The gift of time

By Thomas Borgmann – Stuttgarter Zeitung –  23. Juli 2014

Steffen Cornehl is travelling regulary to Sankt Petersburg

to bring back up and running the clocks and watches in Tsar Palace Peterhof – the „Russian Versailles“. The 39 year old does this on a voluntary basis just for board, lodging and cultural program.


Steffen Cornehl in his workshop
Steffen Cornehl in his workshop: The watchmaker from Stuttgart has specialized in antique clocks and watches. Picture: Achim Zweygarth


Stuttgart / St. Petersburg

By chance like that.

A German watchmaker travels in the late nineties as a curious tourist to Russian St. Petersburg to visit the legendary Peterhof, the “Russian Versailles”. As the expert sees the extensive and exquisite collection of clocks, he asks irritated: “Why do all mouvements stand still, why don’t they run?” The simple answer of the museum staff “. We have no one who can fix it.” This is when the specialist has an idea: he quickly involves renowned colleagues who are organized in a professional group. Since then, the watch professionals travel once a year to St. Petersburg to make the long seemingly impossible possible – with expertise and a long breath.

Steffen Cornehl, 39, from the east of Stuttgart, is one of them.

He says: “I am engaged in this project since 2002. During these years, we have brough back to life around 200 old clocks in sometimes painful legwork. They can be visited in the permanent exhibition of the castle. “As random as the story of the contact to the Peterhof Palace, so marked by coincidences is the path of Steffen Cornehl before he succumbed to the charms and mysteries of old clocks.

He comes from a village with two hundred inhabitants in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, where his parents during the GDR era had a private bakery and confectionery. Of course, his father would have liked the son to follow his craft footsteps. But firstly, the years after the German reunion offered completely new opportunities to the boy. “Moreover,” Steffen Cornehl admits, “I did indeed like to take over a craftman’s job like my father, but did not want to work on weekends.” The fact that he now, as a busy watchmaker, does often work on weekends, is probably fate.

First, however, Steffen Cornehl becomes

a retail merchant in Lüneburg. It is during his three years apprenticeship with a jeweler, that he receives the decisive impulse: “When I saw the guys sitting in the workshop reparing the clocks, I thought, that is fun to them, you give it a try.” Later, at the watchmaking school in Hamburg, it becomes apparent that he has the necessary talent for the delicate work: “For my profession it takes a technical understanding, and it needs what is called a knack.”

Experience and intuition

Does Cornehl who got an award from the Chamber of Crafts and in 2001 completed his advanced studies with honors, sees himself as an artist, artisans or craftsmen? He pauses for a moment: “Not as an artists, but our work is somehow artistic  .” In dealing with the old clocks from the 18th and 19th centuries primarily the experience and then the sense of watchmaking of each epochs is needed. Finally, the intuition of how to bring the treasures up and running again. But no, the old clocks do not have a soul.

He came to this almost infinite specialist field since he was looking for something special, says Cornehl. Day in and day out repairing the normal watches of the people was nothing that appealed to him. In addition, given the era of mobile phones, tablets and smartphones, the demand for the repair of wristwatches clearly decreases.

So back to St. Petersburg,

where Steffen Cornehl works in these days of July again. In the very first years after the contacts were made, Cornehl and his colleagues have been there with four groups of ten watchmakers for two weeks during summer. And what are the much-cited conditions? “Basically, we are working as volunteers. That is, we pay our flights ourselves, get modest accomodation in an old palace in the Park of Peterhof Palace and very good food, “says Cornehl. In addition, besides board and lodging, the guests from Germany are treated to an extensive cultural program – concerts, theater and ballet. But of course, work on the rarities from Tsarist times is the most important, he emphasizes.

In one of the many Palais of the huge park, the German specialists have set up their workshop: “There everyone has deposited its own tool, because the historic watches may not be exported. If it is necessary, we will bring spare parts from the West. Everything is handmade, many pieces we have to manufacture ourselves which often takes a lot of time and sepcial tricks because they exist nowhere else.”

The palace near the Gulf of Finland

The specialists decide which of the rare watches they repair. The extent of the collection of clocks from the Tsarist times Cornehl can hardly estimate – vague sources speak of at least 350 items. In any event, he and his colleagues will have enough work for many years. There are still a lot of clocks stored in the museum’s depot.

All clocks that they have repaired, including many curiosities visitors can marvel at. Hundreds of thousands come each year to Peterhof Palace which is thirty kilometers away from St. Petersburg. It is one of the centers of tourism in Russia, located directly on the Gulf of Finland. Tsar Peter I. had built it from 1714 onwards. In 1723, it was inaugurated.

His successors and inheritors turned it into one of the largest and most beautiful baroque ensembles in the world and into a central place in Russian history. The huge water games are famous. Since 1990, around 200 hectare facility is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The value of the valuables that come from all over Europe,

the watchmaker from Stuttgart does not worry about: “Of course the value of the collection is in its millions. But that does not matter, since there is nothing for sale. “Of course, the value of the big and small treasures, from the historic pocket watch to the massive clock increases when they again keep time. And of course, the recognition of those who have newly awakened the clocks to life increases – at least among experts.

The names of those who belong to the “Expert Group Historical watches”, a registered association, enjoy a good reputation. Some of them work for the Maharaja of Jodhpur in India. Recently Cornehl was in Moscow, where a museum is interested in his work. In Germany too, there are collectors who appreciate the competences of these experts.

Keyword looted art:

“I have not gone in for it, but I think it is possible that among the pieces there is also looted art,” says Steffen Cornehl. For him personally it is not about political or historical aspects: “Of course, we watchmakers from the West know about the German army that has occupied Peterhof Palace and not interfered when a fire broke out.

Maybe some of the older colleagues consider their work a contribution to the reparation. “He himself, the youngest among all the restorers, however does not have such feelings:” I stand by this volunteer work, but for me personally it is a good opportunity for further education, because these experiences I collect on Peterhof Palace, I can make use for my career. ”

Since 1998 Cornehl lives and works in the east of Stuttgart, where he has ended up after stops in Reutlingen and studying mechanical engineering and business administration in Esslingen. At Rossbergstrasse he leads his own workshop. For the future, he has precise plans: “The historical clocks remain a focus of my work. But I have a strong intention to design and manufacture my own exclusive collection of watches. “Obviously, he has built himself the sporty watch that he carries.

Original article of Stuttgarter Zeitung

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