph Conway to recognize him. He is sitting at an outdoor café table drinking coffee and eating a miniature muffin as he waits with some other people for the doors to open. And it’s funny that we aren’t all that surprised to see him. Nor does he seem all that surprised to see us. The first time we met him, in 1981, he was selling watches at the NAWCC regional in Orlando. He has several mart tables here today and says that traveling to cities where regionals are being held is a pleasant way to see the country.

You might expect those who are sellers to be already inside, attending to last-minute details. But the mart managers won’t allow it. There is a well-founded belief that “the good stuff” is traded among the mart table holders before the rest of the crowd has had a chance even to look at it. “Snatched up in the parking lot, right out of the truck” is the frequent lament. This rule at least gives the appearance of cutting down on that activity.

AT the coffee line we strike up a conversation with a clock-shop owner from Orange County who, as it turns out, has done business with an antique dealer whose shop used to be less than three miles from our house in Massachusetts. The man says he often bought crateloads from him to resell.

“In Massachusetts there’s an auction every night,” he says with envy. “Here, there’s one every six to eight weeks, with 10,000 people at it.”

We agree that San Diego isn’t the source.

“The trouble,” he says, “is that there are no old ladies out here with trunks of old clothes and fountain pens and watches that don’t work in the dresser drawers.” He’s implying that we New Englanders have cornered the market on old ladies like that. I can’t say we haven’t. What is more, although I do not mention it to him, I even know of an antiques dealer in Massachusetts who did once find watches in a dresser drawer he had acquired from one of those old ladies whose attics and basements are filled with stuff going back for generations (and he didn’t return them either.)

Because of the limited supply of any antique or collectible, the economics (and the geographical constraints) are strikingly similar from field to field. We once knew a woman named Pie who used to make a living buying vintage clothing at yard sales and Salvation Army stores in the East and selling them to shops out West; she’d drive cross-country interminably. The psychology from category to category is comparable too. It’s easy to see, for example, that our antique-book collector friends have much in common with our friends who collect paintings and British post office paraphernalia. And all of them are soul mates of Bob’s.

Even so, horology enthusiasts are in a special class of collector, because the objects of their desire are technological. They were made to “do something.” They have moving parts. They “work.” Even if they are broken, it usually doesn’t matter. The challenge of repair work is what makes horology so appealing to many watch and clock guys. “You can’t look inside a stamp,” says Bob, whose earlier love was old sports cars. To him and other collectors like him, these aren’t just machines. Crafted by human hands, devised by human minds, they are powered by human energy, released a little at a time.

Bob also like to point out that clock and watch parts have anthropomorphic names – face, hands. And the ticking resembles a heartbeat. A tall-case clock’s pendulum very definitely mimes a heart, doing about 60 beats a minute.

It’s an idea that must have occurred to someone in Chapter 59 too. Their logo is a fantastical heart-shaped escapement, made of an escape wheel, pallets, dial and pendulum. The chapter’s motto: “The beat goes on.”

Don Diego clock at Del Mar Fairgrounds

Don Diego clock at Del Mar Fairgrounds

As the Don Diego clock nears nine, the herding instinct takes over, and we all gather in a mass at the doors to the mart.

Finally, we go inside and start to move down the rows of tables — nearly 300 of them — in the huge hangarlike space. Collectors of the 18th and 19th Centuries liked to bring things home as evidence of their travels. I wonder if Bob will have tangible results of his journey when we get home.

More than a few of the tables are covered with sheets, and remain so. Are these sellers late to the opening? Not on your life. They’re shopping. Somebody lifts one of the sheets and peers down at a large clock lying on its back, like the proverbial patient etherized upon the table.

“Cute little sucker, isn’t it?” someone says of a clock on his own table. It’s a Plato, an early digital, circa 1907 – also called a ticket clock – with numbered celluloid ticketlike tabs that flip to show the hour and minutes, in a small brass-and-glass case with a handle. For some reason, I love Platos, even though I usually prefer analog clock faces. The cyclical nature of time is lost in the digital readout and ends up feeling like a road without exits or turnarounds.

