Mark Purdy's life as a clockmaker isn't so much about telling time as it is about telling stories.
From a Hopkins storefront bursting with wheels, gears, chimes and springs, Purdy repairs rare clocks from all over the world. He's fixed clocks from Hong Kong to Pakistan, from Russia to Germany.
And nearly every one has a tale to tell.
"I once fixed an 18th-century clock for the family of an Auschwitz survivor," he said. "Nobody in the family had ever seen it run, but it was an important connection for them. When it was running again, everyone was so happy. It was pretty cool to be a part of that story."
Another clock, when opened, bore the original inscription of a clockmaker from 1729 — and a later note, scratched into the metal, indicating that it had been cleaned and repaired for the coronation of England's King Edward VII in 1901.
In a digital age, Purdy said, old clocks provide a sense of peace that's often missing in our harried world.
"People like the ticking and the chiming," said Purdy, 59. "It's comforting to know that the old clock is running."
On a recent visit to Purdy's shop, Blackstone Manor Clock Repair, a woman came in the door with an elaborately carved reproduction of a French mantel clock. She didn't need it repaired; she was moving, and she wanted Purdy to find it a good home.
"Find somebody that will love it," she said, much as she might have said if dropping off a foundling infant.
We take timekeeping for granted. Rarely are we far from a cheap, accurate clock — on a phone, a wrist, a wall or a computer.
But clocks once were rare and expensive. They were among the most technologically advanced machines on Earth, the supercomputers of their day. With brass and steel and simple tools, artisans fashioned intricate mechanisms capable of amazing accuracy.
Befitting their status, they were usually encased in beautifully carved wood or precious metal. They often included additional mechanical flourishes, such as the Dutch clock from the early 1800s on display in Purdy's shop. Its face features a fleet of sailing ships on a blue sea, with the ships and waves rocking back and forth in time with the movements of the clock.
In a twist, clocks later became one of the first mass-produced items of the Industrial Age. By the end of the 19th century, the hall clock, the wall clock and the mantel clock had become fixtures in American homes.
Purdy sees them all, but he gets the most enjoyment out of opening up the preindustrial clocks.
"Taking them apart and seeing the history of what they could build with the tools they had back then — that's an amazing thing," he said. "When we see solder, and things filed and bent [from previous, inexpert repairs], we try to get it back to the original maker's intention."
Purdy also sells rare clocks. The most expensive one in his shop right now is a 1795 London long case clock (what we'd call a grandfather clock) priced at $9,000. For an antique clock of real quality, Purdy said, collectors expect to pay at least $5,000 — "and it can be much, much more."
The Twin Cities area is home to several world-class clock collections. Purdy has serviced some of the clocks, but won't divulge the identity of their owners. One local aficionado has the world's largest collection of Vienna regulators and carriage clocks. "Regulators" got their name because they were so accurate that they were used to regulate the time for an entire town.
Another local collector has an array of long-running, precision regulators that rarely require winding. One of the clocks is so accurate that it needs to be wound only once every 10 years.
Market is declining
Although Purdy's shop is busy (he and his two associates have a two-month backlog), the overall market for collector clocks is in decline, said Jerry Freitag, a spokesman for the American Watchmakers-Clockmakers Institute, an Ohio-based industry certification and education organization.
"The people who care about old things are old, and they're dying," Freitag said. "Our local store that had grandfather clocks closed up a few years ago. At auction, the price of antique clocks is about half of what it was a few years ago."
Freitag himself doesn't even own a watch: "I look at my phone," he said.
Recent years have seen a surge of interest in expensive wristwatches, some priced at $50,000 or more. But that interest hasn't carried over into the clock trade, Purdy said. Watches are like jewelry; clocks are like furniture. While people may be willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars for a piece of jewelry, fewer are willing to spend that much on a piece of furniture.
But for those whose clocks have a story, price isn't an object. Purdy's associate, Jonathan Simmons, has seen people spend $500 to repair a clock worth $300, because it belonged to Grandma.
"You're sharing a piece of their lives that's very important to them," Simmons said. "The joy that the customer expresses — they're just so happy to get their clock back, and it's priceless."