In Michael Culyba’s Keeper of Time, which premiered yesterday (April 28th), in New York, one comes across several fascinating ways in which human beings have sought to measure, understand, and interpret time. Take the Dragon Incense Clock, created by the ancient Chinese, for instance. The clock, made of wood or metal, had an exterior decorated with black lacquer and featured a trough along the centre with an incense stick that would burn through threads that were attached to metal weights. The falling of the metal weights at regular intervals would result in a clanging noise, and help the Chinese mark the passage of time. Culyba’s work also takes the viewer into the bowels or, more accurately, the bell tower of the Prague Astronomical Clock, with its procession of apostles and dramatic visualisation of time. 

Michael Culyba is the director and producer of ‘Keeper of Time’.

Culyba’s documentary, the first-ever feature-length film on mechanical watchmaking, wouldn’t have been any less engaging even without these discussions. It features, after all, leisurely chats with the likes of François-Paul Journe, Philippe Dufour, and Roger W Smith, the world’s greatest living watchmakers, as well as the much younger Maximilian Busser, but the detours the film takes into exploring the nature of time and documenting humanity’s longstanding fascination imbues a meditative tone. 

Making and finishing every component by hand, Philippe Dufour is widely considered the finest living watchmaker of our time.

Culyba, a New York-based documentary filmmaker and first-time director, is no seasoned horophile. Until about five years ago, the 49-year-old thought all watches ran on batteries. Then, he acquired a Tudor Black Bay 36 and everything changed. He found himself taking watch classes at the Horological Society of New York, and picking up yet more watches. (He has about 15 today, including two other Tudors and a Nomos.) “I’d always wanted to make my own film — a project I could commit my time and energy to. And I had this epiphany — I wanted to make a movie about mechanical watchmaking.” 

A watchmaker restores a vintage Audemars Piguet timepiece at the Musée Atelier Audemars Piguet located in Le Brassus, Switzerland.

Keeper of Time is a Kickstarter-funded film, and among those who have backed it include renowned collector Eric Ku — who is among the executive producers of the movie — along with auctioneer, collector, and founder of Massena LAB, William Massena. Culyba travels to, among others, the Vallee du Joux, in Switzerland, for an audience with Philippe Dufour, to Massachusetts where he meets sundial architect William Andrewes, and Isle of Man, home to independent watchmaker and George Daniels’ protege Roger W Smith. The cinematography, swings between macroscapes of places and countries, and microscapes of watch movements. It turns reverential when exploring the legends of the industry. “When I met François-Paul Journe, I was so green at the time that I wasn’t particularly nervous. It was simply a real thrill. By the time I got to meet Dufour, I was much more knowledgeable about horology and aware that I was in the presence of a living legend,” says Culyba. “He was just so welcoming. He volunteered to let us film him polishing a screw sink, or chamfering the edges of components. We spent the whole day with him in his workshop and he took us around and showed us all his books. ”

Keeper of Time is dedicated to the director’s father, whose sudden death made him aware of his own mortality. That awareness also reflects in the film, which explores different perspectives on time and how we experience it. Culyba says his movie is targeted not just at seasoned watch enthusiasts. He wants it to be an entry point for people who have no idea about mechanical horology.

The exquisite 18k gold movement of F.P. Journe’s Tourbillon Souverain wristwatch.

Besides industry professionals and watchmakers, Culyba’s interviews theoretical physicists and authors such as Julian Barbour (author, The End of Time), Jay Griffiths (author, A Sideways Look at Time), and Duke University Distinguished Professor Adrian Bejan who, in a 2019 paper, has posited why, as we grow older, it can often feel like time goes by faster and faster.

“What I took away from my chat with Bejan is that if you live an interesting life, you perceive time differently. Not only do you perceive yourself living a longer life, but you also live a happier life,” he says. “Similarly, Griffiths talks about Australian Aboriginal time, which is not linear, but, in fact, is supposed to be all around us. The past is not behind us, and the future is not in front of us. It’s just all there in the present.”

Making our life meaningful, doing interesting things could make us happier, says Culyba. “I see that as one of the main takeaways from the film. And I found this quality in all the watchmakers who feature in it.” 

(Michael Culyba’s Keeper of Time can be purchased for $15 at keeperoftimemovie.com)