Keeping time

Chico clockmaker has worked on some incredibly rare timepieces, including Chico’s first clock.

Paul Niess at his workbench after repairing a 19th century French clock that stopped working in 1922.

Paul Niess at his workbench after repairing a 19th century French clock that stopped working in 1922.

Photo by Ken Smith

Paul Niess is known to some people as Father Time, but he looks nothing like his nickname, nor his chosen profession, might suggest. Far from a bent and bearded old man, Niess, a traditionally trained clock- and watchmaker, is only about halfway to 80, the age he (only part jokingly) declares is the mean in his industry.

Despite his relative youth, Niess is one of the most respected craftsmen in an ancient—and slowly disappearing—trade. He began his first apprenticeship before he was a teenager, under the tutelage of a retired physics professor who helped make the atom bomb, and fixed his first clock for a client at the age of 14. He is among only a handful of people in the world qualified to work on antique chain-driven (fusee) pocket watches, a skill learned during his second apprenticeship, and has attracted an international clientele while running a clock shop in Chico, Father Time Co., which celebrated 20 years in business last week. Watches he’s worked on include a 300-year-old, $3 million timepiece and another that once belonged to Noah Webster (as in the dude who wrote the dictionary).

One of Niess’ latest projects was restoring what he believes to be Chico’s first major clock, a huge, handcrafted, ultra-precise regulator that set the time by which early residents went about their daily lives, and was believed to be lost or destroyed for more than 60 years. To aid in restoring the long-neglected timepiece to its 19th century glory, Niess chose an unlikely bunch of assistants—a group of Hooker Oak Elementary School students—to tag along on his latest journey through time, to the dusty streets of downtown Chico in the 1870s.

As a child growing up in the Bay Area, Niess spent a lot of time with his grandmother in Sonoma, he recollected during a recent interview in his shop. The space in Chico’s Garden Walk Mall is crowded with clocks of all shapes and sizes, as well as the occasional typewriter, music box or other ancient mechanical wonder. One of his favorite haunts then was the nearby Jack London Research Center & Bookstore, where he would sometimes sit on the knee of the bookstore’s owner—London biographer Russ Kingman—as Kingman flipped through London’s original manuscripts.

Also working in the shop was an elderly man whom Niess referred to, even posthumously, as Mr. Greene, due to still-secret security issues. At age 10, the boy began a friendship with Greene that would eventually lead him to his profession.

19th century French clock.

Photo by Ken Smith

“He was a third-generation master clockmaker and loved science, so he studied physics at a time when it was still revolutionary,” Niess said. “But during the Depression he had to work on the big government back-to-work projects to make ends meet, which he was doing one day when a few G-Men showed up and told him his country needed him, and that he had to pack up his family and move to Los Alamos, N.M.

“I didn’t realize what it all meant until I was a few years older; he had framed letters from Presidents Roosevelt and Truman thanking him for his service and pictures of him with famous scientists hanging up around his house,” Niess said, relating how Greene helped design the world’s first particle accelerator for the Manhattan Project. After teaching physics for several decades after the war, Greene retired to Sonoma, worked part time in the bookstore and, as master clockmakers have done for the last 800-odd years, took an apprentice—the then-12-year-old Niess.

Niess finished that apprenticeship at age 20 and moved to Chico to attend Chico State, where he studied history, psychology and education with the vague plan of becoming a history teacher or counselor. One day, while searching for a gift for his girlfriend at the time, he stepped inside a short-lived jewelry store on Third Street owned by a one-eyed, one-legged Vietnam veteran-turned-biker-and-jeweler with a pistol strapped to his hip. Inside the shop were framed articles recounting how the man had shot and killed multiple robbers while working in Los Angeles’ Jewelry District.

On a whim, Niess asked the jeweler who repaired his watches. “This guy had tattoos all over, the gun, the framed stories of people he’d killed … he was terrifying, and he told me I didn’t want to meet [the watch repairman] because even he was afraid of him.” Niess ignored the warning and set up a meeting with the man, Virgil Baker, at his Corning home.

“I walked out to the little shop he’d built in his backyard expecting to meet the meanest man in the world,” Niess said. “He was in his 80s, but ripped like Arnold Schwarzenegger … he could have broken five of me in half and thrown us in the trash can. But he turned out to be the nicest man ever; he just didn’t like that biker.

“He was also one of the rarest guys you could hope to find, a true master watchmaker who’d run a repair facility in Oakland from the 1940s until he retired, and he was looking for one last apprentice,” Niess said. “I spent the next five years apprenticing with him, working odd jobs and going to school at the university.”

Just days after Niess graduated from his apprenticeship, his second mentor had a stroke, was hospitalized, and died within days, leaving Niess “a lifetime’s worth of parts, materials and tools.”

To protect himself and the timepiece, Niess restored this 1719 Cabrier watch, appraised at $3 million, under guard at a hidden location.

