Monday, March 27

Overtime for the king’s watchmaker

Manuel Santolaya adjusts the mechanism of one of the clocks in the Royal Palace. / VIRGINIA CARRASCO

Manuel Santolaya is in charge of advancing the more than 720 National Heritage artifacts to adapt them to summer time

The 721 clocks of the palaces, convents and monasteries that belong to National Heritage depend on his hands. Manuel Santolaya, in charge of the clock workshop at the Royal Palace, will be the last time he changes the time on the pieces that make up the collection. His retirement in May will exempt him from looking after these sumptuous objects, adored by kings and antique dealers. However, he still has a pending task: he will advance the hands one hour during the night that goes from Saturday to Sunday, so that at two o’clock it will be three o’clock on the peninsula.

It will be a relatively simple operation, except for how tedious it is to set the time of the 230 clocks that are kept only in the Royal Palace. In winter, the maneuver is even more laborious, because when slowing down watches that have calendars and moon phases, the hands have to travel the entire dial forward, that is, 24 hours. “If they have quarters, calendars or moon phases, you spend 20 minutes with each one.” In any case, Santolaya and an assistant will first change the clocks in the Royal Palace museum “so that when tourists arrive they find them on time,” he says.

«Each watch is different because it is made by a different craftsman»

Manuel Santolaya. royal watchmaker

Manuel Santolaya’s systoles and diastoles are synchronized with the ticking of the clocks in the royal halls. There are astronomical, table-top, wall-mounted, with an organ music box, ceramic, with automatons… With an early vocation, at a young age he was already engaged in the family watchmaking to assemble and disassemble gears as if they were puzzles. Based on patience and tenacity, Santolaya has fine-tuned the ins and outs of hundreds of clocks, including those of the Zarzuela and Moncloa palaces, those of the Descalzas Reales and La Encarnación monasteries in Madrid; de las Huelgas (Burgos), the clocks in the tower of the Plaza de la Armería of the Royal Palace and those located in the rooms of El Escorial, Aranjuez and La Granja (Segovia). That without counting those that are assigned to ministries and official organizations. “Some watches in the collection are really complicated, but we are prepared for whatever comes next.”

Before he was seven years old he was already skilled at melting lead for weights and supervising the operation of the milling machine and the lathe. «I grew up in the workshop of my father, who was also a watchmaker, I belong to the fifth generation». His fascination with crowns, pivots and springs fitting together like a perfect chorography obsessed him so much that at first he relegated studies to the background. “In fact, I did night school because I liked spending a lot of time in the workshop,” says the watchmaker, who has devoted 40 years to maintaining the collection.

“History of Spain”

In 1982 he passed the opposition of the Section for the Restoration and Conservation of Clocks and Automata and since then he has lived “the history of Spain live”. And it is that her work is not limited only to the workshop. His hearing is so accustomed to the noise of machinery that as he walks through the halls of the palace he locates by the sound the one who suffers from a breakdown in his intestines. “Each watch is different because it is made by a different craftsman,” says Santolaya, who misses a school to learn the knowledge about the conservation of vintage watches.

He is not a man who denigrates ‘smartwatches’ or smart watches. “They are interesting, they provide valuable information, but it is another type of watchmaking.” Nothing to do with the work of a craftsman whose efforts are focused on pieces that are both objects of art and precise machinery.

Images of Manuel Santolaya. / Virginia Carrasco

In his case, the saying “at the blacksmith’s house, stick a knife” comes true. And that, apart from his trade in the palace, he runs the business of Relojerías Santolaya. The restorer is not a collector, although he does like to collect wristwatches from the fifties: Certina, Omega, Swatch. “When I get tired of one I wear another,” he says.

The machines that arouse most admiration among the public belong to the 18th century, when royal collecting reached its golden age with Charles IV, known by some as the watchmaker king, given his fondness for timekeeping devices and automatons.

High-class clients

The craftsman belongs to a lineage of watchmakers from La Rioja. His grandfather moved the workshop from Riojan lands to Almazán (Soria). Then, when his father came to Madrid to do his military service, he settled in the capital in 1954. Apart from the palace occupations, Santolaya offers his services to private clients, including the Casa de Alba Foundation and other high-ranking families, of which the craftsman jealously guards anonymity. “We are not going to name them without his consent.”

What is the secret of a good watchmaker? Skillful hands to handle tweezers, a brain with enough gray matter to apprehend the mechanisms of a piece -sometimes made by mathematicians and astronomers- and a good ear to level. “And above all patience.”

The Lamp is one of the pieces to which he lavishes the most care. It is the oldest and dates back to 1583, from the times of Felipe II, a great fan of this type of contraption. It is a night clock, visible in the dark, since the monarch went to prayers at night with the religious community that lived in the monastery of El Escorial.

One of Santolaya’s favorites is the Atlas, in which a giant holds the celestial globe. However, the one with the Four Facades is the one that causes the most headaches. Commissioned by Felipe V, who liked English perfection, it is a piece with a square floor plan, with a column in each corner. It was miraculously saved from the fire in the Alcázar of Madrid on Christmas Eve 1734.

English watches are highly regarded for their excellent machinery, but the French surpassed them when they reduced their size, so that their manufactures were cheaper, simpler and more colorful.

For now it is unknown who will succeed him in the position. His field is very specialized and it is likely that a position will have to be called to fill the gap left by Santolaya.

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