The Industry in the 21st Century

Have your clients said that you must be a dying breed as your industry has just about vanished?  Is your client correct when they say we are a dying breed and that the industry we belong to is now in its death throws?

How do we define our industry is it by the approximately 700 years of clock and watchmaking history. Is it the high end watchmaker’s work that is the pinnacle of the watchmaker’s art? Is it the new generation of ground breaking technology? Or maybe even the extreme design in watches that have wrist watches being made that don’t even tell the time. My customers complain when they bring their watch in not keeping time maybe we should tell that for $70,000 they could have bought a watch with just that feature. From the outside we could all look in and wonder. Which one of these concepts is the defining point of our industry? The reality is our industry is diverse and complicated and change is a fact of life. We have seen many of these changes and we will see many more in our life time.

As a clockmaker I juggle high end technology by programming a GPS system one day to making a spring detent for a marine chronometer the next. Even the humble art of clockmaking has changed beyond the traditional bounds of the mechanical clock.

So where is this diverse industry heading and how on earth are we going to get their when change is so part of our everyday work. It is said that those that do not learn from their past are destined to repeat the problems into the future.

Australia started its colonial history by setting up a Penal colony in Sydney and thinking that Tasmania was going to be the Cultural centre of Australia. Sydney was to be the Penal colony and Hobart the destined cultural centre. Both were desperately in need of something they could not do without. Regulated society controlled by time! In the 1960/70’s we called it “Time and Flow”. Understand the time and you are able to control the flow. The 80’s and 90’s simplified the concept by focusing on money. Get it as fast as possible any way possible. We all know a few banks that took that philosophy through to the naughties.

Without time control society doesn’t function efficiently. Without the people to look after that time control society doesn’t function at its best.

The Sydney Colony found a clockmakers with a dab hand at forging in a man by the name of Henry Lane. The Hobart Cultural Centre found a brilliant philosopher/astronomer and clockmaker in Francis Abbott.

Henry Lane fell into the arms of the Colony by the same method as the GFC. That is he made money from nothing, and then ended up with nothing in that lane was a forger. Making a few extra dollars on the side took on a very different look for our first Colonial clockmaker Mr Henry Lane.

Lane was an extremely talented clockmaker and an extraordinary musical longcase clock is for sale in London for the $50,000, which is a testament to his skill as a clockmaker. Obviously his talents extended to the engraving table as well as the clockmaking bench.

Lane came from Bristol which was a vibrant trading Port, and a business centre with a strong domestic market. The wealthy merchants sought the trapping that they so richly deserved. Consumer goods of lavish design were at the forefront of the merchants shopping list and grand clocks were definitely included in that list. Lane was clearly not content to just sell to these merchants he also wanted to have the money that they had; forging was obviously his initial choice and unfortunately the choice that saw him take a holiday at the Crowns pleasure to the Sydney Penal Colony.

Sydney bound and our first Colonial clockmaker, he soon found that life in the colony was not for him and after a short stay hurried back to Bristol to make his fortune as a legitimate clockmaker. Australia they say is a land of opportunity. Lane didn’t seem to see the opportunity and as soon as he could ran back to the motherland and his wealthy Bristol merchant clients.

With Lane heading back to Bristol the Sydney colony would soon be without a clockmaker and the spy’s were out in an attempt to find a replacement. A promising young clock and watchmaker James Oatley was arrested when Lane was the colonial clockmaker but he was not needed in the colony so he was released back to English society after a short stay in jail. I recently sold an early example of his work in the form of a pocket watch and it can be clearly being seen from his workmanship that he was a very capable tradesman.

Amazingly and with great timing just before Lane leaves, Oatley is arrested and sent to the Colony. He was arrested for stealing household items. Often thought to be a coincidence but some believe the powers to be realised that without the skills of a good clockmaker the colony would surely suffer. Irishman were believed to have been framed and deported for the benefit of the crown at this time.

Learning from this form of recruiting Francis Abbott is later believed to be framed and sent to Hobart. Abbott the great scholar is the obvious choice for such a town with such great potential. Abbott’s astronomical observations out of interest are still considered remarkable in the 21st century as are many of his scientific experiments. Clockmaking is important to him but science his passion. Abbott kept a daily diary for his whole life and this diary just recently sold for $40,000. The beauty of the diary is that it gives an exceptional look into the daily life of a clock and watchmaker in the 19th century.

In the early part of the 19th century technology was bringing change at a rapid pace. The coal fired factories of England were blotting out the sky and the cities were expanding faster than their infrastructure could support.

People lived hard lives and died young.

What has changed?

  • Our cities are now growing out of control
  • Our skies are filled with pollution
  • We now just live longer to see more of the changes.

James Oatley the now Sydney clockmaker saw this land of opportunity and grabbed it with both hands. Lane looked for way out while Oatley looked for a toe hold.

Sydney was a vibrant changing society and an interesting place to be. Blue skies predictable society and if in Oatley’s case you were in demand the opportunity to succeed was enormous.

james_oatley_clock_tower_1Oatley quickly learnt that being exclusive had to have a commercial  element and sought both markets to sell to and to reconnect to his home land suppliers to be able to supply the needs of his new clients. It is surprising that the clocks he makes her in Australia are all but identical to the clocks made in and around Bristol. The only twist is Lane was from Bristol and Oatley was from Tamworth in Warwickshire. It seems that Oatley took Lanes knowledge and turned it to his own advantage. It seems amazing that Lane didn’t see the market or didn’t have the desire to stay here to take advantage of the skills which he had.

In some ways Lane is a little like the doom and gloom watchmaker of today that each of us a talked to at some stage in our career. The opportunities are right in front of them but the ability for them to take them and create a vibrant future seems to elude them.

Over his working career, Oatley builds many longcases and we are aware of at least three watches. His clocks now have been sold for over $500,000.00. The interesting comparison is that the high quality musical longcase made by Lane in Bristol is now 10 times cheaper than the poorer quality Oatley longcase clock.

Oatley was the darling of Sydney Colonial society. Everyone wanted an Oatley clock, from the Badgerys family at Badgerys Creek to Matthew Flinders the great navigator and cartographer. He established a market for a home grown product. At the time the competition for a clocks were  limited to imported movement from England that were being cased here in Sydney, or a fine quality cedar cased clock by James Oatley.

Oatley embraced the change and saw his market, adapted to suit his clients and involved overseas supplies to meet the demand. He died a wealth man owning a large part of Sydney’s inner west and shire as we now refer to it. Life was good and change was inevitable.

Oatley and Abbott both landed on their feet and both embraced the change that Colonial life had thrust upon them. So what does this fact teach us, the watch and clockmaker of the 21st century?

We haven’t been thrown into a new country but we have been thrown into a new world. We are now in a world of technological change of Factories that are trying to freeze us out and monopolise the industry, where diminishing numbers cause us to face uncertain futures. For me Oatley shows us a path. We need to harness our very sought after talents that no-one else has! We need to understand our markets and seek to use them to ensure our futures. Look to change to find opportunities that will be our guide to a strong industry.

Posted in: Tick-Talk

About the Author:

For over three decades Andrew and his staff at Master Clockmakers have been involved in the restoration and conservation of timepieces from historically important clocks such as Sydney Town Hall and the clocks for Sydney Central Railway to small intricate ladies watches made by watchmakers such as Patek Philippe.

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