Still Ticking – Clockmaker’s skills prized, sought after

Beneath the bustling sidewalks and souvenir shops of Bar Harbor’s Main Street, Alexander H. Phillips, Clockmaker is a cacophony of little noises: ticks, chimes, cuckoos. Horological relics line the walls: a teal-green 1740s French Musson, a gilded 19th-century ship chronometer. To enter is to be pulled into another world.

Alexander Phillips’ world, to be exact. The 74-year-old clockmaker has been plying his trade for more than 50 years. Working in his compact underground storefront, he is a fixture of the local community.

“You know, when you’re finished, you’ve got something in your hand,” Phillips said, when asked about his commitment to the craft. “This [clock on the table] will tick the way it did 100 and some years ago.”

Phillips was born in New Britain, Conn., a town populated by “lots of machinists and lots of music.” By the age 10, he had picked up a keen interest in clockmaking from his grandfather, a blacksmith. But his family had other plans for him, pushing him to embrace his natural skills on the piano.

Phillips has an impressive collection of antique timepieces and spare parts. During repairs, many of the pieces he needs must be taken from other clocks or made in-shop.

Phillips’ passion for clocks was sidelined by his commitment to the piano during his early years. Despite his alternative interests, he pursued a four-year degree as a concert pianist at the Manhattan School of Music in New York. “I hated it,” the machinist said with a chuckle. Restless in his discontent, Phillips found ways to return to making and repairing timepieces.

“Instead of practicing the piano, I would sneak out and go to these clock shops,” the tradesman said. “Of course, there were elderly guys who were running them … and one guy took a shine to me.”

After a “tiny” career as a concert pianist, Phillips decided to apprentice with Norman Steinkritz, a New York horologist of Polish descent. Four years of diligent work and the young machinist became a partner at the clockmaking business Hennor, a joint venture between two of his New York mentors.

Many of the tools in his Bar Harbor shop, like his circa 1880 watchmaker’s lathes, were passed down from these mentors, who received them in a similar fashion when they were young tradesmen. Featured centrally in his workspace is a 1935 milling machine, inherited from his late father, an auto mechanic.

“It looks complicated, that machine, but it’s like playing the piano,” Phillips said. “I know exactly what every nut and bolt does on that thing.”

A French Musson, dated to the 1740s, hangs on the walls of the shop. This clock may have been made by Pierre Musson himself, an esteemed 18th-century Parisian clockmaker.

In the 1980s, a steep rent hike (and an endless stream of parking tickets) left Phillips looking for other places to run his business. A trip to Bar Harbor with his wife, who summered there as a child, sparked his imagination and ultimately led him to resettle and open his current shop.

“We came up here and I couldn’t believe what hit me. Suddenly, I saw these mountains coming out of the ocean … when you see that, it’s incredible,” the machinist said. “I kept thinking about this place.”

Despite declining health and an attempt at retirement, Phillips still finds himself in his shop most days of the week. He describes his profession as a 24-hour job, and between restoration projects and tasks like fixing Bar Harbor’s town clock, it’s easy to see how he keeps himself so busy.

While the demand for mechanical clocks has fallen, few people have the skills and knowledge Phillips possesses.

Still, the clockmaker finds time for visitors, whether they are good friends or fresh off a cruise ship. From behind his glass counter, he engages them with good humor and gusto, his depth of horological knowledge evident. Antique clocks are discussed in hushed, excited tones, complex problems to be puzzled over and respected.

Phillips’ craft allows him to be a part of something timeless.

“It’s a different world. It’s like going back,” he said.

Alexander H. Phillips, Clockmaker is located on the ground level at 110 Main St. in Bar Harbor. Hours are subject to change, but the shop is normally open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. during weekdays. For more information, call 288-3684 and visit clockmagic.com.