It’s winding day at Raffety, the antique clock dealership in Kensington established by Nigel Raffety in 1979. Though today international horological innovation is concentrated on wristwatches, and the ever greater miniaturisation and complication of their mechanisms, Raffety’s showroom is a cathedral to the cutting edge of the 17th century. Here, the gentle chatter of the longcase clocks lining the walls and the smaller, ornate carriage clocks arranged on tables, attest to the enduring skill of the craftsmen who built them over 300 years ago.
Through his career as one of the last traditional clockmaking apprentices in Clerkenwell and as a horological expert at Christie’s, Raffety has gained a unique perspective on a simultaneously British and international horological tradition. So, above the hubub of chiming and clicking as each clock is carefully wound, Sekford sat down with Raffety to discuss what attracted him to the industry, his experience at the historic centre of British horology and the nature of clockmaking today.
What sparked your interest in horology?
There had always been an antique pocket watch in the cabinet at home growing up. When I was 14 I became intrigued, and thought I’d look at it and take it apart. I saw virtually the same watch illustrated in a book, so I bought it, and that’s when I got the bug. Then, later, I got to meet people who were either at the bench, working on the practical side of horology, or who were more museum based.
How did you begin your professional career?
I undertook one of the last traditional apprenticeships with the traditional clockmaker, John Galbraith, who came from many generations of clockmakers in Glasgow. After four or five years of that I had to make a decision whether I was going to remain at the bench or not. I decided that I really should look further afield, applied to the salesrooms and, after some time, found myself at Christie’s.
What was Clerkenwell like at that time?
When I started my apprenticeship there were still a number of workshops that, along with clockmaking, were practicing subsidiary trades – engraving and silver smithing, for example. Every week I would go round to these specialists to get the various parts we’d need. At that time, you could effectively get your clock made by the talents around you, and that would have been the same in the 19th century. It was very Dickensian. The workshop I had had a lethal spiral staircase and when you were handling valuable clocks, it wasn’t the ideal environment.
Why did it decline?
The hours that go into making something like a clock – it’s not commercial. Restoring is one thing, but to actually make something from scratch is a very costly exercise. The actual economics of clockmaking as such became redundant.
How useful is it to have a technical and mechanical understanding of clockmaking?
It is very important because the originality of the clocks is central to their value. Over the years salesmen did silly things to the clocks to make them run and I could see what needed to be done to restore them back to their original condition. It really helped me at Christie’s and later, having done that for five years, I thought it was time to start doing it myself.
What is the status of clockmaking today?
There are a few people who still make clocks, but they are very specialist. I think there’s some wonderful work being done but it’s not on a commercial scale and at a cost within everyone’s capabilities. So it’s bespoke. But then a lot of these clocks were bespoke in their time and very valuable objects. Even a major house might only have one clock, and they would be carried around. When you went to bed your man would come with the clock to the bedroom and set it up, because they were very valuable objects. In fact I think they were more valuable in their day than they are now.
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