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Standing the test of time

Founded in 1897, Chelsea Clock Co.’s 35 timepiece designs have been purchased by and received by many politicians and celebrities.
Founded in 1897, Chelsea Clock Co.’s 35 timepiece designs have been purchased by and received by many politicians and celebrities.

Every American president since Woodrow Wilson has either owned one or presented one as a gift.

Celebrities have cherished them, too, from Elvis Presley to members of the Grateful Dead to Jason Alexander of “Seinfeld” fame.

Even the late Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev is on the list of buyers and gift recipients of what is perhaps one of the most famous locally manufactured items in Massachusetts: a clock made by Chelsea Clock Co.

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“They’re considered a prestige item and last for a long time,” said John Kirby “JK” Nicholas, chief executive and principal owner of Chelsea Clock, which has been making and repairing nautical and antique brass clocks in Chelsea since its founding in 1897. “It’s not just famous people buying them. Our fastest-growing and most promising lines of business are clocks given to people upon retirement or special occasions.”

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Despite the long decline of textile, automobile, and other traditional manufacturing in Massachusetts, Chelsea Clock has managed to endure, until recently working out of its landmark headquarters and factory at 284 Everett Ave. in Chelsea. The red-brick building still sports the well-known, white-on-black “Chelsea Clock” sign along its roof line.

Longtime Chelsea Clock employee Jean Yeo, a master clockmaker works, on clock mechanisms.
David L. Ryan/Globe Staff
Longtime Chelsea Clock employee Jean Yeo, a master clockmaker works, on clock mechanisms.

This spring, Chelsea Clock began the move from its home of 118 years to 102 Second St. in Chelsea, after the owner of the Everett Avenue site decided it was time to redevelop the property into multifamily housing. The move is nearly complete — all of the lathes, engraving equipment, repairman’s benches, and other tools and items have made it to Second Street, where workers are assembling and fixing the company’s 35 mechanical and battery-powered clocks, the most popular and famous being the Ship’s Bell Clock.

Edwin Suarez works on a clock.
David L. Ryan/Globe Staff
Edwin Suarez works on a clock.

The only operation still in the Everett Street building is the company’s lacquer room, where bases of some clocks get a thin coating of chemicals to harden the wood. Chelsea Clock expects all of its operations to be under one roof by summer’s end.

Brass screws are sorted before to a lacquered coating is applied.
David L. Ryan/Globe Staff
Brass screws are sorted before to a lacquered coating is applied.

Its “new” headquarters is an early 20th century structure, long known as the Atlantic Clothing building, located on a cobblestoned section of Second Street. “It kind of has the same DNA and character of the old building,” said Nicholas, a businessman who bought Chelsea Clock in 2005.

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With 40 employees, the company’s core operations are in Chelsea, though it does outsource some work to wood and metal shops in the Boston area and in Europe.

At 15,000 square feet, the Second Street headquarters is smaller than the 25,000-square-foot Everett Street building, but Nicholas said there was empty and unused space at the old location.

The goal is to keep increasing Chelsea Clock’s sales through retail distributors such as Tiffany’s & Co. and Shreve, Crump & Low. The clocks sell for anywhere from $120 to $12,000 apiece.

“There was an opportunity to find a place for Chelsea Clocks for the next 50 years — and we think we’ve found it,” Nicholas said.

Jay Fitzgerald can be reached
at jayfitzmedia@gmail.com.