Chelsea Clock Company: Making Time Their Business For 119 Years

CHELSEA (CBS) — The first thing you notice as you walk up to the second floor at 101 Second Street in Chelsea is the sound.

It’s the sound of constant ‘ticking,’ with bells and chimes ringing intermittently. The second thing you notice are the clocks.

There are mantel clocks, wall clocks, nautical clocks, military clocks–all of them made by the Chelsea Clock Company.

J.K. Nicholas is owner and CEO. He calls his company a throwback to history, and it’s quite a throwback.

Try the year 1897.

“It’s the last remaining clock company in the United States, so to some degree, there is an element of we’re the only one standing,” he says.

When you take a tour of the manufacturing area, you realize that not much has changed over the past 119 years.

“It’s where all of the brass parts are either churned out or cut or assembled,” says Chelsea Clock Marketing Director Patrick Capozzi. “A lot of these machines are from the 1900s, and you can see that they are pretty old. They spit a lot of oil but they chunk out parts like gears, so, these gears that drive the ship’s bell clock, these parts are all solid brass.”

Some of them are sent out to be gold plated, which helps prevent corrosion from moisture.

Capozzi heads back upstairs to the repair floor, where Bob Ockenden, a certified master clockmaker, sits hunched over time pieces.

He’s wearing magnifying eyeglasses and has several neatly arranged hand tools at the ready.

“Well, essentially, everything that I have in my hand now is derived from the same principals that were first applied to clock making 700 years ago,” he explains. “The only thing that’s changed is the level of sophistication in materials and our capabilities to produce finer quality parts.”

Ockenden has been repairing clocks for 49 years.

“In order to become a certified master clockmaker you have to understand the basic theory behind escapements, which is the brain of the clock,” he says. “You have to understand the materials, including the structural materials involved and their alloying and things like that,so, metallurgy. You have to have a grasp of the history of timekeeping from 700 years ago until the present day, and you have to have a broad range of knowledge of the entire spectrum of timekeeping devices from the most ancient to more or less, modern.”

Nick Butt is his apprentice. He’s been working at the Chelsea Clock Company for three years.

“I like working with clocks,” he says. “It’s a simple machine, the parts, and they only do one thing, but to get them to do that is difficult. It’s rewarding when it’s done, getting over the challenge.”

He adds that prior to working at Chelsea Clock, he had never even wound a watch.

Chelsea clocks have graced the White House, and Admiral Richard Byrd used Chelsea marine clocks on his expedition to the South Pole.

The ship’s bell clock is Chelsea Clock Company’s most popular clock, and Nicholas thinks he knows why.

“First off, it is a sound that signifies the watches on board a ship, so the actual symbolic nature of the tones are according to the three watches on board old naval ships,” he explains. “They chime according to a rhythm that most people don’t understand. There are 8 bells at 4 o’clock, and so unless you begin to understand that, it doesn’t really make much sense logically.”

“However, another way to look at it, and this is something that I feel and many of our customers feel that it adds a certain dimension to the room, a quality of sound that is a rich sound. For many of our customers, it reminds them of their childhood. Their grandfather had one and so it sort of pulls you back in time, almost like a favorite song in a prior part of your life.”

Nicholas sometimes wishes he could go back in time, to 1897.

“It probably wasn’t quite as fast as it is today,” he says. “I know a second is still a second, but things have changed, haven’t they?”

It also gives master clock maker Ockenden a unique perspective.

“It’s the only irreplaceable commodity,” he says. “It’s everything.”

WBZ NewsRadio 1030’s Mary Blake reports

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