Bookreview

The Clockmakers of German speaking Switzerland (14th to 19th century) and their oeuvre

Deutschweizer Uhrmacher und ihre Werke vom 14. bis 19. Jahrhundert / Les horlogers de Suisse alémanique et leurs oeuvres du 14e au 19e siècle. By George von Holtey, Ursula Bischof-Scherer & Albert Kägi. Published 2006 (in lieu of the Winter 2006 issue of their Journal) by Chronometrophilia, Swiss Association for the History of Timekeeping, La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland; Hardcover, 250x175mm; 257 pages. Numerous illustrations in the text, Bibliography on Swiss clock making with 117 entries, name index, geographic index. No ISBN. Available through Editions Simonin, Neuchâtel (Switzerland), (www.booksimonin.ch) for SwF 50 (ca. US&40) plus postage.

Switzerland is a country with an immense horological tradition and a long horological history. Nevertheless, there exists only one directory listing the names of people who practiced the craft over the centuries: Kathleen Pritchard’s 1997, Two-Volume “Swiss Timepiece Makers, 1775 – 1975. That book is invaluable, but it has limitations imposed by its genesis. Ms. Pritchard was primarily a watch enthusiast and not a clock expert, and as a trained librarian she was primarily a “paper based” researcher. Her great achievement was to painstaking recording of all the watchmakers and horological establishments mentioned in the contemporary Swiss records (address books, magazine advertisements, patent records, etc). The result is most comprehensive regarding watchmakers and the French speaking part of the country (where most watches were and are made). The Pritchard books never attempted to systematically record all clockmakers in Swiss history.

That void has now been filled: Dr. Georg von Holtey, building on some earlier, partial efforts of Ursula Bischof-Scherer and Albert Kägi, has spent the last several years recording and researching the biographies and oeuvres of any clockmakers of the pre-industrial era in German speaking Switzerland he could identify. The book reviewed here is thus the first comprehensive listing of alemannic Swiss clockmakers, and deserves a space on the “reference book shelf” of any horological library. The book records just about every clock by a Swiss maker that is in a Swiss museum, as well as in many of the more important private collections.

Chronometrophilia, the Swiss association on the history of timekeeping, well aware that publishing such a specialized horological title is unattractive as a commercial venture, stepped up to the plate, and decided to publish this 257-page, hardcover book in lieu of the winter issue of its semestrial scholarly journal, assuring instant distribution with horological enthusiasts throughout Switzerland. Because their journal is always bi-lingual, this had the added benefit that all the general regional texts appear in both German and in French (although the detailed individual listings are in German only).

The book opens with a ten page section of vignettes from Swiss clock making history, followed by 14 regional chapters of greatly varying length (4 to 46 pages each). Chapters start with a (bi-lingual) general description of the clock making history of the region, followed by a chronological listing of the various clockmakers or clockmaker dynasties. Where available, biographic data (dates of birth and death, addresses, date admitted to the guild etc) is given, followed by one sentence descriptions of known clocks by that maker (70 of them with photographs, some in color). The chosen structure for the text allows the reader to study the history of clock making for a given region or a family of clockmakers, while access as a “quick lookup reference book” remains easy thanks to the comprehensive indices by name and by location that conclude the book. More than 900 clockmakers are listed, over 1000 clocks are described, 70 makers signatures or marks are illustrated). Given that the geographic area covered is only about half the size of the state of Connecticut, that seems to indicate quite a comprehensive coverage. A bibliography of 117 entries (monographs and articles) dealing with clock making in alemannic Switzerland is also included.

In spite of the fact that clocks made by individual, preindustrial clockmakers in Europe (with the possible exception of the well known masters in England in France) are generally outside the scope of interest of the vast majority of horological collectors around the world, I consider this book an important addition to the horological literature. It covers its subject area well, and is easy to use (if you read some French or German). Chronometrophilia and the authors deserve the gratitude of horological scholars around the world to have made this text available.

Fortunat Mueller-Maerki, Sussex, New Jersey (USA)
January 11, 2007