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She Winds Clocks at Paris’s Landmarks

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Horlogerie Arvaud has been a fixture along the Rue du Cherche-Midi, in the Sixth Arrondissement of Paris, since Yohanna Arvaud’s grandfather opened the clock and watch repair shop in 1962. And Ms. Arvaud, 44, who now heads the company, can be found there most business days, except two mornings a week (usually Tuesdays and Wednesdays).

That’s when she, or one of the two watchmakers on her team, checks and winds the rare and antique clocks at locations like the Louvre and the Élysée Palace, the French president’s official residence.

“Every week we go to each site,” Ms. Arvaud said. “We check all the clocks, we wind them up because, since they’re very old, they tend to move forward or backward a little. We check that all is well, for example, the chimes, and then move on to the next one.”

Ms. Arvaud is even depicted in a comic book (in French, a bande dessinée) published in 2021. (“It’s fun,” she said.) The comic, subtitled “France and Its Presidents,” has a drawing of her at work, with a caption explaining that the palace’s more than 300 clocks are serviced every Tuesday morning, the day before the weekly cabinet meeting.

Ms. Arvaud said she is particularly fond of the clock in the palace’s Salon des Ambassadeurs, where the cabinet meeting is held. Called La Chute de Phaéton, or The Fall of Phaeton, the gilded bronze clock from the early 19th century is 88 centimeters (about 2.9 feet) tall and decorated with the figure of Phaeton falling through clouds because he could not control the Chariot of the Sun usually driven by his father, Helios, the Greek god of the sun.

The Élysée’s clocks are just part of the weekly tour, along with the Cour de Cassation, France’s supreme court; Quai d’Orsay, the ministry for Europe and foreign affairs; and the ministries of education and of culture — all of which have clocks owned by Mobilier National, the agency that manages government-owned furniture and decorative items.

“The Mobilier National has over a thousand clocks, cartels and regulators in its collections, dating from the 17th century to the present day,” Emmanuel Pénicaut, the agency’s director of collections, wrote in an email.

“Ms. Arvaud repairs the mechanisms of the clocks in our collections,” he wrote, “and in particular those in the Élysée, a place she knows well because she also winds the clocks there every week: She replaces parts, straightens axes, polishes plates, and corrects the advance or delay of the mechanisms. Yohanna Arvaud is a living example of the transmission of know-how: The Mobilier National has placed its trust in her family for three generations.”

The agency has used Horlogerie Arvaud for the work since the 1970s; neither the agency nor Ms. Arvaud would disclose what the business is paid.

Ms. Arvaud’s business also maintains clocks for other clients, such as a large gilded bronze wall clock with a pendulum and quarter-hour bells at the Hôtel Marcel Dassault, home of the auction house Artcurial; a large bell-tower clock near Foucault’s pendulum at the Panthéon, where French notables including Alexandre Dumas and Marie Curie are entombed; and a gilded wall-mounted clock in the elaborate Rocaille style of Louis XV at Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel’s longtime apartment on the Rue Cambon, which was recently restored, and is now listed as a historical monument.

While it seems almost physically impossible, Ms. Arvaud or her employees visit more than 500 clocks over the course of the two weekday mornings — arriving at the first stop at 6:30 a.m. and finishing about noon or 12:30 p.m. “We spend about one minute per clock if all goes well,” she wrote in a later email, “moving around by public transport, on foot and by bike, and by car if need be.”

And what if they find a problem? “We can do the repair on site, but it’s quite rare,” she said. “Since we’re dealing with very fragile museum pieces, we have to take every possible precaution, so we prefer to work in our workshop.”

Ms. Arvaud’s paternal grandfather, Michel, and her father, Patrick, began maintaining clocks for the nation during the presidency of Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, while her mother, Janine, managed the shop. She started picking up all of those responsibilities in 2006.

