Keeper of Time, the first feature-film length documentary on modern artisanal watchmaking, premiered in New York on 28th April and is now streaming on Vimeo. In anticipation of this event, The Hour Glass sat down with director and producer Michael Culyba to talk about his film, the concept of time, and how mechanical watches will continue to have a special place in his heart.
The Hour Glass is proud to be an Executive Producer of Keeper of Time.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You started this film project quite early on in your watch journey. How has making this film changed your perspective on time and watch making?
I discovered mechanical watchmaking only for four and a half years ago. And I just quickly became obsessed and intrigued with these little micro-engineered time-telling machines. Gary Shteyngart, who’s a writer and in the film, is a watch enthusiast and he had a similar experience where he bought a watch, and he just assumed everything ran on batteries. I was 44 years old, and I really just could not believe I had lived my whole life being blind to the fact that these amazing machines in this world of watchmaking and horology existed. I just couldn’t believe it. I became very enthusiastic about it and went down the rabbit hole. And that was the motivation for making the film: I just thought, if I didn’t know about this, there must be millions of people out there that don’t know. I just wanted to share my new passion and enthusiasm for watches.
The film was my basic schooling for horology. I went from not knowing the difference between a quartz watch and a mechanical watch, to interviewing François-Paul Journe within the span of six to seven months, you know, in the blink of an eye. So it was a crash course. But over the two years or so of filming, I became obviously very knowledgeable, and my passion and interest in horology has just grown from there. The wonderful thing about horology is, even after making this film, there are still things that are new and exciting to learn about. That’s what keeps my interest alive.
A big aspect of watch collecting is the people you meet along the way, and how open and accepting the community can be. Has it been a similar experience for you?
Yeah. I started super green. I wasn’t part of the watch community at all. The first interview I did was with Nick Manousos of the Horological Society of New York. He was pivotal – he introduced me to a lot of the people that are featured in the film. Nick was the one who reached out to François-Paul Journe to see if he would participate. Lo and behold, he did. He happened to be in New York, and we set up an interview with him. I don’t think I was particularly qualified to be interviewing him; but I did my research, and when it did go well, I ended up interviewing him again in Geneva later to do some follow up questions.
Everybody I’ve come across along the way with making this project has been so kind, welcoming, and supportive. I do think it probably is a unique thing to the horological community that they’re all very supportive and really nice people that want to share their knowledge and spread this world of watchmaking.
I did a Kickstarter [to raise funds for the film] and that was a project unto itself. The Kickstarter was great, not just because it funded the production of the film, but also because it exposed it to other people in the watch world. And not only did they contribute financially, which, of course, I needed the money to make the film, but they really were supportive, and connected me to certain people in the film. So it’s just an illustration of how supportive and forthcoming and kind the community is.
There are so many angles you could have taken to explore this theme of time. Why have you chosen mechanical timekeeping, particularly artisanal watchmaking, when there are plenty of other devices, such as atomic clocks, you could have looked at in terms of exploring this whole concept?
It’s interesting you bring up the atomic clock. It started with my fascination with mechanical timekeepers. Originally, the historical thread of the film [was to] start with the stone circles – which it does – and go all the way to the atomic clocks we use today as our time standard, how those work, and how we got that. In fact, we did film atomic clocks at the US Naval Observatory here in the United States and at NIST in Colorado. I even went to Paris to film at the BIPM where they calculate UTC. But when I got to the editing room, I just couldn’t make an eight-hour film. It was too much.
I quickly came to realise that the film I really wanted to make was with my original fascination of mechanical timekeepers. That’s where the romance is, and continues to be, and it’s cinematic. Watching a tourbillon spin around is mesmerising. And when it’s integrated into watches that Max Busser designs and makes for MB&F, I just thought that’s cinematic and fascinating to watch. To project that on a giant movie screen in 4K, I just thought it would be amazing. And it is amazing. They’re just wonderful, beautiful objects that are screaming to be on a movie screen. When you compare that to an atomic clock, which are interesting devices, but they’re just long metal tubes that don’t do anything visually.
What were some of the most interesting watches that you saw during the filming process? What caught your eye?
All the watchmakers, all the people, their stories are fascinating. They’re super interesting – that’s why they’re in the film. But to go to Geneva and visit the workshops of François-Paul Journe, and their dial and case maker, to film and handle these watches, it was a whole different thrilling experience.
One of the watches that stands out is his Grand Sonnerie, which [François-Paul Journe] doesn’t make anymore. We were able to film the watchmaker who assembling that piece and also film it as a complete watch. That was his most complicated watch at the time [of its release]. To handle that watch, and film it chiming, it was a real privilege. I can’t even dream to afford one of these timepieces, so to be able to see them in the metal was just thrilling for me.
