Jacob Gercke († 1666), the Most Famous Clockmaker in the GDL

In the Grand Duchy of Lithuania masters from Germany, Italy and other countries have always played an exceptionally important role in prestigious crafts related to arts, such as goldsmithing, moulding, modelling, clockmaking, gastronomy, gardening etc. They were able to use the most advanced technologies but worked in a less competitive environment in the GDL with better career prospects. On the other hand, they had to work in not so well-equipped workshops and to face supply problems whenever high-quality equipment and materials were concerned. The taste of their customers was also rather different from that in Western Europe. Despite that, foreign masters often achieved high professional standards and personal prosperity; they tended to stay in their newly acquired homeland where they often assimilated.

A few of them have become famous throughout Europe. Being the leading master in the GDL did not mean you were automatically among the best even in the region of Central and Eastern Europe. One should not overestimate the level of development of the GDL in many sectors, including science and technologies. Some authors maintain that “the quality of clocks made by Gercke matched those produced in Western Europe at that time,” although Michał Brensztejn, a clockmaking pundit, never came to the idea of comparing the clocks made by Gercke to similar clocks produced by his counterparts in Paris and Rome. In terms of its economic development, the GDL has always lagged behind Western Europe.

A stranger who naturalised in Vilnius

Jacob Gercke (Gierke, Gierkiewicz), a Lutheran from Germany who became the most famous clockmaker in Vilnius and the whole GDL, is the best example of a craftsman who enjoyed a success in foreign country. His origins are not clear; most probably he arrived in Vilnius from one of German lands via Krakow, Poland. He was born apparently in the late 16th century. His earliest surviving clocks bear markings of the years 1618 and 1621. He must have received education and was able to work on his own before travelling to Vilnius. The competition here was less intense than that in Krakow. Gercke anchored himself in the capital city of Lithuania by becoming the citizen and marrying Katarzyna, the relative of Jan Korzeniewski who was the burgomaster of Vilnius. He had six children with her. The three sons were Michał Leon (†1657), the future secretary of the king, Szymon who left for Krakow, and Andrzej Benedykt (†1691), the future advocatus (mayor) of Vilnius. His daughter Zofia married merchant Krzysztof Britner, second daughter Elżbieta became a wife of the subcamerarius of Ukmergė Krzyszof Kamiński, the podkomorzy (land borders disputes judge) of Ukmergė district while the third daughter married Mikołaj Burkrabowicz. The clockmaker became a wealthy citizen and acquired two homes in Vilnius “through honest work and toil”, according to his own comment in 1666. One of his homes was at Holy Spirit street (now Stiklių street), while the second one stood on the present-day Didžioji Street in front of the Orthodox Church of the Holy Spirit. According to the 1636 description, his first house had two rooms and the third one with a fireplace and small stables for four horses. It is not clear whether Gercke served the royal court or was he the king’s servitor who had the royal privilege allowing him to work freely on his craft without joining any professional guild and free from municipal courts. The war with Muscovy in the middle of the 17th century and the occupation of Vilnius that lasted for several years had a negative impact on Gercke’s life, just like on the lives of many dwellers of the city. Gercke fled to Prussia and lost part of his wealth.

The time-taming craft

Gercke would make and repair clocks, he would also sell them to the nobility and the city dwellers. Gercke was a productive master, while his clocks enjoyed a considerable demand. His surviving letter from the year 1636 testifies that Gercke was aware of his value and was not afraid whenever he needed to use a stronger word in order to retrieve money from his noble customers. Gabriel Kimbar, the Treasurer of the GDL, confirmed in 1664 that he had received a clock from Gercke and paid him 500 złotys according to the written agreement. The master’s earliest clock dates back to 1618, while his latest product was made in 1664. Gercke, just like all other masters of that time, would sign each of his clocks with his first name and family name adding “from Vilnius”.

Johann Klassen was another high-level clockmaker who worked in Vilnius. Only several clockmakers used to work in large cities. Researchers attribute them to the group of “metal-workers,” because they usually formed guilds together with blacksmiths, metalworkers and the makers of kettles, swords and knifes. Ties between clockmakers and blacksmiths were particularly close, because clockmaking usually was considered part of blacksmithing. The joint guild of “metal-workers” existed in Vilnius since 1579, while clockmakers established their own guild as late as in 1779. There were up to eleven clockmakers in Cracow in the late 18th century, while their guild was set up in 1797. Warsaw, the factual capital of the Polish and Lithuanian Commonwealth, was developing quicker and saw its guild of clockmakers emerging in 1752. Clocks were expensive, therefore only the elite could afford table clocks or watches. In some instances, clocks have been installed in towers of churches and city halls.

Ordinary people could check time listening to tolling church bells, but more often they had to rely on the changes in nature and the rhythm of their daily labour.

Between craft and art

Michał Eustachy Brensztejn, a librarian and historian who worked in Vilnius, noted in 1923 that table clocks made by Gherke, with their impeccable mechanisms and rich decoration, could compete with similar clocks produced by masters in Krakow, Lviv, and even Gdansk.

He calls Gherke the artist whose work reflects the high level of artistic crafts in the mid-17th-century Vilnius.

Although almost all surviving clocks made by Gherke are the so-called tile clocks (Polish: kafelkowy, sztucer; German: Stutzuhr), he has also produced astronomical clocks and portable watches, the so-called “pectoralics” (Latin: pectus – chest, pectoralis – pectoral). People usually kept their pectoralics in the right pocket of a zupan or attached them to a fine chain. Gherke’ surviving table clocks are eight centimetres tall and 10.5–11 centimetres wide, mounted into a hexagonal or tetragonal boxes standing on bronze legs. Their mechanisms are lavishly decorated with metal carving. There are five clocks made by Gherke in museums in Poland and one in the Lithuanian National Museum. The artwork of that clock, made in 1642, shows a hunter with a musket on his shoulder who emerges from the forest with his dog. A city by the river, a riverbank and a bridge can be seen in the background. Gherke’s clocks have bronze casings. Details of the mechanisms are decorated in zoomorphic and vegetal motives, while the dials feature with engraved pictures. The more elaborate clocks have cast figurines on their tops.

The heart of the clock

Historian of science Libertas Klimka notes that Gercke’s clocks include mechanisms that are important for the development of the craft, because they feature all the highest achievements of clockmaking before the middle of the 17th century when first pendulum clocks emerged.

(Christiaan Huygens made the first pendulum clock in 1656, just ten years before Gercke’s death.) The clocks made by Gercke featured a snail, a small cone-shaped drum that helped to even the tension of the mainspring, as well as the hour-sounding device but in most cases just one hand showing hours. His more elaborate clocks showed days of month, phases of Moon, and the Sun’s position in the Zodiac. Gercke’s table clocks reflect the development of skill and mastery in the field, because each later mechanism appears even more complex and with additional indications, such as calendar dates and Moon phases. The clock from the Lublin City Museum in Poland that Gercke made in 1646 shows the position of the Sun in the Zodiac. His larger clock made in 1660 offers a yet another novelty, because it has three hands showing hours, minutes and seconds.

Literature: L. Klimka, A. Ragauskas, Nauji duomenys apie įžymųjį Vilniaus laikrodininką Jokūbą Gierkę: (XVI a. pabaiga – 1666 09 05), Istorija, 2001, t. 48, p. 23–34.

Aivas Ragauskas