Clocks make Thuc tick

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Nostalgic collector has a penchant for mechanical gadgets and a passion for chimes


  Nguyen Minh Thuc, 47, adjusts the spiral spring in a wall clock at his house in Ho Chi Minh City. His large antique-clock collection is a result of his curiosity about mechanical gadgets as a child and nostalgia for the chime of clocks from his childhood. Photo: Nguyen Truong

His hobby has cost him a lot of time and money, says Nguyen Minh Thuc.

But he has a lot of time on his hands, literally.

Thuc, 47, is a clock collector.

The Ho Chi Minh City resident owns around 50 wall clocks and many of them are more than 100 years old, mostly from Europe. Most of them are made in France, Germany, Switzerland and Russia, and he does not know how they ended up in Vietnam in the first place.

He has not planned to expose the collection to visitors or organize an official exhibition, because he feels it is not such a big deal.

But guests can feel a little overwhelmed on entering his room of around 12 square meters as it is jammed with old clocks. Then, as they take an interest in the collection, the overwhelming feeling is of fascination.

For instance, there is a French comptoir clock that runs on spiral springs and chimes a hymn. And there is a Manufrance wall clock that chimes a very sad melody like a prayer. It was made for the French military, and it would be difficult to find another one like it. Thuc says the chime is so sad, that few people in Vietnam would be interested in having it.

 
A 100-year-old pendulum wall clock in Nguyen Minh Thuc's collection. He says pendulum clocks are the most accurate since pendulum weights never change. Photo: Nguyen Truong
He has many spiral ring clocks, but the collector has a slightly higher preference for pendulum clocks, of which he has several made in late 19th and early 20th centuries. Some of these have pendulums that are black stones weighing several kilograms each.

"Pendulum clocks are the most accurate," Thuc says.

In spiral spring clocks, the spring loses its flexibility over and the sound gets weaker, but the weight of pendulums never change, he explains.

Several clocks in his collections have two hands, but most were made when people were yet to be able to tell time in such details as minutes or seconds.

A single-handed French oDo clock chimes four different melodies every 15 minutes.

When Thuc says his hobby costs a lot of time and money, he is not kidding. It costs time and money not only to acquire the clocks, but also to maintain them.

Most of his clocks run on spiral springs and he has to adjust them regularly to keep them running. Some clocks run for a year or a month after each adjustment, but some need it done every week and there are those who need it done every day. The temperature also affects the frequency with which this has to be done, he says.

There's one clock whose spring he adjusts on his wife's birthday.

Thuc says his wife has played an important role in his collection as a lot of revenue from her clothing store is spent on it.

He attributes the passion for clocks to his being a nostalgic person.

"I was brought to old clocks by the sounds of my childhood.

"My small house then had a clock and it chimed regularly at certain times. Its sound became as familiar as a part of the family. It told me the time to go to school, and the time to go to graze cattle for other families."

Thuc did not have a lot of money to kickstart his hobby. The first items in his collection were dead clocks that people dumped. He collected them and got them working again.

That was when he first started a scrap metal business, just to get his hands on "unwanted mechanisms."

He says he has loved mechanical gadgets since he was a child and his major in college was mechanical engineering.

He was a curious boy who was caned many times for dismantling any new item that his father, who was a state office worker, brought home.

Whether it was a radio, cassette player or a telephone that the father was gifted or had bought, Thuc found it impossible to resist tinkering with them. But as a boy, he did not always manage to put the gadget back together and get it working again.

But their mechanical workings are not the only thing that fascinates Thuc about clocks. He is a connoisseur of their chimes, and waxes lyrical in describing them.

He says old clocks' chimes can be "pure, like tapping a crystal, or low and heroic like a symphony, or holy and sacred as though a bell is ringing in a pagoda or a church.

"Their sound is not noisy like barking dogs or cold-hearted like the clashing of metal, as it is in many clocks these days."

He says even a little change in its mechanism can make a clock chime differently.

The distance between the clocks and between them and the wall also determines how they sound.

Thuc says the chime is the soul of old clocks and it is the main factor that makes them attractive to collectors.

"Each clock chimes a different melody. If you can't feel it, it means nothing and clocks would sound all the same."

Thuc's love for old clocks is so strong that anytime he hears about one anywhere in the country, he has to see it. He might not have the money to buy it, but he just has to see it.

"They've cast a spell on me."

A timeless one, it seems.

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