Time Keeper

For an O’Hara Township collector, a passion for watches is what makes him tick.

In the early-1980s, when Kieran Lynch was a student at Taylor Allderdice High School in Squirrel Hill, his father took him to visit a South Side watchmaker named Albert Burnelis. Lynch had shown an interest in watches since the first grade, and his father, a watch aficionado himself, knew his son would enjoy seeing a master at work. Burnelis dazzled Lynch with drawer after drawer of old watches. Lynch purchased a few, and a collection was born.

Move the clock forward to 2002, when Lynch, whose collection has now grown to about 125 pieces, met with Burnelis once again, though his shop had closed in the late-1980s. Burnelis helped him to repair some old watches that had stopped, and now Lynch not only collects watches but also repairs them as a living. Burnelis, now almost 90, is his mentor. “He works miracles for me,” Lynch says.

At his O’Hara Township home, Lynch displays some of his prize pieces in cases: pocket watches from both of his great-grandfathers (a police officer and a steelworker), wristwatches that belonged to his grandmother and father, and watches he’s held on to, and worn, since his youth, including an Elgin with a built-in calendar on the band that rolls down to reveal each month.

Lynch discusses vintage watches with enthusiasm, pointing out the differences in styles and movements in passionate tick talk. “Old watches are fascinating pieces of small machinery. They’re made so well, with such precision, and I love getting them up and running again.”

As advice to those who admire old watches, Lynch says that occasionally winding the watches and wearing them are important to their health. “When a person tries to wind a watch and it won’t budge, they sometimes think it’s ‘overwound.’ Actually, the oil inside can get gummy. Winding them occasionally avoids that.”
Besides estate sales and flea markets, Lynch regularly buys on eBay. “You have to know what to look for. Some sellers think just because a watch is old it makes it valuable, and they price it too high. Others think because it’s old it must be junk.”

Certain styles and names are always popular, including “hunter case” pocket watches (with a matching hinged front cover to protect the crystal); men’s rectangular “tank” wrist watches from the 1930s through the ’50s; novelty watches (Mickey Mouse, Betty Boop); names such as Waltham, Gruen, Hamilton; and, of course, the big-money names such as Rolex and Cartier—although Lynch’s favorite is a Bulova wrist watch.

How important is the number of jewels inside the watch? As Lynch explains, jewels are tiny chips of ruby, quartz or diamond on the watch’s axles, which help with durability and ensure the timepiece’s accuracy. Twenty-three jewels is usually the maximum, though in the 1950s and ’60s it was popular for people to brag that they had “80-jewel watches.” (Actually, the jewels were just glued inside, serving no function.)

With the advent of quartz watches, and with watch-wearing on the decline because people are using cell phones as a sort of modern pocket watch, appreciation for fine watches seems to be fading. To Lynch, though, who loves the beauty and precision of a ticking timepiece, the art of watches is timeless.