Q&A with Nathan Bower: Northern Michigan’s Artisan Clockmaker

Nathan Bower wasn’t setting out to revive a dying art form when, straight out of high school, he accepted a three-year apprenticeship as a watch and clock repairman at the Traverse City jeweler Martinek’s. He simply liked to tinker. But that curiosity quickly became a calling—and now, Bower is one of the country’s few artisan clockmakers, machining each of the gears and painstakingly building handmade, heirloom-worthy, award-winning timepieces out of his Traverse City studio and repair shop. We asked Bower to shed some light on the venerable craft of clockmaking, and what’s made his clocks a favorite in Northern Michigan homes and cottages.

First thing’s first: Why clocks?

I just enjoy anything that’s mechanical, always have. I’ve been taking apart clocks and appliances pretty much from when I was very young. Every appliance our family’s ever owned, I’ve taken apart at one time or another. I needed to know how everything worked. It’s always been in my blood, I guess.

Are you into all aspects of clocks, or just one kind?

I enjoy clocks much more than watches because there’s just a bigger variety. And I enjoy learning about the history behind the antique clocks I work on. But my real passion is creating one-of-a-kind, original pieces, and that’s where I spend the bulk of my creative energies.

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So how did you get into creating your own original clocks?

I’ve always been artistic, and I’ve always enjoyed designing. And from years of repairing I had a list of features that I wanted to use someday to make the perfect clock. You know, the design of the clock really hasn’t changed much, going back hundreds of years. The principles of how clocks function are the exact same. But we’ve perfected technique, and obviously we have better tools today to make finer clocks. I use traditional methods to make my clocks; I don’t use computer-aided machining. They’re all handmade.

You specialize in “skeleton clocks,” a really artistic style where all the gears are visible. What drew you to creating that particular kind of clock?

As a repairman I’ve been fortunate to actually see the beauty in how clocks function, whereas most people are never able to see the inner workings in their clock. I’ve always been fascinated by that and wanted to create timepieces that allow others to see the beauty of a mechanical clock piece. I’ve always felt that’s where the beauty of a clock actually lies, so why cover it up with a dial? Watching how the clock functions is very mesmerizing.

What does it take to be a clockmaker?

It starts with just understanding what makes a clock work. And that starts with just taking apart clocks. That’s really the best way to understand clocks. Once you take apart hundreds of clocks, it all starts to make more sense.

What about a propensity for punctuality? Seems that’d be part of the job description.

Well, the old saying is: No one is more confused as to what time it actually is than a clock repairman. Because all the clocks that are being repaired are not keeping correct time! I’ll have a hundred clocks that all say a different time—though obviously we get them to keep time before they leave our shop.

So are you saying that you’re late a lot?

No, I’m pretty good about being on time because that would be embarrassing. I’d have no excuse.

This spring, Nathan Bower will be teaming up with Traverse City furniture maker Joe Stearns for a special series of artisan wall clocks. To see more of Nathan’s work, visit Bower Clock Company’s Traverse City workshop and studio on Long Lake Road.

Learn more about Bower Clock Company at BowerClocks.com.

This article was featured in the April 2014 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine.
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