Meet Jacques Arzul, master horologist and clock forensics expert

Meet Jacques Arzul, master horologist and clock forensics expert
Date:25 May 2011 Tags:,

Restoring exquisite clock antiques to their original tick-tock splendour demands precision, artistry – and dogged forensics

Jacques Arzul belongs to a vanishing breed of craftsmen. For nearly half a century, this master horologist has been repairing and refurbishing exquisite antique timepieces. But time, as the old saying goes, waits for no man. Realising that he can’t continue his lifelong passion forever, Arzul is searching for a really elusive gem: a worthy apprentice who, once deemed competent, can follow in his fastidious footsteps.

Nestled among the historic whitewashed buildings in the tranquil, tree-lined sidestreets of Stellenbosch, you’ll find Jacques Arzul’s shop, Gun O’ Clock. Inside, it oozes olde-worlde charm: elegant grandfather clocks share wall space with Bavarian cuckoo clocks, musical boxes and large old tower clock mechanisms sourced from Europe.

Arzul himself has been around a while. He has plied his highly specialised trade from the same premises since 1972. “I believe I have the oldest surviving shop in town that’s still under the same ownership,” he says.

It’s in the nature of this 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 his feat. “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.”

The Odobey was in shocking condition when Arzul acquired it. “Typically, these clocks go through 50 to 100 years of abuse before finding their way into a modern clockmaker’s hands,” he explains. One of the hardest parts of restoring this classic to good health was working out its remontoire (the mechanism it uses to wind itself). Because turret-clock manufacturers have no idea where the striking mechanism will eventually be placed, they never include this component in their designs. So Arzul had no choice but to fabricate the “missing links” himself.

Working with tolerances of a hundredth of a millimetre, he had to visualise 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.”

The simplest striking mechanism involves a cable that pulls a hammer (clapper) on to a bell to be struck. But invariably, the structure where the clock is to be installed doesn’t allow for this. Plus, old turret striking clocks (powered by gravity) require two weights to provide a driving force with adequate torque: one drives the timepiece, the other powers the striking mechanism.

As soon as Arzul saw where the clock was to be installed, he immediately realised he was going to have to make a plan. His only option was to fit the 185 kg weight required for the striking mechanism (a hollow iron structure fillled with lead) inside a vertical steel H-beam in the room next door. Says Arzul: “I knew what I had to do, but my main problem was how to get it there!” His solution: design, manufacture and install a system of heavy-duty pulleys and stainless steel cabling (normally used for yacht rigging) to raise and lower the cables around a door and negotiate corners.

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. It’s a tragedy that these clocks, made by hand with so much love and dedication, get neglected in this way.”

Concerned owners often bring their non-ticking heirlooms to him, maintaining that they’ve run for 30 years without any problems until now. Here’s the thing: clocks should go no more than five years between services. “No oil remains a lubricant forever,” Arzul explains. “When it’s no longer a lubricant, it becomes oleic acid, and that’s highly corrosive to both brass and steel – exactly what the inner components of a clock are made of.”

Dust is a killer. Although a clock’s outer casing prevents large dust particles from getting inside, the finer stuff , invariably minute quartz particles, can enter with ease. “Add oleic acid, corroded brass and steel as well as quartz into the mix, and you may as well call it grinding paste,” Arzul says. “. is lethal concoction wreaks havoc on bearings and pivots.”

After many years, it’s not surprising that components fail or go missing. That’s when Arzul goes into Clockmaker: CSI mode. “First, I study all the adjacent components to see what they do. Then I count the teeth on the remaining wheels. After that, I identify the attachment point for the missing wheel to determine its diameter before fabricating a new one.”

Replacing a broken tooth on a wheel entails cutting into the wheel to create a female dovetail joint and hand-fashioning the male counterpart. It’s a painstaking process that doesn’t end until he achieves a tight, precise that doesn’t require any solder. There’s a reason for this. “When you heat up the metal, you weaken it, but when hammering it into position, I actually make it harder. By the time I’ve finished, the wheel can be machined on my lathe without the tooth getting dislodged.”

Finally, he uses files to shape the new tooth until it matches the others.

Fixing timepieces is a finicky, drawn-out business that requires huge amounts of concentration. So, to prevent boredom from setting in, Arzul indulges his other passion – firearms, constantly alternating between his two interests to “keep himself fresh”.

His interest in the more explosive side of mechanics began while watching a friend clean his firearm in the early 1970s. He found the entire process intriguing. “To me, their inner workings are like complex, metallic Chinese puzzles,” Arzul says. “Because their components are hidden by the gun’s outer body, you can only envisage how they all fit together by using your mind’s eye.”

Apart from maintaining and storing valuable firearms for collectors, he also modifies them – just because he can. His handiwork includes a custom-built silencer and mods to a .22 pistol that would make 007 proud, and a 1940s double-barrelled flare gun he converted into a seriously wicked shotgun pistol.

Now 66, Arzul still has plenty of life in him and doesn’t see himself hanging up his specialised tooling any time 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 drawing 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 jarzul@iafrica.com

A brief history of the study of time

In antiquity, the concept of time as we now understand it was, to all intents and purposes, irrelevant. Today, our harried, hightech lives are rigidly dictated by hours, minutes and even seconds, but our distant ancestors had much simpler regimes; the rising and setting of the Sun dictated their productive waking hours, and grumbling bellies told them it was lunchtime.

It was probably by accident that the first timekeeping device was discovered, when some ancient, anonymous rocket scientist observed that, if you planted a stick in the ground, its shadow moved in conjunction with the Sun as it travelled along its ecliptic path. From that came the sundial.

The water clock, incorporating a bowl that was either filled or emptied within a certain period of time, had one major advantage over the sundial – it could be used at night. Other timing devices included marked candles, lamps that would burn a measured amount of oil, and sand timers.

The Chinese appear to have been the first to adopt complex mechanics in their attempts to measure time accurately. In 1094 AD, a Buddhist monk by the name of Su Song completed a 12-metre-tall water-powered tower clock for Chinese emperor Zhezong. Designed to reveal the movement of the stars as well as the hours of the day, it featured figures that popped out of doors and struck bells to signify the hours. Interestingly, it also incorporated a primitive escapement mechanism – an indispensable mechanical clock component, as it regulates the intermittent bursts of movement required to drive the mechanism.

By the 1200s massive tower clocks began appearing all over Europe but, being terribly inaccurate, they featured no hands. Instead, they told the time by striking bells (“glock” in German – where the English word “clock” come from). Eventually they came with one hand and, only much later, two. As technology progressed, clocks eventually grew smaller and smaller, until they became “must-have” items for the rich. This trend culminated in the development of the watch around 1500.

It was only when Dutch mathematician Christiaan Huygens incorporated a pendulum into a timepiece in 1656 that clock accuracy took a huge leap forward – improving from within hours to within minutes a day. And, even though technical improvements continued unabated, it was only when the vacuum tube was invented in the 1920s, and the transistor entered the scene around 1940, that modern-day accuracy could be achieved.

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