We were lucky to capture the process for making the dial on the Chronomètre Bleu. We just happened to be there when they were doing that. The polishing on the dial alone – I don’t know how many times they polish that thing. He just kept polishing – he’d take it to a new machine and polish, apply the numerals and polish again… I just have a huge admiration for all the work that goes into these objects. That dial was impossible to film because it’s so polished – black polished. If the light is not on it at the exact right angle, it just looks black. The only way we could film it was to pan a light across it. And the hard work pays off – it’s just beautiful.
One of the most memorable days was shooting with Philippe Dufour. By the time we filmed with him, it was later in the in the filming process, and I was way more knowledgeable and really could appreciate who he was – someone who is widely considered the greatest living watchmaker. He’s another person that was just totally welcoming and forthcoming and excited to share his workshop with us. He volunteered to sit at his bench and polish some screws sink and polish some beveling on a bridge, which are in the film. Then he displayed some watches out to show us and one of them was his school watch – his very first watch that he ever made, and it says “Philippe Dufour” on it. He then showed us his very first movement he made, which was his Grande Sonnerie movement. He presses the pusher and it starts to chime. After that, he shows us the very first Simplicity that he ever made, number 000. By then I knew how special these timepieces were, their historical value, and to have the watchmaker himself showing them to us – it was just thrilling.
There is a move towards going back to things that are more repairable, that you take from the planet once and not disposing of it after you’re done with it.
That’s a really excellent point, because I think that is true. For me, if I buy a watch, whether it’s a new watch or a vintage watch, these are objects that I plan to keep and enjoy. I do plan to pass them on to my two children, and I hope they will wear them and enjoy them.
I do think watches are meant to be worn and enjoyed in that sense. I’m not afraid to get them beat up or scratched or dinged up, I wear them. In that sense, you don’t buy a mechanical watch and [throw them away], they’re not disposable objects. They have meaning, they are meant to be passed along, and meant to be kept and looked after and passed on to the next steward. But beyond that, it’s true, we’re also looking for more sustainable objects. Like Gary Shteyngard says in the film, we’re also looking for more tangible objects with meaning.
We live in a modern, electrically powered world. In a certain sense, the mechanical timekeeper technology is archaic, right? It’s not necessary anymore, really. Yet independent watchmakers like Roger Smith are still trying to improve the mechanical timekeeper, even in the shadow of the battery powered quartz watch. I just think it’s super cool. George Daniels always really believed the mechanical timekeeper was far superior to battery powered quartz watches. And mechanical watches do have a lot of advantages.
If a quartz watch breaks, they’re not worth fixing. You just throw it away. They’re disposable objects. Whereas the pocket watch that Nick Manousos shows in the film, his American railroad pocket watch, an Elgin, it’s over 100 years old. It’s beautiful. And it works just as well as it did when it was first made. If that breaks, you can repair it and it’s worth repairing, as he mentioned, because it’s an heirloom it’s something that can be passed on from generation to generation. And in that sense, mechanical timekeepers can work indefinitely and continue to be enjoyed and used generation after generation. They become these talisman for the person who had it before. These objects go beyond luxury, they can have deep personal meaning. Of course, there are some quartz watches that I enjoy, but it’s probably a rarity if someone is passing along a quartz Casio, right?
What’s next for you? Will you be making more films about watches or horology?
I’m always looking for the films to be adventures and journeys. So I want any films that I make to take me on an adventure personally. And this, Keeper of Time, certainly did that. We got to travel all over the world. It was my living adventure class of learning about horology, and it was a real adventure and journey. I want to pick projects and films that will take me on another adventure, certainly going to places I’ve never been to.
If I were to make another film about horology and watches, what I would love to do is go to Japan and make a film about one Japanese independent watchmaker. That’s one of the things I wish I could have included in this film. Because the Japanese have just a wonderful aesthetic and history to their aesthetics that they incorporate into their watches. That’s what I would really like to do for next watch, find and film an independent Japanese watchmaker that has an interesting story to be told beyond the watches too. That would be wonderful experience.
That’s the other thing about the film, by the way. I want people to take away with the film – yes, it can be trite, and it’s been said many times – that we should seize the day and live every day like it’s our last and put everything we have into the limited time that we are given. I think we all need to be reminded at times that this is true. I certainly need to be reminded of it. That’s why I wanted the main takeaway from the film to be, yes, we live finite, limited lives, someday we are going to die, I hate to break it to people. But it’s important to live meaningful, interesting lives. And I think beyond that, make beautiful things and share them with the rest of the world. This is what gives our lives our lives meaning. This is what I found to be a quality in all the watchmakers that I profiled: this is what they’re doing – living interesting lives, dedicating their lives to a wonderful, beautiful craft, and creating beautiful objects that they share with the world. It gives their lives meaning. It gives joy to the rest of us. I want people to watch this film to look at their own lives, and ask themselves, you know, am I living the life that I dreamt for myself? And if not, you know, it’s time to start doing it.
The film is now available for purchase on Vimeo for $15 USD.