05 Feb 2016

The Wheel of the World

Keeping time with a collector and historian of watches and clocks
by Julia Hanna


Photography by Jason Minick

At the age of 16, Fortunat Mueller-Maerki (MBA 1975) was given his first clock, a Viennese desk model from the late 18th century. It came to him from the estate of a distant relative, and wasn’t particularly valuable. Mueller-Maerki put it on his night table, where it struck every quarter hour. He liked it, and a few years later found that he had four more clocks to put into storage when he journeyed from Switzerland to attend HBS.

“That’s probably not typical for someone just graduating from university,” he admits. He even built a clock from a kit during his time as an MBA student. An American octagon school clock, it still hangs in the Sussex, New Jersey, home that Mueller-Maerki shares with his wife, Ruth.

Much has happened in the years since those hobbyist beginnings. In addition to raising a family and leading a successful 25-year career at the executive search firm Egon Zehnder, Mueller-Maerki continued acquiring clocks, although at a certain point his focus shifted from collecting the objects themselves (of which he now owns about 80) to amassing books and other publications that consider the subject of time and timekeeping (his library now contains close to 20,000 items).

“I realized that I was more interested in the ideas expressed in the mechanisms than in owning the physical objects,” he says. “Time is a central element of the human experience, which, understandably, most people seldom think about. Yet it affects so many subjects—biology, philosophy, sociology. Clocks combine art (in their cases and dials) and science (in their mechanisms).”

For the Industrial Revolution to truly take hold, for example, workers needed to own an inexpensive, mass-produced watch or clock in order to show up for their shift at a given time. (Speaking of which, Mueller-Maerki, on campus for his 40th reunion this past October, is sporting a low-cost Swatch—the Patek Philippe his wife gave him as a gift on his 50th birthday is in Switzerland for cleaning and restoration.)

Since retiring from Egon Zehnder in 2000, Mueller-Maerki has turned his full-time attention to horology, serving as chairman of the National Watch and Clock Library and as a member of the collections committee for the National Watch and Clock Museum, both located in Columbia, Pennsylvania. He is also building a wiki-style, collaborative bibliography—Bibliographia Horlogiae Mundi—to aid future scholars and enthusiasts in the study of time and timekeeping.

In addition to his activities closer to home, Mueller-Maerki has led a dozen or so study tours for the Antiquarian Horological Society to countries around the world. These trips have made it possible for him to get up close and personal with unique, world-class historical clocks such as Eberhard Baldewein’s 16th-century astronomical clock, located in Dresden, which depicts the movement of the planets.

“One of the interesting things is that it was made during the time of the Ptolemaic theory, which assumed the earth was the center of the universe,” says Mueller-Maerki. “The level of mechanical complexity and design needed for the apparent geocentric motion is amazing to see.”

On a typical tour day, he adds, a group might leave the hotel at 6 a.m. to squeeze in visits to three or four museums and private collections. When appreciating the art of timekeeping, it seems, time is of the essence.

Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 1975, Section C

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