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Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Milwaukee’s Masters of Time

Clockwork in the digital age

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It’s the top of the hour inside Hawkins Clock Center and the store erupts into a symphony of clockwork. There are Swiss melodies and Westminster chimes, gonging sounds, birds chirping and springing from cuckoo clocks, and everywhere the ticking of clock hands and pendulums.

Hawkins Clock Center sits on the corner of S. 73rd St. and W. Greenfield Ave. in West Allis and has been run by Earl and Gloria Hawkins since 1970. The husband and wife team started with just sales and repair of antique clocks, but have since expanded to include a wide range of clocks, watches and Italian music boxes. They manufacture their own line, Stoneybrook Clocks, utilizing American-made cabinets and German mechanical clock movements.

In addition to their own brand, the owners carry a wide range of styles from around the world. There are German tellurium clocks and Swiss cuckoos and a section of contemporary-style clocks. The price range varies greatly—from hundreds to thousands of dollars (an elaborate grandfather clock can easily run $10,000 or more), depending on size and materials. But in a digital age, does a market still exist for these old grandpas? Gloria Hawkins admits things have changed.

“I used to be able to sell a grandfather clock to everyone who bought a new house, because that was considered the finishing touch,” she says. “Now people are so busy they don’t have time to wind a clock. But you do still have a group of people that hold on to the tradition. It’s like fashion and design, things come back around again.”

Hawkins adds that one area of steady growth has been the shop’s repair business, which has remained consistently busy working on family heirlooms.

“Especially in this economy, a lot of people that used to buy new things are getting their old things fixed.” Hawkins says.

 

Not a Dead Art

It is this demand for clock repair that has helped Karyn Critelli’s business, Village Clock Shop (villagemaker.com), stay afloat. Critelli operates out of a workshop in her Muskego home. Her training began 27 years ago, when she attended a school in Paris, Texas, and became certified in horology, the art and science of measuring time. That was followed by a scholarship to a training program in Switzerland, and then a six-year apprenticeship under a master clock- and watchmaker in Ridgefield, Conn.

Critelli moved from Connecticut to Muskego two years ago where she’s been steadily building a clientele in Milwaukee and Chicago. She also returns to the East Coast periodically to work on client’s clocks.

“It’s certainly a changing field,” Critelli says of the clock business. “But there’s always going to be great sentimental value attached to clocks, so I don’t think it’s a dying art. If you find someone with an old clock and they love it and if you can fix it and give it back to them, it’s a great feeling of satisfaction.”

 

The Nostalgia Business

Karen White opened an early version of her store, Little Swiss Clock Shop, in 1968. Her husband was a watchmaker and repairman and their first store was a tiny watch shop in downtown Waukesha.

Popular demand led them to expand into clocks. White recalls “a little old lady” who repeatedly stopped in looking to get her mantle clock fixed, but the Whites told her the equipment they had wasn’t set up for such repairs. “Finally she came in with the clock and said ‘I want this fixed,’ set it down on the counter, and walked out the door,” White recalls, laughing. “She was very adamant.”

White’s husband used the flat surface of the windowsill to work on the clock, and soon window shoppers were stopping in to ask about clock sales. “Things mushroomed from there,” White says. In 1978 they moved to their current, larger quarters in downtown Waukesha (270 W. Main St., Waukesha). Like Hawkins Clock Center, Little Swiss Clock Shop carries a range of timepieces—rows of grandfather clocks, a counter filled with watches, and walls of cuckoos and musical clocks—and they also operate a bustling repair shop.

Besides repairs, White says she thinks analog timepieces hold a certain appeal for the electronic generation—nostalgia. “A lot of them grew up with mechanical clocks in their parents’ or grandparents’ homes,” White explains, then carefully moves the hour hand of an elegant mahogany grandfather clock to twelve o’ clock. A rich bell sound rings out the Westminster chime.

“It’s just a mellow sound that you get accustomed to in the background,” she says. “ I think it gives a house a warm feeling—it’s what makes a house a home.”

Tea Krulos writes about music and culture for the Shepherd Express.

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