Jessop & Sons company, c. 1915

Jessop & Sons company, c. 1915

San Diego Historical Society photo

Literally hundreds of other kinds of clocks are here for sale, most of them American made, but many others are German, French and English. There are banjo-clocks and mini-banjos. Kitchen clocks of pressed oak. Boudoir clocks, gallery clocks, and school regulators, some with calendars. Black mantel clocks, like the ones that J. Jessop & Sons had for sale in that 1903 photo. Tambours with their distinctive humpback shape that resemble Napoleon’s hat. A few good cuckoos (by which I mean made prior to World War I). Pillar and splats, pillar and scrolls. Steeple, beehive, and balloon clocks.

One table has a large array of time recorders, circa 1890 – the bane of every employee who ever had to punch in and out. There are novelty clocks too, one showing Mao and his little red book. Another, Pope John XXIII. A few tall-case or long-case clocks are standing along the wall. (Clock people don’t call them grandfather clocks, incidentally – no more than dog people call German shepherds police dogs; the 1876 song “Grandfather’s Clock” by Henry Clay Work is the origin of the popular nickname.)

And there are watches, of course. Pocket watches of all kinds, including one erotic watch, but no Otays. Watches in hunting cases and open-face cases. And a whole trayful of ones in exhibition cases, with their little balance wheels visible, oscillating madly – 18,000 beats per hour, or 5 times a second.

And then ther are all the wristwatches, some of them displayed in their original boxes, others piled into cigar boxes, selling for “one money” as the auctioneers say.

Several more tables are heaped with nothing but new watchbands, rubber-banded together (some for as little as 100 for 60 cents each) – enough for all the wrists of a thousand Kalis. The watch dealers will buy them to make their antique wristwatches wearable again.

Of course, the $3 watch you can buy at the liquor store is more accurate than virtually all of these timekeepers. But anyone who buys an antique clock or watch for practical time-telling reasons is missing the point.

One section of every mart that I can always be counted on to patronize is the book tables, and here at Del Mar there is the usual long length of them. The horological field has spawned a huge industry in books about all aspects of the rich history of clocks and watches. On those book tables, too, there are repair manuals, price guides, and reprints of old catalogs. In a basket of odds and ends, I even find a secondhand copy of Georges Simenon’s Clockmaker (1955), which I buy for $ 1.

The decibel level is high, but it’s only talk, not ticking (or striking either0. The clocks aren’t wound and don’t tell the right time. Everybody understands that what they buy is in “as is” condition, which could be wonderful or it could mean “a project.” If you care, you can always ask the status. And sometimes a sign will say “G.R.O.” – short for “good running order.” (Such a claim is generally to be taken as fact. The horological world is a small one, and dissemblers wouldn’t get far; although there do exist what the clock-shop owner from Orange County terms “clock hustlers,” he’s not talking about people who misrepresent their goods but those who seem to love the art of the deal more than the arts of clock and watchmaking.) The P.A. system comes on, and someone is speaking. It sounds like the kind used at Italian train stations: incomprehensible. Everyone continues to look at the merchandise.

A man says, “That’s a good deal,” pointing to a watch he has for sale. “I’m trying to give you a good deal because of what happened before.”

Another says, “If you can do something with this, I’ll trade with you. You know me, I’ll trade up or down.”

There really is no salesmanship going on here; only negotiating.

Every once in a while, a large wad of cash is pulled from a pants pocket, bills are peeled, and handed over to someone else, who wraps them around his wad.

Except for the cigar boxes of wristwatches and the new watchbands, the paperback novel I just bought was probably the cheapest item in the place. The most expensive items are clocks selling for several thousand, including a shelf trumpeter cuckoo for $3200.

Many of the watch-and clock shop owners have their business names prominently displayed at their mart tables – a reminder that this is a kind of trade show. The name of Rich Wauson’s shop – on University Avenue in Hillcrest – is Time Traveller. Wauson is a white-bearded man in a navy blue cap who was born in San Antonio in 1944 and used to be a flier in the Navy. When I ask him if he named his shop after the main character in The Time Machine (called “George” in the 1960 movie but “Time Traveler” -- with one l – in H.G. Well’s 1895 novel), he smiles and says, “I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of time travel, but when I opened my business in the 1970s, a friend, now deceased, had already named his ‘Time Machines,’ so I took Time Traveller. And you know it’s only clock people who notice that at the start of that movie the whole house is full of clocks.”

