Keeping Time

Chelsea Clock has been crafting exquisite timepieces in its Everett Avenue factory since the turn of the 20th century.

chelsea clock companyA brass clock from the Voyager collection is just one of the many timepieces made in Chelsea. (Photos by Pat Piasecki)

As the only remaining manufacturer of mechanical timepieces in America, Chelsea Clock is a piece of living history. “We are like the last Mohicans,” says owner and CEO J. K. Nicholas, who bought Chelsea Clock in 2006. The origins of the company, which still operates out of its original brick factory on the Mystic River, date back to 1897, when Boston manufacturing mogul Charles Pearson acquired the Eastman Clock Company and renamed it Chelsea Clock. Under Pearson’s leadership, the company landed contracts with major clients, including Rolls Royce, Tiffany & Co., and the U.S. military.

Eventually, the brand became synonymous with marine timepieces, especially the ship’s bell clock, patented in 1900. Designed for Navy vessels, it rings every thirty minutes—gaining a bell with each strike—to signal the end of a four-hour watch. As the son of a naval officer and grandson of a naval captain, Chelsea Clock’s current owner has long admired these iconic pieces. Sitting in his exposed-brick office, Nicholas slides a small brass desktop clock, engraved with the presidential seal and signature, across the table. “President Obama took [several of these] to Europe during his first trip as president, and gave them to notable dignitaries,” Nicholas says. “Don’t tell him I kept one for myself.”

All of the clocks Chelsea produces start in the basement, where brass is cut or stamped to create the 300-plus components (cylindrical cases, wheels, gears, bushings, and pins) that go into a single mechanism. Much of the company’s equipment dates back to the early 1920s, explains marketing director Patrick Capozzi as he weaves through the maze of roaring machinery that mill various parts, blanketing the cement floor with flecks of brass dust. He walks past one machine operator sanding down a clock’s back plate as water rushes over it to keep it from overheating. When the operator is done, he’ll send the piece down the line for buffing, polishing, and lacquering before silver is applied to the dial with a fine horsehair brush. The clock’s numbers and letters will then be etched and filled with black enamel.

Upstairs in the assembly room, employee Jean Yeo is putting together the inside of a 6-inch ship’s bell with a pair of tweezers. She uses a loupe over her eyeglasses to see the clock’s tiny parts. Yeo began working in the factory more than 60 years ago, after graduating from Chelsea High School in 1951. At the moment, she’s the only one on the 35-person team who can make this particular model, which can take hours depending on the availability of certain parts.

Because clockmaking is no longer taught in schools, Yeo will have to train her successor. “You have to have a lot of patience,” Yeo says, pointing out the tiny pins, gears, wheels, and escapements (the timepiece’s Switzerland-imported “heartbeat”) that go into each clock. “Everything has to be absolutely perfect or the clock isn’t gonna strike.”

Many Chelsea clocks, however, were never meant to go to sea. The familiar yacht-wheel clocks, for instance, were designed to be mantelpieces. Over the years, Chelsea has made timepieces for homes, offices, and automobiles (ranging in price from $200 to more than $2,000), which are now available through their website or at shops like Shreve, Crump & Low.

Apart from the 15,000 to 20,000 clocks sold each year, Chelsea also repairs and restores vintage timepieces. Bhupat Patel, one of four repair specialists, stands over his desk in a long white lab coat. Most clocks, he says, eventually return to the factory for a tune-up.

The company’s meticulous record-keeping (each clock is marked with a serial number that was recorded in log books) makes it easy to identify where a timepiece has been and when it was last serviced. “We get clocks that are 80, 90, even 100 years old,” Patel says, pulling out a picture of a ship’s bell that was badly charred in a fire, nothing recognizable in the photo except the clock’s shape. “Now look at it,” he says, pointing to a like-new clock ticking on the wall. “It’s been completely restored to its original luster.”

chelsea clock company

Clockwise from left: new clocks are monitored for at least two weeks to ensure accuracy; the factory has changed little since the late 1800s; components are arranged at a workstation; a repair specialist inspects a clock’s intricate inner workings.

chelsea clock company

Clockwise from left: Jean Yeo assembles a ship’s bell; a finished clock sits on a Thomas Moser cherry base; an array of hand tools are required to complete each complex mechanism.

chelsea clock company

Left: Factory employees assemble a large order of quartz clocks. Right: Silver is applied to a clock dial with a horsehair brush.

chelsea clock company

Clockwise from top left: These brass gears will be used to make the ship’s bell clock, Chelsea’s flagship model; since the first recorded sale to Daniel Pratt Son Company, in 1900, every Chelsea Clock transaction has been archived; a sampling of clockmaking instruments includes molds, tooling, and sanding blocks.

chelsea clock company

Left: restored and repaired clocks are arranged on a wall at the factory. Right: brass clock posts, designed for the Chatham clock, will be used to fasten a piece to its mounting.