Interview: Mechanical Magic with Antiquarian Horologist Brittany Cox

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When an item comes into Brittany Cox’s Seattle-based shop, you can be sure that it is old and it is beautiful. Cox is an antiquarian horologist. She works on watches, clocks, music boxes and other pieces of mechanical magnificence every day, seven days a week. It is an all-consuming passion.

But before she had countless hours of training, received numerous watch and clockmaking certifications and repaired and restored some of the most incredible horological masterpieces, she was a young girl with a fascination in how things worked.

Cox explained her interest in mechanical objects began when she started collecting music boxes and watches as a kid. To Cox, there was something enchanting about discovering a mechanical object that could play music or tell time. It was comforting to see something tangible work like that.

“Having something small that works and does something so special held my attention for many years,” Cox said.

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Cox’s love for seeing how objects worked was inflamed when she went to the University of Texas at San Antonio to study philosophy of metaphysics and epistemology, which looks at what the world is like and what we can know about it. During her studies, she found that the top thinkers of the Renaissance period were looking at how to create artificial intelligence and test the limits of human capacity for creation by what can be made. She learned about all the different ways artisans created these mechanical objects more than 300 years ago. That was her inspiration. After graduating, Cox studied watch and clockmaking, earning several watchmaking certifications from the Watch Technology Institute in Seattle. Then she began studying 18th Century clockmaking at West Dean College in England in 2010. After her first year, she developed a program that focused on automata and mechanical music.

“Having something small that works and does something so special held my attention for many years.”

Automata use watch or clock-based movements to imitate the movements and sounds of humans and animals. Her focus meant learning more than just how to put together an old clock. She needed to know how items were made, how to preserve materials and how to build new pieces that fit perfectly. She studied gilding, silversmithing, blacksmithing, hand engraving, woodworking, polishing, lacquering and a whole lot more.

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“I feel very humbled looking at the things people made hundreds of years ago,” Cox said. “I know they were doing it with half, even less than that, of the resources we have today. It’s incredible to me that people today struggle to recreate the things people were creating all these years ago and we have so much more to help us. It’s very humbling to think about that.”

At West Dean College, she earned a diploma for the conservation and restoration of clocks in 2011, a post-graduate diploma in the conservation of clocks in 2012 and a master’s degree in museum studies in 2013.

She opened her Seattle-based shop and conservation studio Memoria Technica in 2015. Trying to put together a workshop, Cox explained, was very daunting. She was competing with other horologists and collectors for the machinery and tools needed to take apart and restore watches, clocks and automata. She found an opportunity when she offered to handle the estate of a former watchmaker, Dennis Harmon. After spending seven months handling the estate, she had what she needed to open Memoria Technica.

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Cox carefully studies every piece that comes into her shop. She researches it, looks at it from every angle, takes numerous photos and documents how everything is put together. Then the real work begins. The majority of her work is on complicated carriage clocks and singing bird boxes from between the 18th and 20th centuries. However, she does receive some pocket watches, wristwatches, clocks and various pieces of automata.

When she’s taking apart a piece, she marks what needs attention, like a broken gear, a burred screw or a bent spring. Once she learned how mechanical systems operate, Cox said she isn’t surprised by what’s inside. Though, that doesn’t make the process any less special.

“The best part about it is that you can see the hands of the craftsman in the work. You can see their file marks, you see the little dot or clues they’ve given themselves or people that would be working on it 100 years later. They were thinking about the watchmaker.”

Once, she opened a pocket watch to find that someone had engraved the silhouette of a jumping horse on the inside of the watch case. The only person who would see that engraving is another watchmaker. To Cox, there’s something very special about someone creating something just for the sake of beauty.

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There are very few antiquarian horologists in the world, and even fewer that focus on automata. There are only two horological conservationists in the United States, and Cox is one of them. Which means she is always busy. There’s a six-to-eight-month waiting list for anyone interested in having their pieces fixed or restored. Repairs can take anywhere from a few days to a couple years depending on the complexity of work, which includes custom fabrication, research and testing.

“I want somebody 200 years from now to see a story in that object. I don’t want them thinking the wheel I put in was the original wheel that came with it when it was made.”

“I wake up and I’m driven to do my work. I am this work. It absolutely consumes me,” Cox said. “Being self-employed is very challenging. It takes all of me, every day.”

As a conservator, she has to make sure every repair she performs and every new part she makes is in line with how it was originally made. That means repairing parts as opposed to replacing them when possible. It means leaving the patina on pieces when applicable. It means using materials and methods that keep intact the integrity and beauty of the original piece.

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“One doesn’t want one’s work to be completely indistinguishable from the original. If someone is aesthetically looking at it, they won’t be able to tell the part I [replaced]. So I’ll put a stamp somewhere that’ll say this is a replacement piece or it’ll go in a report so the owner knows what’s been done,” Cox said. “I want somebody 200 years from now to see a story in that object. I don’t want them thinking the wheel I put in was the original wheel that came with it when it was made.”

Antiquarian horologists are a small group. Cox said she reaches out to colleagues and they reach out to her if they need help or just want to chat. Everyone has their own specialty. It’s not uncommon for antiquarian horologists to work with one another to make a specialized part or offer advice.


A member of that small group, John B. McLemore, recently made headlines when he was featured in the “S-Town” podcast (skip this paragraph if you want to avoid spoilers). The podcast proposes that McLemore’s mental state had been affected by mercury poisoning, which he developed as a part of his antiquarian horology work. Before the podcast, very few people had ever heard of an antiquarian horologist, but Cox said the podcast has shown light on what she and her colleagues do.


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The longest she’s worked on a piece was an automata doll that sits on a wooden stool and plays an instrument. Aside from her own work on the object, she had to work with a clothing maker and an instrument maker to bring the piece back to life. Overall, it took about two years to complete the work, and it wouldn’t have been possible without collaboration.

Cox said she hopes more people become interested in horology. There are fewer than 5,000 certified watchmakers in the United States. Without people to steward it into the future, Cox fears the craft will disappear. To do her part, Cox works with groups and holds workshops and classes to get people involved in watchmaking, clockmaking and automata. Becoming certified in the various aspects of horology takes a long time, which can turn some people away. But those that want to become involved in it must have passion for the craft.

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“Getting people engaged and helping people to discover their passion is the best way to get people into horology,” she said.The dream, Cox explained, is to have a dedicated space for people to learn all the different aspects of horology. It would be a place where people can learn everything from engine turning and goldsmithing to general watchmaking and mechanical magic. People would be able to learn certain skills or really immerse themselves in horology and develop their portfolios. There would be artists in residency creating one-of-a-kind pieces, and sales from their unique creations would help fund the school.

“I don’t see myself stopping until I don’t have a choice. I’m going to keep this trade alive for as long as I can.”

Images courtesy of Brittany Cox

Screengrabs via Great Big Story

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Christian discovered his love for watches around the same time he discovered he could make a living as a writer. An award-winning journalist, Christian has covered everything from presidential campaigns to princess tea parties. Now, he's combining his passion for vintage watches with his passion for writing. Christian lives and works out of central Pennsylvania.
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  • Bella de Formosa

    Great article, Christian! As a member of the vastly smaller contingent of females who are interested in/collect mechanical watches, I really enjoyed reading about Ms. Cox, her craft, the dedication and training involved in reaching her level of skill, and the somewhat precarious position the field of antiquarian horology faces. It would be an absolute shame to lose this fascinating, beautiful, important aspect horological preservation.

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