It takes us about an hour and a half to take in the whole mart. Then we start all over again. Jon Hanson who spoke at a NAWCC seminar we attended in Bristol, Connecticut, has a motto: “I’ll look at anything once.” The second time around is more purposeful. Hanson is a firm believer in the “stare-and-compare” method. It takes years to perfect, and there’s no substitute for it – certainly not looking at pictures in poorly printed books. “Blazers” is the word he coined for the ones that sear his eye – prelude to the “I-must-have-it” feeling.

Bob has his eye on something. A weight-driven wall clock about 40 inches high in a wooden case, it was made to hang in a bank or corporate office, not a private home, so it’s relatively rare as well as high grade4. Its maker, the Boston Clock Company, was only in business between 1884 and 1894, so it’s also easy to date. Finally, the marked price, $1,500, while “not a steal” is fair, says Bob, who has never seen a model quite like this one before, not even in the reproductions of Boston Clock Company catalogs that he has in his own extensive horological library. But the size makes it a problem to take home on the plane. He passes on it, with a kind of wistfulness that may be difficult for the non-collector to understand.

Luckily, yesterday, at another Hillcrest clock shop, the House of Clocks on Sixth Avenue, he did find something transportable. It is a marine chronometer, made for the Navy by the Hamilton Watch Company, circa 1941, which he bought from L.M. “Bernie” Haller for $140.

It doesn’t have its original gimbaled wooden box anymore, instead, it is in a cheap customized metal canister. And it has a broken balance staff, which will be costly to fix. Haller said it got dmaged when it was discarded by the Navy – apparently literally tosses – after the fleets were converted to quartz chronometers in the 1990s. But Bob was happy to get it anyway. Hamilton chronometers have been touted as the world’s most accurate portable timepiece, even more precise than the highest-grade pocket watch, as well as a marvel of mass production, since the company succeeded in making thousands of them for wartime service.

At the mart we see more chronometers – in boxes and in the same metal canisters. (We also see Haller again, at his mart table, often busy with his cellular phone.) We even see a rare Dutch-made model, circa 1860, for $1400. There are many more than the usual number of clocks with ship’s bells here too. These strike the half-hour intervals during each four-hour watch on shipboard. That’s one bell at twelve-thirty, four bells at two o’ clock, five at two thirty, and so on until eight bells at four. And then back to the beginning again.

Nautical clock, B Street Pier

Nautical clock, B Street Pier

Got it? If you don’t, you can hear ship’s bells being rung by a nautical clock down at the B Street Pier, Cruise Terminal, at 1100 Harbor Drive. Designed and built in 1986 by NAWCC member Wilbur “Bill” Wemer, it was presented to the city and to the Port District by the San Diego Rotary Club to commemorate the Rotary’s 75th anniversary. (Werner is also the one who restored the Jessop clock in preparation for its move to Horton Plaza.)

One of the most famous makers of ship’s bells clocks is well-represented here today – the Chelsea Clock Company of Chelsea, Massachusetts, still in business about 30 miles from our house. (And Bob eventually does buy a Chelsea, though not a nautical model. It’s a desk model, time-only, a well-made clock, circa 1925. Price $150. Sellers: Mike and Donna Hamilton of Escondido.) Chelsea makes military-time clocks too, whose dials show the hours from 1 to 24. For a while we had one in our bathroom, but I found it discombobulating to go in there in the middle of the night, groggy, and try and figure out what time it was.

The relatively large number of nautical clocks is the one difference between this mart and all the others we’ve ever attended. We attribute the preponderance to the Navy influence in San Diego. Virtually everyone we meet has a Navy connection.

