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REVIEW: Abeler: Meister der Uhrmacherkunst (2010)

  • Thread starter Fortunat Mueller-Maerki
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Fortunat Mueller-Maerki

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Sep 23, 2001
The Ultimate Directory of Historic German Watch- and Clockmakers

Meister der Uhrmacherkunst, 2nd Significantly expanded Edition. By Jürgen Abeler. Published 2010 by the Author, Wuppertal (Germany). ISBN 978-3-00-030830-7. Hardcover, 656 pages, 24 cm x 17 cm. Index. Text in German. Available from the author at http://www.juwelier-abeler.com/?id=63&prlid=ACC&prbid=LIT or from www.amazon.de for Euro 98 (ca. US$ 110) plus postage.

Anybody who is serious about identifying or researching a clock- or watchmaker in the German speaking part of the world (i.e. in Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and some formerly German speaking parts of eastern Europe) should be familiar with the ‘Abeler’, the standard volume on the subject since 1977. Unfortunately, the book has been out of print for over 20 years, resulting in prices on the used book market of several hundred Dollars.

Jürgen Abeler was a clockmaker in the fifth generation and throughout his life owned and operated a watch and jewelry shop in downtown Wuppertal, Germany. In 1955 his father started collecting antique clocks and his collection (in the basement level of his store) soon grew to become a clockmuseum. Researching his treasures in the course of the decades Jürgen Abeler also assembled what eventually became possibly the biggest private horological library in Germany. Based on a card file of names of horologists originally started in the 1950s from names he encountered in his work, he set out in the 1960s to publish a comprehensive listing, resulting in the 1977 publication of the 1st edition of “Meister der Uhrmacherkunst”, a massive book listing around 14’000 names of Germanic horologists active before 1850. Unlike other similar reference books covering other parts of the world that focus strictly on biographic information, Abeler’s list also included brief references to actual specific timepieces known from publications or museum collections. The book was a hit and sold out within a few years. The book asked readers to contribute additional names for future editions.

Abeler soon planned a second edition and expanded his card catalog of names not only through reader contributions, but also by systematically examining dozens of periodicals devoted to antiquarian horology, as well as all catalogs of the relevant auction houses and any published museum and collection catalogs he could get his hands on. For over 20 years he employed a part time person to keep updating his list. When this reviewer met him some 10 years ago we spoke about the urgency of getting the second edition in print, but given the constant backlog of new data the time never seemed right to just get it done.

Eventually Abelers health began to fail and it became apparent that he personally no longer had the energy to complete the task, but luckily the German society of horological enthusiasts, the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Chronometrie, rose to the challenge. Under the leadership of their President Josef Stadl and their librarian Dr. Bernhard Huber they formed a taskforce of volunteers and approached the author with a proposition: They would take over the work in progress and the countless loose notes and create a print-ready digital manuscript for him for his second edition in exchange for the getting the long-term intellectual property rights to the content, thereby allowing the DGC to produce third and subsequent editions in the future, perpetuating the availability of this research resource. A contract was signed between the two parties resulting in the book under review.

Thanks to a Herculean effort by the taskforce the ailing Jürgen Abeler was able to sign-off on the manuscript, and could be presented in late 2009 with a preliminary copy of the new edition of the book that caps his life’s work. Sadly, Jürgen Abeler died on July 24, 2010, the very week that the book that symbolizes his lifelong commitment to systematical horological research started to become available to the global community of his fellow collectors.

The new 2nd edition of „Meister der Uhrmacherkunst” sets a new standard of comprehensiveness for horological reference books in general and specifically for geographic directories. Not only has the number of names grown by 50% to over 20’000 listed individuals, but the number of clocks and watches listed by these makers has grown even more due to meticulous checking of thousands of horological auction catalogs, periodicals and other publications. As before, the directory limits itself geographically to German speaking areas and chronologically to the time up to 1850, thereby excluding industrially produced clocks and watches. [The 2005 book: “Lexikon der Deutschen Uhrenindustrie 1850-1980” by Hans-Heinrich Schmid provides equally universal coverage of the industrial segment.]

It lies in the nature of this kind of reference books that they can never be ‘complete’. There were probably well in excess of 100’000 craftsmean who have over the centuries made clocks in Germanic Europe. But any maker whose timekeeper has been described in print, or has been in a major auction anywhere, or whose works are in the major museums, is bound to be featured in this directory.

The book is well produced and easy to use, and commendably provides through abbreviations also a way to identify the original source of the information for many of its entries. As with any reference book not written in English there is the added foreign language difficulty for users not understanding German. But compared to the first edition the numerously used abbreviations have been much standardized, and the user can soon figure out that ‘Arb.’ (=Arbeiten) stands for ‘Works attributed to this individual’, ‘Vorn.unbek.’ (=Vorname unbekannt) means ‘First Name unknown’, * = date of birth, †= date of death, ∞=marriage date, ~=baptismal date and ‘erw.’ (=erwähnt) stands for ‘mentioned in’, etc. As the book includes a long list of all abbreviations used, adding the English and French translations for just that limited vocabulary would have enhanced the usefulness of the book in the non German marketplace significantly, eliminating the need to turn on ‘Google translate’ on your computer.

The alphabetical name directory takes up nearly 600 pages, a list of ‘Monogram punches’ used by specific craftsmen is 30 pages long. Furthermore, there are pages listing ‘Pictorial marks’, and ‘Assay office’ punches from the Germanic countries. Unfortunately, there is no geographic cross-index by place names; such a feature can hopefully be added in some future electronic edition.

The new Abeler 2nd Edition is clearly a ‘must-buy’ book for the reference book shelf of any serious horological collector or scholar with international ambitions or with a particular interest in German horology of the pre-industrial era.

The vast majority of collectors outside of continental Europe, however, are likely to need access to this wonderful resource (and similar books covering other parts of the world) only rarely. This leads this reviewer to ponder why this kind of book - in these Internet centric times - is not also simultaneously published in an “Online, Pay-per-use Edition”? I am willing to bet there would be many more potential users willing to buy a half-hour access-pass to this data for 10 or 15 Dollars when they happen to urgently need an answer, than there are people willing to pay 100$ for a hardcopy to put on their bookshelf.

Thank you Jürgen Abeler (as well as Bernhard Huber and the whole DGC team) for leaving to the worldwide community of horological researchers such a wonderful research tool and for making provisions that this database of knowledge can grow and be updated in the future.

Fortunat Mueller-Maerki, Sussex NJ 20 August 2010


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