Keeping Time

A collector’s passion for time created one of the world’s leading horological libraries in Manhattan
Courtesy of the Horological Society of New York

The Jost Bürgi Research Library at the Horological Society of New York was dedicated this past October.

Fortunat Mueller-Maerki’s passion for collecting books and ephemera related to time began with one clock. When he was a university student in Switzerland in the 1960s, his grandfather gifted him a 300-year-old table clock that he had restored, which Mueller-Maerki gave pride of place on his nightstand. His fascination with the object led not just to more clock collecting but also to any printed matter on the idea and keeping of time. He later moved to the United States and became a leading member of the National Association for Watch & Clock Collectors, continuing to build a specialized multilingual collection ranging from rare seventeenth-century books to twentieth-century swap meet brochures. If he discovered a book on timekeeping, a watchmaking school syllabus, or even an email newsletter that seemed relevant to print out and save, he added it, making his collection rich in the things others overlook.

Through the Horological Society of New York (HSNY), those diverse items amassed from years of travel and a multifaceted collecting approach are now available to explore.

“When our library was being formed, Fortunat Mueller-Maerki donated over 25,000 items on all aspects of horology with the stipulation that his collection serve the greatest number of people,” said Carolina Navarro, deputy director of HSNY.

After a careful relocation from Mueller-Maerki’s New Jersey home to HSNY’s new space in midtown Manhattan, the Jost Bürgi Research Library was dedicated on October 21, 2022. It was named for a seventeenth-century Swiss clockmaker whose timekeeping work involved a diversity of subjects such as mathematics and astronomy. When HSNY was founded in 1866 as a watchmaking guild, it had a library that included only a couple hundred books. Now it is a major focus.

The library is part of HSNY’s new 2,000-square-foot space which is lined with bookshelves and timekeeping displays alongside luminous arched windows and areas to read, research, and gather. It’s located on the fifth floor of the General Society Building on West 44th Street, a historic New York City site that holds eclectic organizations like the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art and the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen which has its own multi-level library.

While research appointments can be made, anyone can stop by to browse. Since opening, the Jost Bürgi Research Library has attracted broad interest for its diverse materials that make it among the largest horological libraries in the world. A perusal of its shelves reveals a history of sundials and a book on the Loch Ness Monster (because it was authored by a horologist).

“We’ve had a novelist writing about a character who’s a watchmaker; people who work at auction houses and watch collectors who are researching pieces; visitors searching for members of their family who worked as watchmakers; journalists who want to include technical background in their articles; aspiring amateur watchmakers; and academics who are interested in theoretical ideas about temporality and physics,” said Miranda Marraccini, HSNY’s librarian.

Alongside the library, HSNY is using its space to host watchmaking classes and exhibitions, such as a presentation of watches collected by James Arthur, who in the 1930s envisioned a “Temple of Time” for New York City.

“Every day I learn something surprising about how time affects elements of the human experience,” Marraccini said. “I’ve learned about automata, colonialism, jukeboxes, miniature painting, astrolabes, French Revolutionary politics, and radioactivity. All of those topics have something to do with the way we measure and imagine time. Time touches everything, which is why I think Fortunat collects so broadly.”