San Diego Courthouse, c. 1890

San Diego Courthouse, c. 1890

San Diego Historical Society photo

Verlyn Kuhlmann, treasurer of Chapter 59, is Navy too. Born in Sioux City, Iowa in 1932, he joined up in 1951 and came to San Diego for boot camp. When he got out in 1955, he went to the University of Denver, then returned to San Diego for a job at the old Naval Electronics Laboratory. Over 20 years ago at NEL he met someone who asked him to try his hand at fixing some clocks. The retired electronics engineer, who is dressed in a clock-patterned vest and black slacks (his wife, Phyllis, is dressed to match), has been doing it as a hobby ever since. “I like repairing clocks more than I like collecting them,” says Kuhlmann, who helped restore the courthouse clock and continues to maintain it with other chapter members today, oiling it, dusting it, and polishing the glass of its case every two or three years.

But here’s a measure of his modesty: he fails to mention that those first clocks he worked on were not beginner’s projects. One of them was carriage clock. A French invention, these have a small rectangular brass-and-glass case and a handle on top for easy carrying. The model Kuhlmann fixed was a repeater. This feature allowed a 19th- century gent to know the approximate hour even in the dark inside his carriage or in the middle of the night in his room at the inn, where he could push a button, and the clock’s sweet little tinkling bell would count the last hour for him again.

Kuhlmann, on his first time out, also fixed a 400-day clock. Alternatively called an anniversary clock, it was revolutionary because it only needed to be wound once a year, traditionally on one’s anniversary, instead of every week (as the 8-day clock) or every day (the 30-hour clock). Aaron D. Crane, an American, invented the first one in 1829.

Over the past few years, Kuhlmann, who joined the NAWCC in 1978 and was elected to the prestigious position of fellow of the organization in 1996, has put together a s slide show and talk called “Unique Public Clocks of San Diego.” In addition to the Jessop clock (and Bill Wemer’s nautical clock on Harbor Drive), Kuhlmann has researched some 20 others around the city and county. And this, in many important ways, is also a kind of collection. He is scheduled to give a talk here at the regional after lunch.

We assemble in a dark room. It’s cool and rather empty – only a dozen or so people are here. Kuhlmann has already given the talk to his fellow chapter members, so they’re not apt to want to hear it again. The rest of the crowd is still across the street, at the mart. Prices drop after noon, it’s generally understood.

One of the newer clocks he features we have certainly noted already on our travels around the city. It tops the free-standing tower at the trolley station at 12th and Imperial Avenues downtown. We’ve been admiring its four faces and red numerals and long red hands from many perspectives, including the one from the freeway, especially at night, thanks to its powerful backlighting.

Built in 1988, the clock was donated to the city by Ebel Watchmaker Company of Switzerland. A team of Swiss technicians put together the electric master and its four mechanical slaves. Several boxfuls and crateloads of slave parts had to be carried up 15 stories. “And keep in mind,” says Kuhlmann, “that there is no elevator or stairways, only ship’s ladders.”

Incrediball clock, Carlsbad

Incrediball clock, Carlsbad

Though we are horologically minded people, I’m not sure we would have noticed the full complement of other clocks that Kuhlmann featured in his slide show. And after we leave the mart and over the mext couple of days, we go to see the ones in the city, bypassing with regret the floral clock in Oceanside, the Incrediball in Carlsbad, and a few other far-flung ones. (We’re afraid of running out of time — sad but true, no matter how many clocks and watches we may have, we still have only the same 24-hour day as everybody else.)

Floral clock, Oceanside

Floral clock, Oceanside

A four-faced O.B McClintock bank clock from the 1950s is our first stop. It is on a bracket jutting out from a corner of the building on Sixth Avenue and Broadway, downtown. O.B. McClintock bank clocks were made in Minneapolis by the nationally known company whose namesake founder began making early burglar alarm systems in 1901. Similar clocks were made for banks in Port Townsend, Washington; Rockland, Maine; Fort Myers, Florida; and Corpus Christi, Texas, among other places, with the same attractive case as this one, in bronze, brass or copper. Unfortunately, it isn’t working; worse, we can see a part of the interior through a chink in one of the glass dials. It would be a worthy restoration job for someone, perhaps some members of NAWCC.

From the same era and G.R.O. is the electric street clock in front of the Parkhouse Eatery at 4574 Park Boulevard in University Heights. Originally built for San Diego real estate man Art Leitch and installed in another location it now has the name of the restaurant in red neon script encircling its luminous “Glo-Dial.” What it used to say and where it used to stand are unknown. (I talked to Art, whi is 87 years old,” Kuhlmann said, “but his memory is fading.”)

