Antiques & The Arts

Meet the Horologist Bringing Antiques Back to Life | Infrequently Asked Questions | Atlas Obscura

– How did this all start, for you? – I think it started because I was born an old man, basically. My name is Brittany Nicole
Cox, you can call me Nico. I’m an antiquarian
horologist, and I’m here today answering questions for Atlas Obscura. How do you describe your
profession to someone you just met? An antiquarian horologist is … well, it’s kind of a nebulous
title really, because it refers to anybody who
works on horological objects, but obviously antiquated items, so horological antiquities. (bell rings) All I have to say is,
“You’ve seen ‘Hugo,’ right?” And usually a lot of people
have and then I just say I’m like the kid, but I’m
not an orphan and I don’t live in a train station. My life is … reasonably magical. Although, you know, hopefully
there’s no tragedies. What does a typical day
of work look like for an antiquarian horologist? My day can be quite varied. Some days I’m working on
re-feathering a tiny singing bird. Some days I’m recovering bellows and restoring the lungs of that bird. Other days, maybe I’m
working on an antique clock, maybe it needs a new wheel,
or a new gathering pallet, or something of that nature. So, my day is very varied depending on what type
of object I’m working on. What is the oldest tool in your workshop, and what does it do? That is a really good question. I actually do not know
how old my oldest tool is. I have a lot of tools. I have thousands of tools. Everything from a cat
whisker used to balance, or poise, balance wheels
to a rose engine, which is a massive … it’s not massive,
but it’s probably one of my larger machines …
that’s used to create complex geometric patterns on metal. The rose engine is from the 1930s. I have older machines. I have a Francis pantograph engraver from the late 19th century. So I have a number of tools. I could never really say
what the oldest one was. What do you think about when you’re doing labor-intensive tiny work? Is it nothing?
Is it “don’t fuck up…don’t fuck up…don’t fuck up?” Yeah, of course it’s that. It really depends on what I’m doing. Maybe I’ll be thinking
about, you know, back to my existential thoughts
about existential risk. You know, I could just
even be thinking about how I’m not home soon enough to feed my cats. His name is Baxter Sebastian Sterling, also known as Mr. Moustache Pistachio. Sometimes you really have
no room to think about anything other than exactly
what it is that you’re doing. It requires all of your focus
and all of your attention. But yeah, the last thing
you want to hear is your horologist say “Fuck.” Do any of your projects, automata,
contraptions smell weird? Ooh, yes. Sometimes you find a lot of
… what we sometimes call “human” inside old watchbands
and things like that. Definitely has this musty
smell that you might even feel is reminiscent of a thrift
store and vintage clothes. And there’s also the smell of
like, old putrefying whales because whale oil was used
to lubricate mechanisms for a really long time, so
sometimes you even find bottles of whale oil that is still
good … still fresh. (laughs) Listening to a music box play “Für Elise” gives me goosebumps, but
playing the song on Spotify does nothing for me … why is that? (music box playing) I think it’s really because you’re having this tactile experience. There is something very
special about the fact that you have these tiny steel teeth
that are all cut to a very specific length and shape
and each one is tuned and resonates in a different
note, and when it’s plucked by a rotating cylinder with
tiny pins that have been programmed to play the song
for you, on demand, when you push the button and you wind it up. There’s something really
special about that. It’s almost ethereal. Do you wear a watch? If yes, what kind of
watch and why this watch? If no, really? Well, I’ll tell you this. I didn’t wear anything
but a Casio for many years because I couldn’t afford
a really good watch. I had a ten dollar thrift
store watch that I just changed the battery in. Today I am not wearing that watch though. I recently got a really cool Ernest Borel kaleidoscope watch. I had been wanting one with
a date and automatic module. I don’t have to wind this,
which is pretty fancy. If you like mechanical
watches, it’s pretty fun. How have the years you’ve
spent honing this particular skill-set prepared you for survival in a postapocalyptic world. I think that if we’re in a
postapocalyptic, AI-driven world, I’m hoping that the
artificial intelligent gods of the future will take
pity on me, knowing that I preserved their ancestors. How has your work changed
your relationship to time? Well, it’s made me painfully
more aware of time, and also how time affects
us, how it passes, how things change and degrade
and, you know, I spend so much of my day trying to reverse the
effects of time on something that was made to catalog
the passing of time. It’s quite complicated. – Why is it your specialty? – I love automata. They were always kind of my
favorite objects within this history and I think because they carry so much of our personality,
so much of our human spirit, these were really interesting
things that were made to investigate a lot of
philosophical questions. They were meant to test the limits of our creative and cognitive
capacities as human beings, and I just think that the history
and what it says about us is probably the most important message, maybe, from our past that we have. Uh, yeah, okay, right, yes, that’s fine. I feel fine about this … okay.

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