Photo courtesy of Paul Niess

Around the same time, Niess realized he’d had enough of school. He called his parents and told them he wanted to take time off and focus on what he really wanted to do, which was to “be a clock and watch guy.” Niess rented the space he still occupies at the Garden Walk Mall, which then was “just a storage room full of trash with wallpapered cardboard walls and asbestos tile on the floor.” With $1,000 and a no-questions-asked policy, he enlisted college friends to gather materials and help him with labor, paying them in pizza and beer. The shop opened March 12, 1995.

Business was slow going when Niess started the shop, but his career was given a boost when he began appearing as a regular guest on local and national talk radio shows Hidden Treasures and Collectibles alongside famed North State appraiser John Humphries in the late 1990s, exposing a much wider audience to his unique skill set. While he was co-hosting one show, a woman claiming to be a descendent of Noah Webster—the famous American author and lexicographer, who lived from 1758 to 1843—called in saying she had Webster’s personal pocket watch, and asked if Niess could fix it, a task a handful of famed European watchmakers she’d visited had failed to accomplish.

“She’d heard me talking about chain-driven watches, which had been [Baker’s] specialty, and he’d passed his knowledge on to me,” Neiss said, explaining such timepieces are driven by a chain composed of hundreds of hand-made, hand-pinned links too small to be seen without magnification. The chain wraps around a tapered cone, which is pulled as the watch winds, which in turn pulls a drive train to “make the watch tick.” Niess said he assumed the lady likely was mistaken or deluded, so he was surprised when two high-ranking postmen showed up a few weeks later to hand deliver a massively insured package holding what turned out to be Webster’s watch, its authenticity proven by the names of Webster’s descendants engraved in a spiral pattern on the case.

Whenever possible, Niess uses his own encyclopedic knowledge, as well as the resources of international “clock geek” groups he’s joined—like the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors, the American Watchmakers-Clockmakers Institute and the British Horological Institute—to track the individual history of timepieces he works on.

Another notable watch Niess worked on was a chain-driven Cabrier (the Cabriers were high-end French watchmakers in the 17th and 18th centuries) commissioned in 1719 and appraised at more than $3 million in 2006, after Niess restored it. Like many very old pocket watches, the multimillion-dollar timepiece was large by modern standards—about six times bigger than what most people are familiar with. Three individual gold cases housed the works, the outer covered in tooled sharkskin that once housed dozens of pearls, and the innermost case made in the antiquated repoussé style, with gold hammered over an image of the goddess Venus rising from the sea, surrounded by a host of cherubs and seashells. It had been dropped countless times, was “full of rust and broken gears,” and hadn’t functioned in more than a century.

“It was scary,” Niess said of his experience with the watch. “My wife was very pregnant and we were living hand-to-mouth, about to have a kid. I told someone I thought I could trust about doing the job and word had gotten out, and my wife was scared someone might come into the shop, shoot me and take the watch.”

Niess ended up temporarily closing his shop to focus on the watch and worked at a secret location guarded by an off-duty cop friend. It took him more than two weeks to break the timepiece down to its more than 300 original pieces, craft new parts, repair others and clean the device. When he was done, Niess said he felt both relief and a rush from accomplishing something that few others have the opportunity to attempt.

The 1719 Cabrier watch’s works are housed in three separate, interlocking cases.

Photo courtesy of Paul Niess

Though he appreciates the rarity, ingenuity and beauty of old timepieces, Niess said an item’s monetary value is not what most appeals to him: “To some people an old clock is just an old clock, but the attachment that some people have, especially to jewelry and timepieces, it’s like their history is tied to those items. It might not be worth much, but it has a huge amount of psychological and emotional value.

“When somebody comes in to pick up their timepiece and sees it working, and connects that timepiece to their family history, the emotion they impart can be incredible,” Niess said, recalling one man who cried when he saw his deceased father’s watch run, and another who threatened to shoot him should any harm come to his prized family heirloom. “Both of those were relatively cheap repair jobs, but you can’t put a price on that kind of satisfaction.

“I take something, I fully restore it, I make it tick … maybe it hasn’t ticked in 90 years and I make it run. There’s also a lot of satisfaction in that, in bringing something back to life.”

The latest large project Niess has completed arrived at his shop in January in the bed of its owner’s pickup truck.

“It looked awful,” Niess said of the massive clock, which stands more than 10 feet tall and weighs several hundred pounds. “The wood had faded to a dark gray-black because it was covered in so much dust and grime, it had been near water and sustained damage, and the silver face was covered in rust,” he said. “You could tell it was a diamond in the rough, but it was definitely in the rough.”

The more Niess learned about the clock, from his own research and information provided by its owner, the more he realized its significance as a piece of local history. The gargantuan timepiece is an “astronomical regulator clock” with a mercury-compensated pendulum, commissioned and custom-built in 1870s Boston by long-defunct manufacturers E. Howard & Co. for Dreiss Jewelry in downtown Chico, which was located on Broadway between Fourth and Fifth streets until 1932.

After the store closed, the clock went into a family member’s home, but was moved to Richardson Springs during World War II. After several years as the centerpiece in the lobby of the resort, then frequented by the rich and famous, it went back into a private home where it remained until it was delivered to Niess. The clock, No. 2 in its run, had been classified “officially lost” or “destroyed” by historical clock- and watch-watching groups for the better part of a century. The clock’s current owner wishes to remain unidentified, but agreed to share that it remains in the local area.