Ath the Museum of Natural History there is one more ‘50s model. While it’s not quite a clock, Kuhlmann included it with the others because, as he says, “it utilizes a horological device – the pendulum.”

It’s a Foucault pendulum (pronounced foo-KOE), made by the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco in 1957. The French physicist and astronomer Jean-Bernard-Leon Foucault was the first to use one in 1851, to prove that the earth rotates. When you see one for the first time, however, it is difficult to believe the truth.

It consists of a heavy ball suspended by a wire, which swings, and as it swings it knocks over object that have been set around its diameter. “The impression is that the swing plane of the pendulum is slowly rotating clockwise,” Kuhlmann says, “but in reality the earth is revolving beneath it in a counter-clockwise direction.”

Counterintuitive too, is the length of time it takes for the ball to knock down the whole circle of object. You might suppose it would take 24 hours. And a Foucault pendulum on the North Pole or the South Pole would. But in San Diego, it takes 44 ½ hours. That’s because of the angle of the earth at this latitude. (In San Francisco, it takes 39; in Mexico City, 72.)

Clock guys will tell you that pendulums have this much in common with Foucault’s: the rate of their back-and-forth motion is regular. This became apparent to Galileo long before Foucault’s time, while he sat in a drafty church watching a lamp suspended from the ceiling as it swung back and forth. Later Christian Huygens, the Dutch physicist and astronomer who gave the first accurate description of Saturn’s rings (after Galileo discovered them), pioneered the use of the pendulum in clocks, circa 1657.

A number of items on Kuhlmann’s list are from the 1980s and ‘90s. One is a graceful, gray-green, 20-foot solar street clock at the corner of Seventh and B downtown. It stands in front of what used to be Jacobs & Sons Jewelers – a gift to them from Seiko in 1983. The tiny solar collector (the size of a four-by-six index card) is on top. But while the jewelry store has moved away, it has not yet relocated its street clock. But while the jewelry store has moved away, it has not yet relocated its street clock. Meanwhile, it’s a landmark for those looking to eat lunch at Quizno’s.

On Orange Avenue in Coronado stands another, more traditional, street clock of about the same age as the Seiko. You can see it on the sidewalk just before you turn the corner into the Hotel Del’s main driveway. Fourteen feet tall with a double-faced, 30-inch dial, it’s painted white except for the hotel’s name, which is reddish brown (the color of the hotel’s roof). And it’s got an antique look that’s apt to fool some people, especially considering the pedigrees of most everything else in the immediate vicinity. Actually, it was made in 1986 by Canterbury as well as other companies: one at the Old Globe Theatre complex in Balboa Park; another near the junction of Adams Avenue and Ohio Street in Normal Heights, property of the Adams Avenue Businessman’s Association; and a third in front of the Home Savings Tower at Broadway and Third Avenue. But I find them inauthentic and gimmicky (although not as bad as the Clock Tower at Seaport Village). For the truth is that they are reproductions, trying to be something that aren’t. I prefer antiques to be antiques and new things to be truly new. And Bob is even worse.

“The only thing I buy new is groceries,” he likes to say.

Ironically, the newest clock in San Diego – and the one I find much more imaginative than the Victorian-style street clocks – is based on ancient models. It’s out on the Silver Strand, or it will be when it’s finished. Part of the 1.4 mile beautification project, Nature’s Bridge to Discovery, it’s due to be completed. Along with the rest, in the summer of 1999. It’s called a solstice clock, and to be fair, it’s more of a calendar than a clock.

One morning, we drove out Silver Strand Boulevard to see the site, a desolate strip on the bay side, where a bike path already exists, adjacent to the Navy’s Amphibious Base. The day was cloudy, not quite silvery, and the Navy’s rusty chain-link fence made the stretch look uninviting.

We continued on to the offices of the Schmidt Design Group on the edge of Banker’s Hill, the award-winning landscape architecture firm that designed the project and whose idea the solstice clock was. There we spoke to Mark Shelby, who is originally from Amherst, Massachusetts, as it happens.

