Tock of the town

TIME is on their side, say the men who run the Howard Miller Clock Company in Zeeland, Mich. For 62 years now, Miller clocks of every size and shape - from elegant grandfather floor models to fun and funky modern styles - have been ticking off the hours. Since it was founded in 1926 by Howard Miller, who is today chairman of the board, the company has grown to become the largest manufacturer of clocks in the America. Its plant sprawls over seven acres and employs more than 500 skilled workers.

Mr. Miller's son Jack is now president of the company, and his son Phil is vice-president. Both say they find making clocks a very creative business - besides being a lot of fun.

Like their father and grandfather before them, they are steeped in great furniture and clockmaking traditions of the Grand Rapids area, once one of the most important furniture centers in the United States.

Both men say they will pitch in to help adjust the hands on the 3,500 timepieces that are in the factory when daylight saving time ends Oct. 30.

The most dynamic change in clockmaking, says Phil Miller, has come with the advent of the quartz movement, which has enabled consumers to buy accurate and dependable timepieces at much lower prices.

``But we still make clocks that are not only highly technological, but are set in quality wooden cases that are handcrafted and very labor intensive, just as they have always been.

``Since no two pieces of wood are alike, the handwork must be done with great skill. One hand-rubbed finish on solid walnut involves 32 steps.''

Since clocks have become a fashion product, their designs reflect general style and color preferences, as well as prevailing consumer tastes.

A new Howard Miller grandfather clock, for instance, is styled in country French and another in traditional English. Ultramodern clocks were inspired by the avant-garde Italian Memphis movement, which developed in Milan early this decade.

Brightly shining fluorescent models vibrate with neon tubing and sell for $2,000 to the more adventurous customers.

Phil Miller points out that because clocks have become an increasingly important accessory item and are often used as focal points in rooms, they have increased in size. Faces have become larger and numerals have become bigger and bolder.

Some people are intrigued with new clock designs and add to their own collection, though Miller estimates that 60 percent of all clocks purchased are for gifts - both business and personal - including such occasions as graduations, weddings, birthdays, and anniversaries.

``Perceived value, usefulness, memorability, and the fact that clocks can often be engraved makes them a popular choice,'' he says. ``Also the fact that there is a style for everyone, every purpose, and every pocketbook.''

According to the Clock Manufacturers & Marketing Association's most recent report, more than 30 million clocks are sold annually in the US, and sales are climbing, as is the diversity of styles.

``I amazed myself the other day by going through my own home and counting 30 clocks,'' says Miller. ``I said, `Hey, I don't believe this!' But there they were, in the living room, dining room, kitchen, in every bedroom and bathroom - and even in my garage workshop. I found an alarm clock in every bedroom, as well as a wall clock and a travel clock tucked away in every family member's dresser drawers. And we have a grandfather clock in the downstairs hallway.

``I was astounded, but maybe this is typical.''

Grandfather clocks are still very popular, he says, because people associate them with status and with a sense of permanence and heirloom quality - something they can pass along to their children. The average retail price of a Miller grandfather clock is $900, though some run into the thousands.

Howard Miller has been making ``modern'' clocks since 1933, when the company introduced a series at the Chicago World's Fair. The three all-time favorites over the years have been:

The Gallery Clock, 42 inches in diameter. It was designed by Arthur Umanoff Associates and sells for $895.

The Museum Clock, designed by George Nathan Horwitt. It is from the Design Collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and sells for $39.95.

The World Time Clock, which instantly indicates the correct time in 70 key cities throughout the world and sells for $270.

``We get the enormous diversity in our clocks,'' says Miller, ``by working with many independent designers, who live in different parts of the country and who are known not only for their personal creativity, but for their perceptiveness as to what is happening in the marketplace.''

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