Not many clocks are made the way a Chelsea is. More than 364 moving parts—gears, pinions and springs—make up its internal heartbeat, one that has survived through time and history. Although its intricate mechanism is housed in a solid forged-brass case, the clock’s traditional, nautically inspired exterior is what has charmed buyers for more than a century– its Ship’s Bell clock remains Chelsea’s signature item.
“Our designs are not driven by the latest trends, but if you’re looking for classic American, nautically inspired products, we are the definition of that,” says Patrick Capozzi, director of marketing at Chelsea Clock Company.
As America’s oldest clockmaker still in existence, Chelsea Clock prides itself on its heritage. The company’s history dates back to 1897. It survived the Great Depression and World War II, when orders from the United States government helped it become known as the “Timekeeper of the Sea.” By the 1950s and 1960s, Chelsea Clock was a well-established brand in American culture, symbolizing a gift of distinction for celebrities. Every president since Teddy Roosevelt has owned a Chelsea and so have musical icons such as Elvis and Elton John. So strong are the clockmaker’s roots that only recently did it move to a newer building (two blocks away) after being housed in the same building in Chelsea, Massachusetts, for 118 years.
“We’ll be working a bit more efficiently, but it’s bittersweet,” says Capozzi. “We have a lot of years here. We’re a landmark in Chelsea.”
Although Chelsea Clock is modernizing its offices, the company has no plans to change its Ship’s Bell manufacturing process, which is done mostly by hand with tight quality control. The 6-inch Ship’s Bell contains up to seven pounds of solid brass forged from a single chunk of metal to provide the maximum protection from rust and corrosion. This brass is also the source of the signature bell tone of the Ship’s Bell strike, which occurs every half hour, a tradition tracing back to the unique bell code used to tell time by mariners for hundreds of years.
Manufactured on site at Chelsea’s headquarters, the Ship’s Bell is assembled over a period of six weeks. The iconic mechanical timepiece is hand-polished and lacquered for long-lasting shine.
While Chelsea Clock has added to its product line over the decades—today it makes more than 300 variations of clocks, including battery-operated quartz clocks, barometers and tide instruments—the Ship’s Bell continues to be its most sought-after item.
Why? “It’s because they are so unique, and we are the only ones in the country making this type of mechanical clock. It’s a product that people come to us for specifically,” Capozzi says.
Sold via Chelsea Clock’s website and at major jewelers and specialty shops across the country, the Ship’s Bell comes in three different sizes—a 4 1/2-inch, 6-inch or 8 1/2-inch dial—and two different finishes: brass or nickel. They range in price from $2,300 to $4,000 depending on the size and finish and can be purchased with a solid American-hardwood display base or without one (for mounting directly to a wall or the bulkhead of a boat).
Once assembled, a Ship’s Bell can be personalized with engraving or screen printing on the dial. The serial number of each clock is registered in Chelsea Clock’s logbooks before being shipped from the factory, a practice which dates back to 1897.
“We realize that our clocks are an investment, especially our Ship’s Bell clocks,” says Capozzi. “But they last forever. If they are well taken care of and maintained, they are a precision timepiece that lasts a lifetime and can be handed down to the next generation.” Owners take pride in their purchase and enjoy checking in with the factory for restoration and the occasional repair.
The company is also working on building interest from a new crop of buyers by getting the word out about the product’s quality and longevity. Capozzi says they are starting to see growing interest, especially in the corporate setting.
“We get lots of inquiries and letters from younger audiences who are intrigued by the mechanical nature of the clock,” Capozzi says. “It’s a ‘time machine’ you don’t see everywhere.”
Whether it’s the Ship’s Bell’s history, expert manufacturing process or signature half-hour chime, there is no denying the overall appeal of this timepiece. What’s more, its classic, simple design makes it at home in a variety of settings, from traditional to contemporary. So, even if your interior design changes with the seasons, a Chelsea Clock can continue to adorn the mantel for decades to come.
Giannina Smith Bedford is editor-in-chief of Simply Buckhead magazine in Atlanta.