Brittany specializes in micromechanics and automata, describing herself as a mechanic from the 17th century, Brittany brings mechanical wonders back to life. She is one of less than a handful of people who hold a masters in horological conservation in the U.S.
1. What did your father do? What did your mother do? Describe briefly your childhood.
My father was a mechanical engineer specializing in building shields against ballistics and explosives. My mother, a ball of energy and enthusiasm, was very good at accomplishing the impossible. She started a non-profit to raise money for charities and organized fundraising events while working for South West Airlines.
My childhood is made up of memories that are almost like vignettes, so I will share a poignant one. My father’s mother was a miniaturist, painter, and doll maker. Given that my father is almost 50 years older than me, his mother was quite frail by the time I came along. Visiting her home was like visiting a dollhouse. We never got to know one another, but I came to know her through examining all of the tiny objects that made up her home. She was a woman of fine skill with lavish patience, the tedium of creating her miniature dreamscapes apparent in densely layered details. A wall of shelves containing boxes of beads, miniscule articles, colourful trinkets, and a wonder of other things was where I passed many hours of examination. Here I would sit alone on the white carpet, but sometimes with her grey cat, legs crossed and hunched over piles of delicate tactile things that fit in the palm of my hand, slowly turning each one over. The cat was often just as interested, participating by pushing the beads around with his paws and sometimes disappearing with a scrap of fabric or pipe cleaner never to surface again. I still wonder what was in his stash of loot clearly collected over many years of opportunity
2. As a child did you have any driving ambition? What did you want to be?
I wanted to save the world. I had a bulletin board in my room that catalogued all of the endangered species, both flora and fauna, and their status. It was my intention to make enough money to build a sanctuary large enough to house them all, almost like a modern Noah’s arc. To my child’s mind, it made sense.
I had other odd occupations, like a quartz crystal mine I dug in my neighbor’s yard with my neighborhood friends. It was about 8 feet deep and the contents I would sell roadside to passing automobiles. The mine was filled in by the city because we eventually dug down to the sewer lines. That was a very sad day for us and business was never the same after that.
I had a collection of mechanical artifacts, including miniature compasses, watches, and musical boxes. I liked collecting things that followed rules, like springs, mirrors, and magnets.
If I had known then that I could be a horologist, I would have started when I was 7.
3. What is your first significant memory as a child?
The sound of the ocean at two years of age as I looked out over my father's arms.
4. Have you ever had another profession? What did you do?
Once a horologist, always a horologist.
I did work as a jeweler while enrolled in University to study Philosophy of metaphysics and epistemology. It was my intention to become a philosophy professor, but went into horology after becoming fascinated with the work of 17th century craftsmen, which I came across in my studies.
5. Who have you worked for in the past? What made you decide to go in the direction you are currently in?
I worked at Museum Speelklok in Utrecht, specializing in automata in their workshops. That was a very special time for me. The Museum is filled with so much joy and wonder, always occupied by music and the sound of miraculous machines made to enchant viewers.
When I returned to the US, I was faced with the task of building a workshop of my own so that I could pursue the different facets of work that I am compelled by. Having my own workshop allows me to teach, work at the bench, pursue scholarly research, write, and practice new making. I also host a horological lecture series and am writing a book for Penguin.
6. & 7. What’s the worst job you’ve had to do? What’s been the hardest moment in your life so far, and how did you overcome it?
I have faced an enormous number of challenges in pursuing my career, from assault, sexism, lack of resources, and more, but I have also been very fortunate to have a large network of support.
Many of my best friends are men and colleagues who I admire and who respect me. I am thankful for their encouragement and guidance through different challenges and I would not be where I am today without many of them.
The worst job I ever had was working for someone who assaulted me. I filed a police report and was advised to collect my things without incident because the burden of proof that they belonged to me would be mine if he contested.
Unfortunately, this was not the worst incident that happened to me in my career, but it was ultimately that experience that galvanized my resolve to build a shop of my own, a safe place. I used the hurt and frustration from these incidents as energy to accomplish what to me had seemed an impossible task.
