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A passion that keeps ticking away

Update: April, 13/2014 - 17:56
Owner's pride: Nguyen Minh Tam shows some of his collections. — VNS Photos Nguyen Truong

Bac Giang resident Nguyen Minh Tam is so enamoured of antique clocks that he hears their souls talk to him. The collector tells Nguyen Truong that he misses this conversation when he is away from home.

Many people call Nguyen Minh Tam "the King of the clocks in northern Viet Nam".

However, Tam, 50, says: "I am just a normal person who loves to collect clocks."

He has actually spent a lot of money, effort and sweat over collecting clocks even during these hard times. So it is not easy to find a person like him.

Tam's house in Doi Ngo Town in Luc Nam District, in the northern province of Bac Giang, is like a small museum. There are all kinds of time-keepers there, from wrist watches, desktop clocks and wall clocks to cabinet clocks and fireplace clocks.

He has more than 200 desktop clocks. But Tam says the most valuable of the lot is a collection of wall clocks with nearly 100 tones.

Point out any clock to him and Tam can tell the manufacturers' name, how many "hammers" and "hands" the clock has, whether its internal parts are made of steel or copper, whether its box is Western-made or is a domestic product, the year of manufacture and even the year of import.

"I love these clocks because within the wooden boxes, they have souls that express themselves through their hammers and gongs that create distinct sounds."

The sounds include pieces of famous classical music such as Westminster or Valse du Coucou. This is the most valuable part of an antique clock," he says.

The wooden box itself acts as a guitar sound box to create a "complete" sound effect. The acoustics demanded of the boxes make them a work of art, Tam says, explaining: "Our carpenters cannot make a standard box (for clocks), no matter how brilliant they are. A normal carpenter cannot make a guitar sound box; so this is an art."

Among the "souls of time" that Tam keeps, the brands he loves best are Girod, J (Junghan) and especially ODo, a French watch brand dating from 1708. He says ODo clocks are not made anymore and so they are more valuable. There are many types such as ODo 30, 57, 58 and 62, the number referring to the year of manufacture.

Tam said the most precious one is ODo 36-10. It was manufactured in 1936 with 10 metal rods and two music tracks.

These clocks are often sought by antique collectors today. Their prices range from a few million to tens of millions of dong each, though their designs are simple. That's why the Odo firm gave the right to manufacture its clocks to the Swiss. In the past, some Southern Vietnamese artists made wooden boxes for this famous clocks, decorated with lacquer paintings. But the internal rods and hammers, which are the soul of the clock, were always made by ODo.

Tam recalled that from his childhood, he was enraptured by the grandfather clocks which played melodious music. While working in Germany, he had the chance to see famous clocks and that made him feel more passionate about his interest.

But only in recent years, when his family's financial status stabilised, did he start spending a lot more time collecting antique clocks.

To get the clocks he loves, Tam travelled to many places. When a friend told him about an ODo-36 clock in Thai Nguyen Province, he went there several times to convince the owners to sell it to him.

He also imported many clocks. He often surfs the Internet for information, to connect with people who have the same passion and does not regret the money he paid for the clocks.

Even he doesn't know the exact number of clocks he possesses, each worth tens of millions of dong.

Story-tellers: Every clock has a distinct, personal history, says avid collector Tam.

Tam spent VND75 million to buy a cabinet clock of the German J (Junghan) brand. It now sits solemnly in his house. Tam estimates that he has spent more than VND1 billion, or US$46,500, on the time machines.

Initially, when Tam's wife saw him leave home and then return with some antique clocks, she thought that they were useless.

Sometimes Tam also borrowed money from her to buy clocks. When she needed money, she felt quite annoyed. Perhaps the souls of the ancient clocks have won her over, and she now shares information and knowledge about clocks with her husband and is ready to join him in his hunt for antique clocks.

Tam says there are two kinds of happiness to gain from antique clocks.

"First, we hear them 'talk' throughout the day with the ticking and melodies." Tam hangs the clocks in his living room, the hallway and even in the bedroom, and has to retune them once a week. As he has no time to adjust the clocks every day, his house is always ringing with clock tones. On hearing each tone, he knows it is from which clock.

"I have fallen in love with clock tones, and when I am away from home I miss them. It's like an echo from the past," Tam says.

The second happiness he gets is the feeling of being immersed in the old times when he plays with the antique clocks.

"For me, each timepiece is a life story about the people and the society. There are clocks which were respectfully passed from one generation to another, with the owners refusing to sell them because they were associated with many family memories."

There were clocks for which the original owner had to pay money equivalent to the worth of 25 buffaloes.

"Well-off families must have collected clocks several decades ago, so each clock has its own fate that not everyone knows about. Playing with antiques is like going to school: we have to study regularly, repeatedly, and must be passionate for it," Tam adds.

There are clocks in his house which have exquisite carvings, are gilded with gold letters and have silver plate faces. These were the masterpieces of the ancient artisans.

Tam says he is still new to his hobby, so he doesn't dare touch these fragile objects. He hires a skilled craftsman from Thai Nguyen for all the cleaning and repair work.

For every cleaning and lubricating work, Tam has to pay the worker VND300,000 per piece, which adds up to about VND30 million a year.

Asked if he intended to trade the clocks, Tam smiles and says: "I'm not trading them. I just buy clocks to watch and listen to their chimes only. Everyone has a hobby; my interest is collecting antique clocks." — VNS

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