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One of the charming things about Zagreb is the survival of craftsmen’s workshops of the kind you don’t see so much any more. And one of the traditional crafts associated with the city, one with a history half a millennium long, is watchmaking.
Some of the oldest documents testifying to the watchmaker’s trade relate to the maintenance of the city’s public clocks, such as the ones on the Zagreb Cathedral and on St Mark’s Church. However, at that time it was locksmiths who built and repaired clocks. Only later did those who chose to specialize become clockmakers. Since those were the days when German was a lingua franca in these parts, these craftsmen were known as “Grossuhrmachern” (German for “clockmakers”). It was only in the second half of the 18th century that clockmakers started to work on small household clocks and watches.
A fascinating example of a hand-made clock in Zagreb which you can see at the top of the Zrinjevac park crowns a beautiful meteorological observation post. Look closely and you’ll notice that instead of numbers 1 to 12 you’ll see 1 to 24. A curiosity indeed. This clock was built by Wilhelm Koenig, one of the many well-known clockmakers of that time who came to this part of the world from other parts of the Habsburg Empire and settled here.
In the interwar period, the clockmaker’s trade grew to encompass the manufacture, maintenance and repair of clocks and watches, as well as their sale. Zagreb was at that time a centre where craftsmen-to-be came to learn their trade, which was often passed on through generations – and still is today.
Zagreb’s Great Clocks
The Cathedral’s clock is one of the city’s finest, and it has been undergoing a thorough restoration as part of the Cathedral’s recent renovation. The clock dates back to 1900, but more recently it has gained a sophisticated electrical mechanism with a satellite link. So if you ever need to check the right time, you can be sure that this momma is precise to the second.
You can see a rather simpler – but equally beautiful – mechanism on Tklačićeva ulica: a lovely sundial on the wall of the house behind the statue of famous writer Marija Jurić Zagorka. The sundial was put there in 1955 and is the work of one Božidar Jušić, who made it as his university dissertation. We imagine the lad must have passed with distinction. Zagreb’s romantic Upper Town has two more sundials, in the courtyards of the Klovićevi dvori Gallery and the Museum of the City of Zagreb.
In 1924, one public-spirited bod decided that the good citizens of Zagreb deserved to have more clocks in public spaces, that they may ever keep pace with their busy schedules. One clock was mounted in the city’s main square, one on Roosevelt Square, and one on Tomislav Square in front of the main railway station. These still stand – and tell the time - today.
In 1959 five more public clocks were provided, and more almost with every passing year, so that today the number of public clocks stands at an impressive 38. Some of them are well-loved parts of the cityscape. One that is among those closest to our hearts is that on the main square. If you agree to meet a local in the centre, it will very often be on the square, and you’ll very likely hear your counterpart say “Let’s meet under the clock”.
Keeping all these clocks running to time is no small task, and ever since 1953 this has been the responsibility of a family named Lebarović, which specializes in this very art.
Sadly, like many traditional crafts, the watchmaker’s (or clockmaker’s) trade is dying out, ravaged by, among other things, our addiction to our mobile phones. In the 1990s there were 75 watchmaker’s workshops in Zagreb, and now there are only 20. Many of these are restricted to the sale and repair of watches and clocks.
Thankfully, the city authorities have realized what this loss means and have entered watchmaking on a list of protected cultural activities. To avoid the demise of this picturesque trade, the watchmakers themselves have a great task ahead of them: to continually improve their skills and keep up with current trends and technologies. The local authorities for their part will do their best to encourage youngsters to learn this craft and to keep watchmaking alive in other creative ways. If they fail, Zagreb will lose one more part of its identity.