Crossing the threshold of the Bluff Street Time Shop is a refreshing step back in time. Built in the 1890s, the shop has lovely oak floors, high ceilings and even the original sideboard from days gone by. Antiques add to the authenticity with timepieces prominently displayed throughout the attractive two-room shop. Over the years, the shop has served as a private residence, a beauty salon, a tearoom, and a card shop. Steeped in history, it somehow seems fitting that timepieces have found their way into a building in Dubuque’s historic district.
Owner Mark Arnold, a licensed horologist, was intrigued with all things mechanical at an early age. In fact, he was in first grade when he dissected his first timepiece… his Pluto watch! Mark enjoyed basic electronic courses in junior high and high school and attended Kirkwood Community College where he studied computer operations. His background in computers served him well when he opted to pursue his interest in clocks and watches. He enrolled in the horology program at Gem City College and graduated with a certificate as a watchmaker or horologist. That was 37 years ago.
As a horologist, Mark is both an artisan and a craftsman. Most modern watchmakers repair factory made watches, but there are those, like Mark, who are trained, skilled, and able to manufacture many of the parts found in watches today. Much like the master craftsmen who built watches and all their parts by hand, Mark is one of very few in the Midwest certified in what is quickly becoming a dying art.
He learned to disassemble, clean, and reassemble watches and how to order parts. Lathe work, making a staff and stem and repair of automatics required additional study. And advanced training included areas of chronographs, theory of hairsprings, watch escapement, and basic mechanical skills.
The number of these trained timepiece technicians has dropped steadily in the United States and around the world. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 44,000 watchmakers in the United States in 1953. Many were World War II or Korean War veterans eager to learn a trade to become jewelers or independent entrepreneurs. By the early 1970s, there were 32,000 watchmakers and a decade later that number had fallen to 15,500. Current data suggest that number now hovers around 2,200. Of those, half work for major watch suppliers, even though, according to the American Watchmakers-Clockmakers Institute, 70% of watch repairs are performed in jewelry or watch shops.
Mark has witnessed the decline first hand. While there were as many as 100 students in his courses at Gem City College in Quincy, IL, that number has dropped to nine or ten. And currently, Gem City is one of only ten schools in the country that offers programs in horology. Together all ten schools produce fewer than 50 graduates a year. The Watchmakers of Switzerland Training and Education Program (WOSTEP), which tracks watch training worldwide, suggests the United States should produce at least 450-500 new watchmakers a year to keep pace with attrition.
When purchasing a watch, Mark suggests that the buyer consider its primary function. Will the watch be used every day or will it be a dress watch with more limited use? Is the buyer interested in a smart watch that offers an array of run and swim tracking, controls room temperatures, or manages messages? In short, how is the watch to be used?
Mark advises that it’s the construction of the watch that determines its value. While Timex watches are stamped out, a Rolex case is machined from a solid block of stainless steel or gold. He’s worked on watches worth less than $100 and one valued at nearly $100,00. His philosophy remains the same, “Every timepiece needs to be treated with respect.”
Dubuque is fortunate indeed to have the skills and talents of Mark Arnold. One might even say we are the envy of cities throughout the country. From Bozeman, MT to Atlanta, GA and Las Vegas, NV to Chicago, IL, Mark has clients from around the country. Out-of-state visitors strolling along Bluff Street frequently stop by the Time Shop, meet Mark, and ultimately send their timepieces in for cleaning and repair. Mark repairs all brands and types of watches and clocks including battery replacement on all brands of watches, regardless of where they were purchased. Mark also appraises antique clocks and watches, restores movements, and replaces dials. He even handles minor restoration and regluing.
For large pieces like grandfather clocks, Mark, the “clock doc,” makes house calls. He travels within a 75-mile radius of Dubuque charging a fee that begins at a reasonable $85. He reports that 95% of the problems he sees when making house calls are a result of lack of maintenance. Just like the tires on your car should be rotated and your oil changed, so too should your clock be serviced. Mark advises that clocks be cleaned and oiled every three or four years.
Customers describe Mark as dedicated, professional, knowledgeable, engaging, accommodating, and attentive. That sounds like good, old-fashioned customer service to me. Just what one would hope for when stepping back in time.
The Bluff Street Time Shop is open Tuesday through Friday from 11:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and on Saturday from 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Mark is also available by appointment. Please call (563) 845-0786.