Sunday, December 29, 2013

Patina

I’ve never been one for jewelry. At most, you might have seen a $30 Timex on my wrist, the kind with a rubber watchband. No necklaces, no bracelets. No pinkie ring. In my 20s, I wore a wedding band for a year and left it on the kitchen table when it was all over and done.

Even today, most of what I wear is made only of bone or paracord. The survival bracelet on my wrist comprises eight feet of braided 550 cord. The adventurer in my head tells me I might unravel this to use as an emergency rifle sling or to tie up a bad guy or perhaps apply as a tourniquet. Save the day. In reality, I’ll probably use it to replace a broken bootlace or something equally unheroic.



When I was going through a course of radiation some years back, Jill gave me a cross of fossilized mammoth tusk. Maybe 20,000 years old. I palmed it through every session while gamma rays punched holes in my lymphoma cells. I wear it every day now, slung around my neck on a length of cord.

I was perfectly happy with my rubber Timex. I wore it to Arizona and used it to tell the time while Jill and I traveled there after we were married in 2007.

It was late September and we drove north into the Black Hills of Yavapai County, through Wickenburg and Prescott. The windows were down, the air warm and dusty, the Sonoran desert giving way to chaparral and juniper, then piñon and ponderosa.

The road snaked through those hills, into gentle canyons and along ridgelines and switchbacks and onto sudden vistas worthy of the finest car commercial. Along its eastern edge, the Black Hills lifted its skirts as State Road 89A spilled into the Verde Valley. The town of Jerome, birthed as a copper-mining camp in 1883, perched on the hillside and looked northeast across the valley toward Sedona.

The taverns and gambling houses and brothels of 19th century Jerome are gone, replaced by museums and coffee houses and art galleries. We browsed our way up Main Street and into a shop called Sky Fire, tucked between Nellie Bly’s Art Glass and Magdalena’s Bazaar.

A glass case held a collection of watches. Hand crafted by a Uruguyan named Eduardo Milieris, these timepieces in silver, copper, and brass showed splashes of color on their faces. The bands suggested medieval armor or elven scrolls. Something about them seemed organic and alive. They looked like buried treasure, something you’d find on lifting the lid to a pirate’s chest. I was enthralled and could not walk away from the case.

The lady told me Milieris makes only 1000 of each design, each numbered on the back. Most had hand-painted faces. Each watch is like no other in this world. Jill stood at my elbow and looked at me looking at these pieces of art. “Why don’t you get one?” she said in a quiet voice.

“I’m just a Timex guy,” holding up my wrist as proof. “I couldn’t.”

She looked at the watches in the case and looked back to me. “You could,” she said.

So as something of a wedding present from her to me, or from both of us to us, I walked out with the first of what would become a small collection of Milieris “Watchcraft” timepieces. Over the next years, an anniversary or a Christmas morning might hold a long, felt-covered box, and Jill’s eyes bright with the anticipation of the look on my face.

Milieris says he's fascinated by the integration of time and art. Each watch begins its life unique and its appearance ancient. He refrains from sealing the metals, so the timepiece itself continues to age. Each reacts to my sweat. Each is exposed to the same elements of sun and wind and rain as I am. The metal changes, as I do. The idea of time as a sweep of seconds or minutes is only secondary, even superfluous. 

In a New York Times essay titled, “Learning to Measure Time in Love and Loss,” my friend Chris Huntington wrote of his work as a teacher in the Indiana prison system. 

“During my first week there, an inmate laughed when I asked him to reset the wall clock. ‘A few minutes off?’ he said. ‘We need one that goes by months and years. What do we care about five minutes?’” 


These watches mark the time not so much with the turn of an hour hand, but in the greening and darkening and softening of metal, the accumulation of character and color from year to year. I wear them, but each of these timepieces belong to us both: Jill and me. 

Our passage is measured as geologic time put to human scale. Brass, copper, and silver taking on a patina.  A deepening.

9 comments:

Chris Keefe said...

Brilliant Joe, a beautifully written time piece.

Joe said...

I thank you, Chris.

Joe said...

"Time piece." I see what you did there. ;)

A. K. Francis said...

Oh my god, Joe, they're gorgeous! I love this post and the pictures of your beautiful watches. I am enrapt by them. I can see why they grabbed you. These are definitely soul pieces... art that speaks almost universally directly to the human soul. It's so fantastic that you & your wife found these to share and to mark the hours and years. <3

Joe said...

Thank you, Ang.

Erin said...

<3 <3 <3

Joe said...

Erin... ty, ty, ty.

James Zerndt said...

Gorgeous, Joe. Now I want one!

Joe said...

Ya, Jamie. They're really something. He posts photos on his FB page:

https://www.facebook.com/watchcraftbymilieris