Shelby showed us the plans for the project. Beach evening primrose and beach morning glory are two of the numerous native plants and shrubs that will be reestablished out there. A granite path will run the length of it. At four places there will be what are called Discovery Points. The solstice clock is number four, and the ultimate one, perhaps, since it’s at the path’s highest point – the only point where you will be able to see Point Loma and the Pacific.

The clock will consist of a low wall made of sand-colored concrete with seating – benches built around a circle. It’s as low as it is, because, as Shelby explained, “There couldn’t be anything over three feet in the whole design. Higher places would be attractive as nesting places for predatory birds, and the Strand is being developed as a refuge for least terns.” (Of course, he is nonplussed by the fact that, although the Navy’s ugly fence is obviously over three feet tall, “we’re not allowed to touch [it].” The Navy has, however, been cooperative in other ways. For one thing, they have donated sand to the project.)

At intervals the solstice seat wall, as it’s also called, will have spaces like a donut with pieces cut out. On its deck will be four chevrons – the points of a compass – as well as inlaid bands of shiny red brass. At sunset on the winter and summer solstice each year, the sun’s rays will shine through the openings in the donut and line up with the bands.

It’s something akin to Stonehenge, then, or Avebury, but on a miniscule scale. Its diameter is less than 20 feet.

Nor will Coronado encourage great hordes to converge on the sites on those days. As Shelby said, “They won’t make any big deal out of it. They aren’t going to advertise it or anything like that. It’s meant to be a place of quiet reflection.”

I thought it might be significant that Shelby wasn’t wearing a watch. Had he behind clock time for natural time? But no. His Wittnauer — “a gift from my wife at our wedding” – was in the shop.

Sometimes I think of watches as shackles and clocks as Big Brother’s eye. Of course, they’re our own inventions. We did it to ourselves, imbedding them in jewelry, making them into furniture, including them in architectural designs. Somehow, we seem to have thought that time-measuring devices might well control time itself. Instead, they have only succeeded in controlling us.

Emily Dickinson had it right, managing to escape the tyranny of clock time. I wish I had her “ignorance.”

“There’s no clock in the forest,” says Orlando in As You Like It, that pastoral dream. But it’s getting harder and harder to find a forest like that anymore.

So we may as well make our clocks and watches fascinating — even fun if we can.

Glockenspiel, Point Loma Nazarene University

Glockenspiel, Point Loma Nazarene University

On the last day of our week-long travels in San Diego, we went to see one final horological novelty on Verlyn Kuhlmann’s list: the glockenspiel at Point Loma Nazarene University.

It’s in the Ryan Library, in a lounge just to the right of the entrance. Get there a little before noon on any day to see the show yourself. Twenty-five animated figures, hand-carved out of wood, revolve on two turntables – knights in striped costumes, jesters in belled hats, dancers in long white stockings, and a king and queen in the balcony surveying it all – while a computer-programmed carillon plays German folk tunes. It can be heard not only in the lounge but outside the library, on loudspeakers.

Programmed by a clock-radio, it plays a seven-minute noon concert as well as a shorter one at 10:50 a.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays – mandatory chapel time. A one-seventh scale replica of the glockenspiel on top of a courthouse in Munich dating from 1904, this one was built in 1963 as a gift to the college that used to own this campus – California Western. It was presented by Jeanette Cary in memory of her late husband, Judge William Paxton Cary (1882-1943), a founding partner of the San Diego law firm Gray, Cary, Ames & Driscoll, superior court judge, and presiding judge to the Fourth District Court of Appeals. When the Nazarenes bought the campus in 1973, the glockenspiel came with it.

The Judge and Mrs. Cary had seen the original on a 1927 European tour, and both of them had been quite taken with it – and with the one-seventh scale model in a restaurant across the street, Mrs. Cary tracked down the replica’s makers and had them make a duplicate for her.

She presented it to the college, because, when the wind was right, she could hear it from her Point Loma home.

On the day of our visit, however, a student snoozing open-mouthed right in the corner of the lounge was undisturbed by it.

Only a while later did he wake up, glance at his wristwatch, and promptly go back to sleep.

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