In my mind, talented craftsmen are the backbone of any production-based society. However nowadays, with our fixation on university degrees, they’re becoming a dying breed, fast. Just go poke around a workshop near you and you’ll understand exactly what I mean – if the majority of artisans you see bent fastidiously over their machinery aren’t past retirement age yet, they’re getting pretty damn close.
For them, on a personal level, this means the inconvenience of having no youngsters’ to carry their heavy toolboxes, or to work in tight crevices that their less-malleable bodies find nigh on impossible to get into. But most importantly, for us it means no transfer of valuable, hard-earned knowledge or time-honoured skills. Apart from being an absolute travesty, this doesn’t exactly help our economy grow in the way would all like to see it either.
Clockmaker Jacques Arzul isn’t exactly what you’d call a stereotypical artisan, but his dilemma is a familiar one for those working in the trades. Try as he might, he can’t find a find a suitable candidate interested in learning the horological skills he’s accumulated over the last half century – even though they stand to inherit his Stellenbosch-based business, Gun O’ Clock, someday.
Arzul’s chosen profession is a fascinating one. However, it’s in the nature of his craft that much painstaking handiwork goes unnoticed. After all, how do you showcase a small delicately tapered steel shaft fabricated from scratch, or a repaired tooth on a wheel (clocks don’t have gears – only toothed wheels) for a timepiece that’s been neglected for two or three generations?
Still, there’s at least one example of his work that the general public is truly able to appreciate: the Odobey turret clock (manufactured in France around 1880) on display at the Tokara wine estate. In fact, he did such a good job restoring its mechanism, and faithfully sticking to its design when fabricating the new 1,8 m-diameter clock face and chime striking mechanism, that he was made a Fellow of the British Horological Institute in recognition of it. “Although most people visit Tokara to taste their wines, many come specifically to see the clock,” says Arzul. “This gives me a huge sense of satisfaction.”
Working with tolerances of a hundredth of a millimetre, he had to envisage the three-dimensional space the striking mechanism would occupy within the clockwork without interfering with any of the clock’s inner components. “I designed each new part in the same style of the manufacturer in such a way that the clock could be returned to its original condition without any trace of transformation. I didn’t want to modify the original design at all. This included no welding, drilling or tapping of any extra holes anywhere,” Arzul says. “So now, if the clock ever gets a new owner, it can be easily restored back to its former state with minimal fuss.”
When working on more run-of-the-mill timepieces, Arzul prefers to describe himself as a clock forensics expert. “My job is more about fixing the abuse the clocks I see have been subjected to over time than overhauling and maintaining them,” says Arzul. “For me it’s a tragedy that these clocks, made by hand with so much love and dedication, get neglected this way.”
Now 66, Arzul still has plenty of life in him and doesn’t see himself hanging up his specialised tooling anytime soon. But he can feel his body slowing down. “I can tell I’m losing the strength in my hands when doing mechanical work. And, although climbing up church towers isn’t that athletic, you do need to be fit!”
Now that he can foresee his long, satisfying career eventually coming to an end, he’s on the hunt for a like-minded individual who would be willing to learn under him and, one day, take over his business. As far as Arzul’s concerned, aptitude and the right attitude are way more important than qualifications. “As long as a person is a natural perfectionist, and has incredibly fine motor skills it doesn’t really matter what their background is. Anyone from a toolmaker, to a surgeon or disillusioned jeweller would have the potential to do well.”
To find out more, call Jacques Arzul on 021-887 6889, or e-mail him on firstname.lastname@example.org
Read the full story in the June issue of Popular Mechanics – on sale on 23 May.