Telling the time over centuries

Chinese collector's treasures on show are a testament to a lifetime's dedication to the art of watch and clock makers around the world.  
Telling the time over centuries
Tan Weiyun / SHINE

Antique timepieces collector Dennis Mui

It all started at an antique clock and watch store on Almeida Ribeiromore Avenue in Macau more than 70 years ago where little Dennis Mui would stop to admire the window display on his way to school, dazzled by the array of glittering clocks and watches.

“That shop had a magic power that enchanted me with those wonderful ticktocks,” recalls Mui, who was born in Macau and now resides in Hong Kong. “And I said to myself that one day I would own one of those beautiful watches.”

Today the 84-year-old is respected as one of China’s largest collectors of antique and vintage clocks and watches and has promoted the art of time by publishing books, giving lectures and building museums around China.

From the son of a housemaid in a poor family to a collector tycoon, Mui’s life is full of twists and turns, unexpected favors and unfathomable opportunities.

In the early 1940s, Mui and his family fled war-shattered Macau to Hong Kong. At the age of 13, he became an apprentice to a clockmaker by the Man Mo Temple.

Clever and hardworking, the teenage Mui soon learned different watch and clock repair skills as well as expertise on Western timepieces.

The lucky hand of fate finally pointed to the diligent boy. One day, a customer came into the shop and after observing the teenager for a while, he asked Mui: “Would you like to go with me to Europe to learn business?”

Without hesitation, Mui said yes, even though he didn't know that the man who offered him the chance was actually a successful businessman and trader in antique and vintage clocks and watches who had factories in England and Switzerland.

“My mom also supported me and she was glad that I could learn more skills,” he recalls. “She always told me that one skill was worth millions of dollars.”

From that time, Mui traveled overseas to learn a wealth of clock and watch repair skills and an appreciation of timepieces as art and knowledge of what to collect.

During the 1950s, the market for antique timepieces in Europe and the United States reached its heyday. Auctions at Christie’s and Sotheby’s were held daily, giving Mui the opportunity to have close contact with treasures and rarities.

Antique clocks and watches are some of the most intricate pieces of equipment that man has created. There have been a multitude of brands and types of watches/clocks over the years, comprised of different materials and varying in value.

“Only those over 50 years old with high historic value and significance can be called ‘antique watches and clocks’,” Mui said.

Timepieces made from 1800 to 1900 are genuine antiques and valued mainly by country of origin, date of manufacture, how they were made, their current condition and rarity.

Antique clocks are of various types — including mantel, longcase, bracket, lantern and carriage clocks made from marble, porcelain, gold, bronze and wood.

“The world of antique timepieces is like a vast sea or an inexhaustible treasure trove that I can dedicate my life to,” Mui says.

Telling the time over centuries
Tan Weiyun / SHINE

A gilt brass bronze boy statue swinging clock made in the 1880s in England

Telling the time over centuries
Tan Weiyun / SHINE

A gilt bronze Baccarat clock made in 1822 of crystal in the shape of the Arc de Triomphe

Over the past five decades, he has collected almost 5,000 antique watches and clocks, flying around the world to purchase valuable pieces. Mui always remember what his boss taught him — lock them in the safe and forget them; never sell them for small gains.

Among Mui's dazzling collection are many rarities, such as a gilt bronze Baccarat clock made in 1822 of crystal in the shape of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris; the smallest Rolex women’s white gold wrist watch made in the 1960s; a gilt brass bronze boy statue swinging clock made in the 1880s in England and an enamel, gilt bronze clock made in France during the same period.

One highlight is a white porcelain clock made in Paris in the 1880s. The beautifully carved artwork features four chubby angels, who represent the four seasons, indicating the flow of time.

“They are priceless works of art,” Mui says.

One of his greatest joys is to check on his treasures and wind them up every day. On the hour, his antique clocks will chime together with pleasant musical strikes.

In 2000, he set up a timepiece museum in Shanghai’s Xintiandi, displaying part of his collection on the Chinese mainland for the first time. Four years later, however, Mui had to leave the city due to rising rents.

Many people offered him free venues, but he’s picky. “They were not appropriate partners,” Mui says. “I’m not making money. What I want to do is to promote the art of time among the public.”

Last year, the collector finally found a place at the Shanghai Arts and Crafts Factory. “It was like love at first sight,” he says. 

The museum is not big but has more than 200 antiques from wrist watches to pocket watches and carriage clocks to wall clocks, made of various materials from gold and silver to enamel and shell.

Mui has also collected other European antiquities, such as different music boxes with delicate mechanism that can make the sound of flute, accordion, drum and piano.

One of Mui's treasures is a fan made in 1830 in Paris by Duvelleroy. With ivory bones and a silk surface, the fan was made to commemorate the first successful manned hot air balloon flight by the Montgolfier brothers in 1783 in Paris. Duvelleroy made only six fans to mark the event.

“I collect the antiques as well as carry forward those stories behind them,” he says.

Currently, Mui is busy on an antique timepieces exhibition at the Shanghai Hongqiao Friendship Department Store, which displays more than 100 pieces he has collected. The exhibition runs until the end of this month.

“I’m dedicating all my life to the antique watches and clocks, and there is so much fun in learning and collecting,” Mui says. “I’ll be very happy to share my knowledge and experience with the younger generation.”

If you go:

Museum address: 528 Qinzhou Rd (inside the Shanghai Arts and Crafts Factory)

Admission: Free

Exhibition address: 1/F, Hongqiao Friendship Department Store,  6 Zunyi Rd S.

Date: Through March 31 

Telling the time over centuries
Tan Weiyun / SHINE

A fan made in 1830 in Paris by Duvelleroy features ivory bones and a silk surface.

Telling the time over centuries
Tan Weiyun / SHINE

A white porcelain clock made in Paris in the 1880s

Telling the time over centuries
Tan Weiyun / SHINE
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