Chelsea Clock collector Joe Neil moved from Oregon to Hawaii at age 24 and never looked back. From the Island of Kauai he works with its native woods (mainly koa) handcrafting an extensive line of gift items such as picture frames, jewelry boxes — even clocks. Over the years he’s accumulated more than 120 Chelseas, many of which he’s restored himself through incredible research and patience. We caught up with him one Friday afternoon to find out what makes this avid clock collector tick.
What first got you interested in Chelsea clocks?
I got interested as an adult simply by making clock cases as a hobby, and I started putting some nice, high-end movements in them rather than run of the mill ones. Chelsea popped up on my radar because I was really interested in quality. The more I got to reading and checking the history, one thing led to another, and it just became more and more fascinating for me.
How long have you been collecting?
About 4 or 5 years. Not too long in comparison to some of the people I know who’ve been collecting for the past 40 years. But Hawaii is not exactly the clock-collector’s paradise. There’s no tradition of time — or time pieces — here because we spend most of our time outside. When it’s light out we go outside and when it’s dark we go in. It’s way different than most [of the country] is used to.
Do you collect other timepieces or just Chelseas?
And exactly how many do you own?
I can’t really tell you. I counted up to 120 and then kind of quit.
Where do you keep them all?
Everywhere. We’re slowly remodeling. Some are on a display wall but many of them are on wire racks in storage. Someday they’ll be out and properly displayed, but the way that I move it may be a while. Most of the horizontal surface space in the house is occupied with Chelsea clocks. My wife basically thinks I’m nuts, but after 40 years of marriage, she just ignores it.
Many of our collectors are veterans. Do you have a history with the military?
None whatsoever. But many of the pieces I have have come from ex-Navy veterans, and they have very fascinating stories. One of the things I enjoy most about these clocks is the backstory of the clock itself — who owned it or how the seller came to get it or who died and left it behind. It’s kind of like the “George Washington slept here” thing.
Can you tell us a story that came with one of your clocks?
I bought a 6-inch yacht-wheel clock with base (what is commonly known as a Chelsea Mariner) and I asked the fellow I bought it from, “Where did you get it? Have you owned it awhile?” He said he picked it up 20 years ago from a woman in Virginia who inherited it from her uncle. He went on to tell the story of an uncle who had a mistress in New York City. Apparently she was one of the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes. He gave this clock to her, and when she died, he got the clock back and kept it until his death as a remembrance of his lover, the Rockette. That story brings back [memories of] all sorts of dime-novel stories.
Do you have a favorite piece?
I do. It’s one of the nicest little clocks. I have it out where I can see it every day. It’s a little, 4-inch library clock out of the 1920s. It’s such a cute little elegantly detailed clock. In fact, I sent it back to the factory and had it all restored so it’s like brand new out here.
Do you have any barometers or tides as part of your collection?
I do. I actually have one of everything I think.
Any wish-list items?
My bucket list is to collect all the clocks in a particular series. I’ve got the old Commander series that started back in the 1900s catalog, and within the series I’ve got all the clocks up through the 10-inch clock. For me, the Holy Grail would be a 10-inch Commander. The odds of finding one are slim to none, and the odds of being able to afford it if I do find it are even less.
Where do you look?
Over the years I’ve developed a network that includes Chelsea collectors and others who are interested in clocks, so the best way to put it would be through the grapevine.
As someone who clearly loves our brand as much as we do, what’s Chelsea’s utmost significance in your mind?
The first word that pops into mind is quality. My latest little [restoration] project here is an old thermostat. They made this thing from 1900 to 1910. It has a small Chelsea clock at the bottom of it! It came out of the basement of a Bedford, Massachusetts, home. Somebody found this thing and dusted it off, and I bought it because it had a little Chelsea on it. I think its serial dates it to 1905. It has never been serviced — it just sat there for 110 years. But when you wind it up, it works perfectly. It keeps perfect time! Very few things would do that.
One other thing I will say, is you’re talking to a guy who was a poor student, who slept through every history class, who had zero interest in it. And these little Chelseas have gotten me more interested in history than any formal education known to man. The rich heritage of the brand makes the past come to life.