Even if you consider yourself a seasoned watch collector or enthusiast, you might not be familiar with the field of horological conservation. Brittany Nicole Cox is one of the foremost horological conservators in the world. From a young age, Cox has been fascinated with the greater philosophical questions that have led us to create mechanical objects. With an extensive education, a vast technical knowledge, and a little bit of magic, she takes us into a world of maintaining these objects and their stories. Cox’s work goes far beyond basic know-how. It brings to light the deeper meaning of these horological objects and traditions in our culture and to the human race at large.
When I was in university, I was studying in a philosophy program focusing on metaphysics and epistemology. A lot of the questions that metaphysics is looking at allowed me to see that people were studying these questions in a very tactile and tangible way through the creation of synthetic life or automata – mechanical-based mechanisms that were meant to simulate something in the natural world. These creations became more complicated as our capacity to develop more clever mechanisms advanced.
Through studying these objects, I was able to learn the lineage of the Silver Swan. This automaton was created by John Joseph Merlin and James Cox back in the 1700s. When I discovered this object, it solidified this deep fascination and interest that I had to start looking at these questions from this tactile and tangible perspective. So, I finished my studies in philosophy and immediately enrolled in a watchmaking program – a CW21 program at the Watch Technology Institute in Seattle, Washington. Here, I was able to learn micromechanics and machining but not quite everything I wanted to learn – my end goal was never to be a watchmaker. So, from there, I ended up going to England on a full scholarship to West Dean College, which is an unbelievable conservation school. It was created by a man named Edward James who wanted to protect artisans through WWII. So, there I studied eighteenth-century clockmaking under Matthew Read, who was actually the conservator who did all the work on the Silver Swan. It was a huge privilege to have this opportunity. Then, I went on to get my masters there in museum studies with an emphasis in horological conservation – the conservation and restoration of dynamic objects and complicated clocks.
I had an interest as a kid in mechanics and objects that had rules to make them operate. I collected musical boxes, some watches, little things like magnets, springs, and gears – anything that had an observable set of principles I could try to deduce what was going on. But, as I got older, I think it was really just the realization that I had the ability to do something so foreign and strange – something that I never dreamed was possible. I grew up and went to college in south Texas, and there, you don’t really have horologists around. I remember going to a watch repair place and asking if there was any opportunity to apprentice or just help out, and they said no, you have to go to school for this – it isn’t just something you can come in and learn. They made it very clear that to actually be a competent horologist, you have to give your life to it. Then, I found this program in Seattle, and it just really felt like I didn’t have a choice. That’s absolutely what I needed to be doing. So, I made this decision, packed everything I could in a car, and started this journey.
My intention was always to work for a museum, but during my master’s, they changed a law that you were no longer granted a two-year, post-study work visa after completing a graduate level degree or higher. They did this without grandfathering anyone in. So, I’d sent in job applications, but because I was American on a temporary visa, I was declined and had to come back to the States. Given that I was one of the first people to ever graduate with a masters in horological conservation, nobody knew what I did. I sent out cover letters to almost every institution in the country with a horological collection, and I either never heard back or was told they didn’t have the budget. So, really, my only choice was to establish myself in a private practice. It was really disheartening because I’d put in all of this work, graduated at the top of my class. I felt like I had this bright future and like I had a lot to contribute to some organization. But the opportunity just wasn’t there, so I had to build my own. And that in itself was a tremendous process.
When I went to set up my workshop, I didn’t really have any resources. I hadn’t had a job, and I had very little savings. But I needed to get equipment in order to do the work that I needed to do. This equipment, unfortunately, is quite rare and also somewhat valuable and collectible. So, it was a huge challenge, but I was fortunate that I had a good reputation that had followed me back from the United Kingdom.
There was this esteemed horologist who had died, and people in his circle reached out to me and asked if I could finish these objects that he’d left behind. Through that, I ended up in contact with his daughters, and they offered to sell me his estate. As I said, I had no resources at the time, but this was an incredible opportunity. I told them I didn’t know if I could buy it but would love to fly out and see the space. So, I went out and walked into this unbelievable place – an incredible workshop that was 5,000 square feet where this exceptionally talented restorer had stockpiled rare horological equipment for 30 years. It was like walking into a photograph from an old book with all these amazing machines arranged like a production factory, but it was really just one man’s sanctuary for horological preservation. And I just thought, this is where I’m supposed to be – I have to figure out a way to make this happen. So, I offered to move there and handle the estate in exchange for a list of equipment and resources, and that’s what I did. I bartered seven months of my life, putting in sixteen-hour days to have my workshop.
I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of mentors who have been really supportive and encouraging along the way. I feel pretty lucky to have good people around me in that respect. Also the community at large – it’s nice to see other people who take the leap so you know you’re not entirely alone in trying to revive this critically endangered craft. I have a few colleagues who occasionally come and give me a hand. It’s nice to have that support. Then, as far as historic inspiration or inspirational figures, I have a huge wall in my workshop of people I look up to throughout history. Harrison is there, so is Breguet as well as Robert-Houdin, who is probably my biggest inspiration in the horological field. He was a clockmaker, magician, and the father of modern magic. And, Jacob Frisard, who was a singing-bird engineer for Jaquet-Droz. He was really just an ingenious mechanic who specialized in singing birds and was responsible for some of the fantastic innovations that occurred in the singing bird box.