Horologist Jim Michaels Is Keeping Time, History Alive

July 21, 2019 Updated: January 31, 2020

GETTYSBURG, Pa.—When Jim Michaels got started in watchmaking, everyone coming through his shop was looking for something to tell time.

“When I started, everybody had to have a watch and everybody was constantly obsessed with the time it kept,” Michaels said.

Today, his shop sits right in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania’s Center Square and he rarely, if ever, gets a customer looking for something to help keep time.

“Now, it’s more of a piece of artwork,” Michaels said.

It’s a novelty—many visitors to the House of Time are drawn in by the unusual and rare, sometimes literally one-of-a-kind, timepieces from the mechanical era, when clockmaking was a creative craft.

“There are not many mechanical things made 200 to 300 years ago that still work as intended, you know,” Michaels said.

Some clients are collectors, people who want to have a piece of history, whether it be mechanical history or something to connect them to a great historical figure or event. There are also students from the nearby Gettysburg College who come to marvel at Michaels’s work.

“Most people are shocked even to see a watchmaker,” Michaels said. He really has had people say, “Wow! A real watchmaker!”

“College kids that are 16, 17, 18 come in, and they’ve never seen a mechanical watch before,” Michaels said. “They go, ‘Wow, this is cool. How does it work? … Where do you put the battery in and where do you plug it in?'”

Michaels tells them: Magic.

Then, he explains this was before batteries and electric, that the mainspring was a technology used in the 1500s to make portable timepieces, and so on. They’re awed. In an age in which we are used to constantly throwing things away, the level of skill and care Michaels infuses in his handiwork brings out a sense of nostalgia even for those of us who’ve never owned a nonelectronic watch.

Michaels has been a horologist for 53 years. He remembers being the youngest of the crowd of watchmakers around, and says the secret to his success might just be that there are very few of them left. As a result, there’s more work than he could possibly do nowadays, but nobody else knows how to do it. It is a dying art.

jim michaels in gettysburg
Jim Michaels has been a horologist for 53 years. He runs the House of Time in Gettysburg, Pa. (Tal Atzmon/NTD)

He taught thousands of students for years at the School of Horology in Columbia, Pennsylvania, before he moved to Gettysburg decades ago.

“There’s more to watchmaking than just changing a part,” he said. “I manufacture parts for old pieces that are missing. You really have to know what you’re doing: you have to know math, you have to know machining skills, you have to know a lot about a lot of different stuff, metallurgy, heat treatment … So it’s a broad-based knowledge.”

Michaels has worked on everything from World War II-era ship chronometers, to big building clock towers, to watches as old as from the 1600s.

“Which is nice—there’s always a new challenge down the road each day.”

Piece of History

Near the front of the shop is a counter full of pocket watches displayed chronologically.

The earliest ones date back to when people were able to tell time accurately within about an hour. “You’d set the watch with your sundial,” Michaels joked. By the next century, the watches were probably accurate within around 10 minutes, and then in the railroad era, workers needed exacting timepieces that kept the trains on the rails at the right time.

While Michaels mostly carries items from the 1800s, the wristwatches can date as late as the 1940s, or the World War II era.

He’s well-versed in antique auctions and knows where to get rare and unique items, such as a wind-up clock that strikes a match when the alarm goes off.

“I like showing people different things that they’ve never seen before, never even thought of, or knew that even existed,” Michaels said.

“And then I like the fact of taking something that hasn’t worked for 150 years and bringing it back to life.”

Michaels said he has been interested in the mechanical since he was a child; in fact, it was a watch that fueled that interest.

jim michaels repairing
Michaels repairs old pocketwatches that are completely mechanical. Parts are often broken or missing, and he has to fabricate them himself. Some of the parts include screws the width of a human hair. (Tal Atzmon/NTD)

“I was 9 years old, and my father took me around to four or five different watchmakers to get his father’s pocket watch fixed—and no one could do it,” Michaels said. His father ended up giving him the defunct pocket watch to play with, and Michaels tinkered away.

When it came time for college, Michaels said it was between veterinarian or watchmaking, and he chose watchmaking. He enjoys being able to work on a watch, and see that it works.

“And I love history, I love preserving history,” Michaels said. “A watch speaks to you: You take something from the 1700s and you can actually understand the guy’s personality that made the watch. He did things that only another watchmaker will see—it didn’t make the watch run better, but it made it prettier, has some of his character in it. That’s a piece of artwork, basically.”

He’d visited Gettysburg multiple times in his childhood and grew up with an appreciation for history. Michaels likes every piece he brings into his shop, but has a slight personal preference for the ones tied to stories of the past.

“I have Admiral Farragut’s pocket watch,” Michaels said. “He’s the first admiral of the United States and he’s the one that said ‘Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!’ I have the pocket watch that he used during the Civil War.”

Michaels said we might not be as obsessed with counting seconds as we used to be, but there’s something about an old timepiece that conveys what that meant to the people before us. So even if the pieces in his shop aren’t prized for functionality any longer, he’s glad that there is an interest in what he does.

“I think there’s a place for history and watches tell a nice story, and clocks, all through time. And everyone used time at one point, and we got where we are because of these things,” Michaels said. “It’s just something that we shouldn’t forget about.”

Of course, occasionally there will be the skeptical shop browser who asks Michaels why anyone would pay so much for a mechanical watch when they can get one for $5. He’ll tell them that you can buy a Rembrandt, and you can buy a paint-by-numbers, and they’re both pictures that you can put on your wall.

“What’s the difference? It’s the one who made it, it’s how it’s made—same with watches; they’re hand-done, and they’re beautiful,” he said.