How Do You Solve a Problem Like Watchmaker?
From the great ancient Chinese and Arabic thinkers, to a cottage industry that transformed the fortunes of a post-reform Switzerland, watchmaking has transcended the development of technology like no other industry. With sales of premium Swiss watches increasing year on year, it's a trade that competes on a global scale, with 28.6 million units worth a staggering £13.8 billion leaving the landlocked confederation in 2014. It stands to reason then that the turnover of skilled watchmakers is following a similar boom, but the truth is contrary—the number of trained watchmakers has dropped by as much as 95% since the watchmaking heyday of the 1950s. It's a troubling time for the global watch industry, even if it remains unspoken, and something needs to be done. Tony Williams, former Breitling Head Watchmaker and current Watchfinder & Co. Head Watchmaker, talks watches, watchmaking and why we should all be more concerned about the quiet death of the skilled watchmaker.
There are less than 25,000 watchmakers left in the world today, with many nearing retirement age, yet over 10 million watches—each worth upwards of £2,000—were produced in Switzerland in the last decade alone. It doesn’t take a mathematical genius to work out that one watchmaker for every 400 watches isn't anywhere near enough; there’s plenty of work, but there’s simply no one to do it. The problem seems endemic, but does it have a source? We begin by asking Tony about his early days as a watchmaking apprentice, before the severity of the decline had made itself known.
‘My dad was a watchmaker,’ Tony says. ‘I used to work in his shop on a Saturday as a kid. Once I’d finished school, he suggested I apply for a job at Rolex, so I went for an interview and got a classic apprenticeship under the master John Barnes the same day. We started off in the case department to learn how to polish; then we were in the parts department, learning where all the parts were, what they were called, what they did and where they went, and then it was on to clocks. The first three years included a day release at Hackney college learning about clock theory . . . we learned more in a day at Rolex than in three years at Hackney!
‘I moved on to manual watches, then up to automatics, automatic dates, day-dates, GMTs, then chronographs. That was five years, and I loved every minute of it. You take something that doesn’t work, strip it, clean it, find out what the problems are and get it running perfectly. I didn't want to go home!’
How Hard Can It Be? Manual Wind
A manual wind time-only movement like the ETA 6497 typically has between 50 and 100 parts, and is the most basic of all movements. An apprentice can expect to learn this type of movement in the first year of training, a good opportunity to get to grips with the understanding of the core of mechanical watchmaking.
How Hard Can It Be? Automatic
Adding an automatic rotor to wind a mechanical movement boosts part count by as much as 50. The automatic movement—typically the ETA 2892—is a staple of a watchmaker’s work, and is mastered towards the middle of an apprenticeship. A self-changing date complication is usually found on automatic movements.
Tony’s enthusiasm is infectious, but there’s a distinct message in what he’s saying: becoming a qualified watchmaker is painstaking work. There’s a minimum of two years to learn the basics, and it’s a continual learning process thereon. Every calibre needs to be studied and understood to be worked on, and that takes patience and experience. But there’s another problem, one that Tony is keen to highlight:
‘Being an independent watchmaker hasn't really changed, but working for a watch manufacturer has. There was a group of watchmakers in the workshop when I worked at Rolex, all trained in-house; now it’s all sequential. So if you send your Datejust in for a service, no single watchmaker would work on it—it goes around a sequential desk of about ten or so technicians who do one bit each. If a watch company doesn't have to spend the time and money training watchmakers then there's no need for an apprenticeship department. This seems to be the modern way.
‘So, in conjunction with the government trailblazer apprenticeship scheme, the Watchfinder servicing department has written a syllabus for what we think is needed to learn practical production watchmaking. It’s ETA-based, so students will be working on the 2824, 2892, 7750, Lemania 1873—the common calibres. It's a two-year course with case construction and polishing as well, but it's mainly about learning how to check a watch, estimate a job, order the parts, clean, adjust, oil and make it work as it should. There's no sequential at Watchfinder, and there never will be. We expect each watchmaker to take responsibility for the watches they work on, and that’s what sets us apart.’
With dwindling interest and a lack of educational resource, it becomes clear why the watchmaking trade has taken such a hit. A big generational change has occurred with a rise in technology, and for many, watchmaking isn’t even on the radar.
‘When I was young,’ Tony explains, ‘there'd be neighbours with their cars up on ramps doing oil changes, front wheel bearings, changing pads and discs and that sort of stuff. As soon as someone started working on a car you'd want to get involved. Very few people think like that now. Now, if it doesn’t work, you throw it away—you can't fix it anyway. It's not made to be fixed anymore.’
Awareness of watchmaking as a profession is so minimal, it’s no wonder recruitment is proving difficult. Student enrolment is at 10% of what it needs to be to provide enough watchmakers to keep the watches made today serviceable tomorrow, but despite that, Tony still believes the current generation has what it takes:
‘Sarah-Jane is our first example of the Watchfinder apprenticeship programme. She’s been with us almost three years, and now she knows all the ETA calibres, all the Rolex calibres up to the chronographs, and next she's learning the Dubois Dépraz modules—the Audemars Piguets, Omegas, TAG Heuers, that sort of thing. She came from sequential at Rolex. She was there for two years and they didn't want to teach her, so she got frustrated and left. She was so enthusiastic in her interview with us, I hired her straight away. I'd have to beat her with stick to stop her learning! Soon she'll start in the workshop as a qualified watchmaker, and she'll make a good living then. That's what we want to do with our apprenticeship scheme, train people with the knowledge to work out a problem and repair it.’
How Hard Can It Be? Chronograph
A chronograph is an often underestimated complication, and can double or even triple the part count of a time-and-date automatic movement. Mastered towards the end of an apprenticeship, chronograph calibres can differ greatly from the workhorse ETA 7750 and often require relearning. An example is the legendary Zenith El Primero, which has an astonishing 330 parts.
How Hard Can It Be? Grand Complication
Only the most experienced watchmakers get to work on grand complications, and most are done in-house. It is not unheard of for grand complication watches to have upwards of 1,000 parts, with many of them requiring careful setting to perform correctly. As a new watchmaker, you can aim to achieve this level within a decade.
So how do you encourage a generation born with technology in its hands to consider getting into watchmaking, an profession so far removed from the iPhones and PlayStations of today that it doesn’t even register? The disparity may appear to be too great, but Tony’s understanding is that the logical mindset and ability to problem-solve encouraged by today’s digital world could be ideally suited to a role in watchmaking:
‘You've got to be inquisitive to be a watchmaker. Whenever an interesting movement comes into the workshop, everyone wants to see it and understand it. We had a watch in today that had a 100-second poise error; at some point in its life, somebody had damaged the balance and made a mess of it. We had to reset the hairspring and re-poise by adding poising weights to the mass screws—the rate was within 10 seconds in all positions when we’d finished. Being a watchmaker isn’t just about changing parts, its about diagnosing and solving problems. The experience in our workshop makes this sort of work possible.’
It’s early days, but the future of watchmaking still has a glimmer of hope. With programmes like Watchfinder’s apprenticeship scheme coming to the fore, we could soon see fresh new watchmakers joining the ranks of what has become an ageing industry. The biggest challenge is making people aware, convincing those with the capability and mindset that it’s something they’d enjoy.
Tony, laughing, sums it all up: ‘You’ve got to be slightly crazy to be a watchmaker, but it’s a brilliant job. I still love doing it. There’s always something new to learn. I think it’s the best job there is.’