8. Who has had the strongest influence on you? What are your greatest inspirations?
Two horologists have had the strongest influence on me. A man I never met and the other I encountered at the end of his life, Dennis Harmon and Charles Augustus Sauter. Dennis Harmon was a master watchmaker known by those that needed to know him. He was famous for his work in limited circles and practiced a brand of horology that was long forgotten, using all historic tools, materials, and techniques. In a sense, I inherited his workshop. I exchanged seven months of my life and labor in handling his estate for a workshop of my own.
The walls of my workshop are a color match to his and his were painted with the original green from the Bulova watchmaking factory. Charles Augustus Sauter was his best friend, the lead engineer at Bulova, and was the principle inventor of the Accutron. I got to know Charlie after Dennis died, as I went to deliver the news to him at the nursing home. Charlie and I developed a friendship of sorts. I would visit him every month and he would recount stories of his time in the industry. Charlie and his work fascinated me and I have spent the last few years researching his legacy. After he died I acquired a photograph of both Charlie and Dennis together in Dennis’ shop. I found it hanging above Charlie’s work bench. This photograph now hangs above my bench. I think of them every day.
I am most inspired by the artifacts that come across my bench. I wonder at how they were made so long ago and with so few resources: the details, the mechanics, the gold work, guilloché and enamel. It’s astounding.
Mechanical magic is also a great interest and source of inspiration. Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin, clockmaker and magician, is probably who I aspire to the most. Although lesser known watchmakers, such as the magician Joseffy who made Balsamo the mechanical chattering skull, also give light to my imagination.
And I can’t leave out Jacob Frisard, the singing bird maker. His work is so clever and clearly a cut above the rest in terms of its ingenuity. That said, the Rochat brothers made some unbelievable things. The singing bird pistols astound me. Everything is in a sequence. When it was engineered, if one part at the end of the line had to be changed or adjusted, so did all of the parts that followed and there are hundreds of them.
9. What are you most proud of?
In short, when I was 27 years old and just out of school, I traded 7 months of labor and resources in organizing the sale of the shop contents of Dennis Harmon for a workshop of my own. A dear friend from watchmaking-school agreed to help me and the two of us tackled this 5,000 square foot building that had been stockpiled with rare horological tools, machinery, and ephemera for over 30 years.
The contents were both miraculous and hazardous at times. I found myself standing in water trying to reset electrical breakers as the roof of the workshop deteriorated and water leaked into a chemical room containing both hydroscopic and exothermic materials. I had to maneuver tanks of cyanide, pots of radium, and more. I found I was much stronger than I ever thought I could be.
Just building my own workshop is something I am immensely proud of, but doing it with virtually no financial resources to my name is something that still amazes me.
10. What advice would you give to a 20 something someone thinking of taking a similar path as you?
Work your hardest and then work harder. Do your best and then do better. Read and then read more. Always have integrity. Listen. Be patient. Seek out all of the information you can. Don’t be afraid of failure. Have grit. Keep your eyes open. Educate yourself on all aspects of what you want to accomplish. Set milestone goals, but keep immediate goals achievable. Have Band-Aids on hand.
11. Name three things on your bucket list.
Visit Salar de Uyuni in the rainy season for star gazing.
Sail around the world in a small boat.
Build a small, but intricate collection of model ships in bottles.
12. Where do you think the industry is going to be in 10 years time.
It seems with the technological advancements in smart watches and other devices, horology will continue to flourish as a luxury market. Individuals with an interest and an appreciation for heritage, fine craftsmanship, and artistry will support the industry. Few may continue to utilize horological artifacts as tools, but rather as prized examples of human endeavor. Of course, there will always be applications for horology in different industries, as evident through the clockwork rover being built for exploration to Venus by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the mechanical watch-like fail-safes in our detonators for nuclear devices.
To learn more about Brittany Nicole Cox mechanicalcurios.com