About Time

When watchmaker Gabe Ellenson opened his little shop, About Time, in downtown Hobe Sound in 2004, the sound of chiming clocks often greeted shoppers strolling down the sidewalk outside.

“Once I had a magnificent music box in there,” Gabe says, as he gestures with his arms outspread to show you the dimensions of a box more than two feet long. “It had a huge hand-crank on the side. When the lady brought it in, I told her that I wasn’t sure I’d be able to fix it.”

A somewhat conspiratorial twinkle in his eye erupts as he says this, because he also is quick to add, “If it’s got gears—and someone wants to pay to have it fixed—I can fix it.”

The music box was about two hundred years old, with large gears, and the capability of being set to play just one musical piece, or to play the same piece repeatedly, or to cycle through about 16 different songs. He had never seen one like it, he says, and his research revealed only much smaller music boxes of that era, none of the size or quality that sat in his shop.

“And the sound was just incredible…incredible,” he adds. “After I figured out how it worked and I fixed it, I let it play—of course, I had to test it after I fixed it—and the notes sounded like they came from a piano. Everyone who heard it couldn’t believe it was from a music box.”

Chiming clocks and cuckoo notes still bounce from his shop’s doorway, but now customers hear them as they drive into the parking lot of his new shop off Ayers Avenue, toward the rear of the Boys and Girls Club. He moved into the somewhat obscure location a few months ago.

“But my customers still find me,” he says, tilting his head back as he talks, with an accent that eludes pegging, until he tells you that his family was French, but he was raised in Argentina before coming to the US as a young man.

“I’ve got that sign out there, and no one misses that,” he says. “Everyone knows where I am.” The sign sits to Ayers Avenue, and his shop is half a block west on the left side of the road. “Some customers I’d rather didn’t find me,” he admits, “but they do.”

Those are the customers who do not fully understand the cost involved in replacing parts that must come from Germany, or Switzerland, or Japan, and the older the piece, the more difficult and costly it can be to repair the clock or watch. Or they are the customers who do not understand that the cost to repair their clock far exceeds its value.

“People get attached to their clocks,” he says, “so I really hesitate to tell them what they’ve brought to me is not worth fixing. They get offended, and I don’t want that.”

His tone lightens, though, when he remembers a clock brought to him in pieces, a clock that had been stored in a resident’s garage for 20 years with rusted gears and missing glass panes. His photo of the restored clock shows a finely shaped wall clock, with a glass hinged door and gilded wood frame.

“I painted it, gilded the wood,” he says with obvious satisfaction. “It was a beautiful clock. I should have taken pictures of it in the box, when they first brought it to me, but I never remember to do that.
I just get in a hurry to get my hands on it, so I forget the pictures.”

The oldest clock he’s been asked to repair was 400 years old with gears chiseled from lead, instead of the usual brass. “You could see the cut marks on the gears from the tools they used then,” he says. “It took me a month just to figure out how it worked—I’d never seen one like it or anything even close to it. I had to remember my physics, the laws about trapezoids that were somewhere deep inside my mind, before I could fix it.”

The couple had owned the clock for 20 years, he says, and had purchased it at a Sotheby’s auction in New York. The husband brought it to Gabe, but after it was repaired, it was the wife who revealed to him that it had never run since their purchase. They had not found anyone before who could figure out how it worked.

Now clocks to him from throughout the eastern US, from Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, and from overseas, from people who believe that Gabe can figure out how to fix them. They currently stand in line at his shop for repairs, but he is quick to point out, however, that he no longer makes “house calls” to repair grandfather clocks.

“Usually, just the part costs $500 or more,” he says, “and they don’t way pay that plus pay for my time for closing up the shop for a couple of hours, so I just don’t do that anymore. You have to bring the clock to me.”

He also has learned to warn customers after he’s taken the broken clocks apart if they are quite damaged inside, to call their owners to come inspect prior to him proceeding with the repair.

“Look at this,” he says, as he holds up the plate on which a clock’s movement would be mounted, full of holes that have been drilled previously. “You can tell that every Dick and Tom has had his hands on this, but I worry that it’s no longer strong enough to hold.”

That’s bad news that he does not like to give a customer. More parts have to be replaced, or perhaps entire movements, which affects a clock’s authenticity, but it’s a decision left up to the customer. Most people just are happy to have their clocks running again, chiming again, regardless of what Gabe needs to do to make it happen..

Of course, Gabe also repairs watches, which give him a special joy because he knows watches better than anything else. He cups them gingerly in his hands, admiring their faces and inner workings as if he’s looking at a fine piece of art.

“Ahh,” he says, as he takes a rather nondescript watch out of its little repair box and places it on his wrist, holding his arm away from his body. “I’d like to have this one…here’s one that I would not mind wearing. It makes a difference when you know their history.”

Every clock has a story, it seems, and it’s easy to lose track of time as Gabe points to one, then another, and another as he talks reverently about timepieces that he was able to bring back to life.

“There’s a great deal of satisfaction in doing this,” he says. “I can’t imagine doing anything else.”