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Symmetry Vs. Symbolism

From The American Horologist and Jeweler magazine, March, 1942

Symmetry Vs. Symbolism


Was Washburn really the fellow who started all those charming legends that have sprung up around the watchmaker's clock sign with its painted hands perpetually pointing the time at 8 :17 1/2? This writer doesn't know-but he does know that probably no symbol of a craft has piqued the public interest like the painted clock that traditionally identifies the business place of a horology expert.

One historian has taken the trouble to point out that Washburn (who it seems, was not only the leading clock painter of early New York, but the rest of the country, as well), always painted the clocks he created, with the time at 8 :17 1/2, establishing a precedent accepted or closely followed by succeeding exponents of the art.

But such an explanation of prosaic and devoid of mystery. The legends make better telling and thus the Washburn story is less current than many other imaginative tales which purportedly explain the significance of the mystic hour. 

In fact, when a magazine of national circulation printed a simple little paragraph referring to the painted clocks, the editors got half a hundred letters seeking to explain the reason why the time was painted as it is. The explanations ranged all the way from a statement that they marked the hour of the death of Washington to the assassination of McKinley.

True, the same batch of mail contained letters from a lot of unromantic souls who wrote in debunking the idea that the hands were painted in their positions for any reasons except those of convenience and symmetry.

But symmetry will never wear the cloak of tradition accorded symbolism - For the tales and legends will acquire more flavor and authenticity as time passes. And while time passes, the hands on the painted clock will stand still, always exciting the public fancy. Some of these days, perhaps, some discerning horologist will discover that a made-to-order horological hobby is the collecting and preservation of these interesting legends and anecdotes. 

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