With 60 clocks in his collection, Georg Pilz has no excuse for being late
Photo by Matt Rose
Sometime during 1977, Georg Pilz decided he wanted a grandfather clock. It might have had something to do with his childhood in Regensburg, the lovingly maintained medieval city in Bavaria graced with ancient clock towers; or it may have been Georg’s well-ordered mind as a chemical engineer for BASF that drew him to the handcrafted shine of both clock and case. “I just always liked the style and shape of grandfather clocks,” is all Georg could offer by way of explanation during a visit to his home east of downtown Asheville. “I’m a decisive person, so on a business trip to England I found a grandfather clock I really liked in Wales and had it shipped back home to Germany.”
That clock — a Fearnley-Wigan longcase made in the late 19th century, familiarly called a “penny moon” from its facing design — now graces the living room, having traveled with him as far afield as Singapore and Hong Kong during his peripatetic 32 years with BASF, from which he is now retired. And it’s the Fearnley -Wigan that’s responsible for Georg’s exquisite collection of some 60 timepieces because, while he loved having his new clock, Georg noticed it wasn’t keeping proper time. “So one night, after the rest of the family had gone to bed around ten o’clock, I took the clock apart,” Georg recalls. “By four o’clock the next morning, it was back together and keeping perfect time.”
While some of the clocks in Georg’s collection arrived in running order, many of them did not, like the 1740 French wall clock lying disassembled in a box in Georg’s basement workshop. It’s the oldest clock in his collection, with original gilded wood ornamentation on the case and porcelain facing for the clockworks, about to be resurrected in Georg’s care. On a shelf nearby were extravagantly baroque clocks from France and Germany lined up like feathered chorines and kept in order by a plain American Seth Thomas wall clock at the far end. The workshop’s drawers were full of cogs, regulators, escapements and other paraphernalia mysterious to the uninitiated, while a workbench sheltered a bewildering array of jeweler’s tools.
Georg is self-taught and has restored all his clocks himself. “If you’re going to collect timepieces, you’d best learn how they work and be able to restore them,” Georg says. “Otherwise it gets to be a very expensive hobby if you pay someone else to do it.” While his successful first surgery on the grandfather clock may indicate a natural talent for such work, Georg has studied with the dean of clockmakers, England’s Laurie Penman, and with Gene Volk, a respected horologist and a fellow member of the Western North Carolina Chapter 126 of the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors. “Four of us restored a 600-pound 1920 church tower clock in Valhalla,” Georg says. “We disassembled it with Gene’s guidance and each worked on our portions.”
One clock in Georg’s collection, though, has no moving parts. It’s an incense clock Georg found at a market in China, a long, thin, sinuous metal object whose cover conceals a fretted brass plate, which holds a burning incense stick at one end. “By watching how much of the ash has fallen onto the metal markings, you can estimate how much time has passed,” Georg explains. Three other, more traditional, clocks are also from Asia — one a square Japanese piece framed in filigreed metal, and two Chinese clocks in dark wooden cases whose back panels slide up to reveal the works inside. “Those are relatively new,” Georg points out, noting that the Chinese relied on sundials, incense clocks or water-driven timekeepers until modern times. “Mechanical clocks weren’t widely known in China until the country opened to the West in the 1880s.”
But Georg’s favorite clock is a Morbier, a type of pendulum clock produced in the Franche-Comté region of France until the early part of the last century. “I like them for their durability,” Georg says, evident in the fact that he displays only the inner workings of the clock, enclosed in a glass box he constructed with a rear-wall mirror, so a viewer can appreciate the meticulous and silently whirring craftsmanship. Morbiers, sometimes called Comtoise clocks after their region of origin, were assembled from parts fashioned by farmers during the winter months and sold to clockmakers in town. The clock strikes the hour with a deep gong. Georg is so fond of Morbiers that he’s given the display in his living room a special brass plaque that reads, “The Essence of Time by G. Pilz,” along with the date of its rebirth, January 2005. Two more Morbiers in his workshop downstairs are undergoing a similar resurrection.
Each hour, the chimes, bells and gongs of all his clocks announce their presence, although Georg has taken care that they don’t all sound at precisely the same moment. “That would be too much!” he says. “To me, the attraction of clocks is that they are all the same machine built for the same purpose, but they are all so different in appearance.” Still, there is one type of clock that Georg will never collect. “I don’t like cuckoo clocks,” he says. “They’re too simple.”