She noted that the amount of work has declined a bit in recent years. “Since I took over, there have been fewer clocks, because the advisers in the offices are not of the same generation and don’t necessarily want this type of decorative object in their office,” she said.

Initially, Ms. Arvaud said, she had no intention of going into watchmaking. “After my studies, I worked in communications and advertising. But not for long, for two or three years,” she said, adding that she was fascinated by the watch world growing up, but like many teenagers, she rejected the idea of following the family path.

At 25, she had a change of heart. “My father was thinking of retiring and it was unthinkable that the company, well, the family tradition, wouldn’t last after all.” (Her brother is also a watchmaker, but he has lived and worked in Australia for more than 20 years.)

“I thought, ‘Why not? I’ll go for it,’” she said. “It’s something that interests me, I’ve always liked it. So I went to watchmaking school.”

In 2008 she finished the two-year course at Lycée Diderot, a vocational school in Paris. “During my studies, I worked weekends with my parents. And very early in the morning, I would go on the tour of the ministries with my father, where he would teach me about the conservation of clocks in the Mobilier National’s heritage,” she said.

The Rue du Cherche-Midi has been home to a number of well-known Parisians, including René Laënnec, inventor of the stethoscope, and the writer Victor Hugo. Nowadays, the street is lined with retailers such as Leica, Swatch, and the French lingerie brand Eres. “Things have changed quite a bit since the days of my grandparents and parents,” Ms. Arvaud said, “but along with the Poilâne bakery, we’re one of the oldest businesses on Rue du Cherche-Midi.”

Things are also different today when it comes to women in watchmaking, she said. “When I started 17 years ago, I was one of the first few women,” something she said she views as an asset. “When people see a woman in this business, they quickly know who we are, and we’re quickly spotted.”

Today, however, “watchmaking is no longer the preserve of men, and we’re starting to see a real mix,” she said.

Ms. Arvaud lives near the boutique, in the same neighborhood where she grew up. “It’s a great environment, because I’m also raising my little boy on my own, so it makes my life easier,” she said.

The shop is just 25 square meters (about 270 square feet), wood-paneled, with a wooden counter and a plush brown chair. The walls are lined with shelves displaying a dozen or so clocks, all waiting for repair or for their owners to claim them. And the window display often includes vintage timepieces from brands like Omega and Longines.

As an example of the clocks they repair, Ms. Arvaud showed a visitor a small piece from the 18th century called a pendulette au coq (which in English means small rooster clock; the term rooster refers to the last piece that watchmakers place on the movement, like a weather vane on top of a house). The gilded bronze clock was about six centimeters in diameter (about 2.3 inches) and had a white hand-painted dial depicting two people and a bird.

Just inside the shop’s entrance is a narrow winding staircase leading down to the workshop, though now, the business’s main repair site is in the Marais district, on the other side of the Seine.

“Two and a half years ago, I opened a second boutique. In fact, I moved the whole workshop to Rue des Archives in the Third Arrondissement,” Ms. Arvaud said. “I’m lucky enough to have two sites and, above all, a much bigger workshop with a lot more machinery. And what’s even nicer is that the workshop overlooks the street, so you can see the watchmakers at work.” She usually works alone at the Rue du Cherche-Midi shop, while her two employees staff the second site.

In her years in the business, Ms. Arvaud said, she has seen a watchmaking comeback, or a new appreciation for the skills it takes. “When I quit advertising to go work with antique clocks, my friends absolutely did not understand my choice of life,” she said. “It wasn’t fashionable at all. We mostly wore Swatches at that time; we were into ultraconsumerism.” Her friends did not understand the point of clocks; she kept saying clocks would make a comeback.

“And today, I see lots of young people in their 20s stopping in my store and looking around, asking me for prices, and bringing in watches from their grandparents. Nowadays, we think it might be a good idea to have them repaired,” she said. “We’re moving towards stopping overconsumption, limiting overconsumption and ultraconsumption to reappropriate the family heritage.”

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