A half-dozen Hooker Oak Elementary School students helped Niess restore what he believes could be Chico’s first significant clock.

Photo courtesy of Hooker Oak Elementary School.

“These were the most accurate, technologically advanced clocks of their time,” Niess explained. “Jewelers needed super accurate timepieces, because back then most jewelers were also watchmakers. If someone, like say Gen. Bidwell, brought in his watch to be repaired, they would want to be sure to have the most accurate time possible.

“You could also ‘buy the time’ back then,” he explained. “You’d go into the jewelry store and pay a penny or nickel to get the exact time from a ‘regulator.’

“The reason it was so accurate is because the pendulum is custom-made, with hand-blown glass tubes designed to hold a very specific amount of mercury. Mercury was used because it maintains the same density, and could swing back and forth in precise time through Chico winters and Chico summers.”

Niess enlisted assistance from other specialized craftsmen, including a retired chemist who created a fulminate to remove the rust from the clock’s 16-inch silver-plated dial, and another man to filter foreign particles that had come to rest on top of the mercury. He also enlisted the help of some very special assistants.

Niess said one of his stipulations in taking the job was that the clock’s owner allow him to share part of the experience with local children. The clockmaker once aspired to teach and is married to a teacher (wife Amy works at Fairview Elementary School in Orland). One of the couple’s two daughters, Lily, attends Hooker Oak Elementary School. Niess contacted Hooker Oak Principal Brian Holderman and asked if he knew of some kids who might be interested in helping with the clock, specifically to clean the top two feet of ornately carved wood.

“One of the philosophies we promote at the school is community service,” Holderman said during a recent interview at Hooker Oak. He noted other parents and community members with unique skills sometimes share those talents with the students through special programs and elective classes.

Niess’ daughter was an obvious choice to join the group, and Holderman took care in selecting the other students: “I know the kids pretty well, and had a few in mind who are very focused, but on the quiet side, so I wanted to give them an opportunity to shine. I thought it was a good chance for them to see what they are capable of accomplishing.”

The face of the recently refurbished E. Howard & Co. astronomical regulator includes three separate dials to ensure precision timekeeping.

Photo by Ken Smith

Soon, Niess, Lily and the rest of the students—Jesse Diaz, Annabelle Feller, Megan Morra, and siblings Kadin and Grace Lusardi—began dedicating hour-long weekly sessions to cleaning the clock’s regal crown.

“As far as I’m concerned they did the hard work,” Niess said. “They took our proprietary formulas, which are basically like a nontoxic, natural wood soap with lotion in it, and I taught them how to work it into the wood and then draw it back out. As they worked, there went 140 years of grime from this beautiful mahogany and walnut wood.”

“It was great to see their faces as the wood grain became clear; their eyes got bigger and bigger,” Holderman added.

The students also helped Niess seal the finish in beeswax, and he spoke to them about the clock’s history while they worked together. “I told them to imagine Chico 100 years ago and their imaginations really took off. They guessed and made up stories about what the shop might have looked like and who might have come in to see the clock. They made up a whole fascinating history for it that might not be factually correct, but it was pretty cool.”

“It was hard, it was a lot of work, but it was fun,” said Jesse, who personally refurbished the ornate bust of a woman at the top of the clock. “It was hard getting into the hairs and everything, but I’m glad I picked that part.”

“It felt good to be working on something and to make a nice clock for somebody,” Grace added.

All of the kids, save Lily, agreed that working with the clock gave them a greater appreciation for old things. “I’m used to old things already,” the clockmaker’s daughter said.

Niess has another project in the works on which he intends to involve more local children. He recently helped locate another long lost local timepiece, a 14-foot-tall clock that stood in Chico in the 1940s. He and a friend followed clues to a local barn where they thought it might be located, and there they literally dug the clock’s gears and other parts out of the dirt. The clock will be placed in a prominent position viewable by the public, but that clock’s owner refused to provide details until the project is further along.

Though he’s certain he has the skills and it is his official title, Niess has never actually built a clock or watch from scratch: “By the time I graduated from my apprenticeships, the industry had already realized doing that is pretty much obsolete, and nobody actually orders custom-built timepieces anymore. Today’s society is all about mass production and instant gratification … everything has become focused on technology, and we’re losing craftsmen. It’s tragic.”

Niess cited several more indicators that his trade, in particular, is a disappearing one: two famous California clockmakers recently passed away and their shops have been shuttered; there’s only one school left on Earth—at the British Horological Institute’s headquarters in London—where new watch- and clockmakers can learn the trade; and, considering the advanced age of the average clockmaker, there are few left to take the reins as more of them pass into history.

“That goes back to why I involve students at local schools,” said Niess, who noted he’s been looking for an apprentice a long time and is currently trying one out. “I enjoy working with kids and like teaching them history, but I also want to teach them about this wonderful trade. I hate to think about it disappearing from the Earth altogether.”