Making Time with the Watchmakers

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Pacific Historian
Jun 4, 2005
Orange County, CA
by Stacy Perman
Small Biz

It's just six months until graduation, and in a bright, clinical classroom, 12 students in crisp white lab coats with round loupes attached to their foreheads and glasses pressed to their noses are sitting on low stools at their work benches. In front of them, under Plexiglas lids that look like miniature cake holders, are tiny disassembled parts, some the size of a grain of salt, others no wider than a human hair. Under the tutelage of a master horologist, the intensely focused individuals are being given a lecture on the Lemania caliber 1873 chronograph, a mechanical timepiece with a 30-minute counter and a small second-hand dial.

It's one of five types of chronographs that by graduation, each of the 12 pupils will be able to take apart, diagnose, handcraft a part for, and repair. The individuals, all second-year students at the Lititz Watch Technicum, are in the final phase of studying what until only recently was considered the dying art of watchmaking.

Launched in 2001 by Rolex USA, the U.S. arm of the venerable 101-year-old Geneva watchmaker, the Lititz Watch Technicum was started in an effort to shore up the shortage of skilled watchmakers in the U.S., which had for decades been on the wane due to the popularity of digital and electronic watches. However, a strong resurgence in mechanical watches in recent years, particularly luxury models, has catapulted demand for horologists, a profession that was not so long ago thought to be going the way of blacksmiths and corset makers.
The End of an Era?

A not-for-profit foundation, the Technicum is fully subsidized by Rolex, which underwrites the $10,000-a-year tuition for all students and helps subsidize the cost of tools, which run about $5,000 per student. "We were facing a situation today where we needed to foster a new generation of watchmakers," says Charles Berthiaume, the senior vice-president for technical operations at Rolex and the Technicum's president "Thirty to 40 years ago, there was a watchmaker at every jewelry store. That's not the case today," he notes. Since opening, the school, which is partnered with the Watchmakers of Switzerland Training and Education Program, has graduated 40 students.

Following World War II, the watch-manufacturing industry in the U.S. had all but disappeared, as dominant Swiss and Japanese manufacturers took over. Then in 1969, Seiko introduced the first battery powered quartz watch, nearly sounding the death knell for mechanical watches. Four years later, the Tokyo-based company began selling liquid-crystal display digital watches.

The precipitous decline of mechanical watches had begun, as more and more cheap battery-powered and digital watches hit the U.S. market and gained popularity. "Personally, for me, the introduction of quartz watches was a dark day for our industry," says Herman Mayer, the German-born principal of the Lititz Watch Technicum.
A Disappearing Breed

Unlike electronic watches, which need little more than battery or strap replacement, mechanical timepieces still require intricate micromechanics for maintenance and service. A typical self-winding watch can have as many 300 parts, and they're all packed into a space the size of quarter and less than half an inch thick.

Despite the advances of technology, the basic proficiencies of watchmaking haven't changed much in over 300 years. As the need for trained horologists dropped sharply, so too did the number of schools and programs teaching watchmaking. According to Berthiaume, in 1976 there were 43 watchmaking programs in the U.S. Today, that number has fallen to 12.

However, something of a renaissance in mechanical watches began in the 1990s. Traditional handcrafted timepieces with price tags starting at $1,000 and increasing exponentially have become highly desired. According to the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry, exports from Switzerland—where most of the top-name timepieces originate—spiked 11% last year, to more than $9.5 billion. While mechanical watches make up only 10% of production in the watch industry, they make up more than 50% of revenue

"Owning a Complication"

Indeed, lately, the more complicated a timepiece, the more in demand it is. The tourbillion (French for whirlwind), originally invented in 1795, uses the Earth's gravity to keep ultra-precise time. It can start at $100,000 and is a prized complication. Perpetual calendars—which need some 100 parts, can calculate leap years, and don't require adjustment until the year 2100—are also popular. And the chronograph, once considered quite rare, has become something of a statement in recent years for its ability to measure time in different ways through several sub-dials on the face.

"This is about more than just time keeping," says Mayer. "It's all about adding a mechanical challenge and owning a complication." Indeed, in 1999, a platinum Patek Phillippe watch that was custom-made in 1933 for the New York banker Henry Graves Jr., containing 24 complications—including a split second chronograph and a chart of the nighttime sky over Graves' home—was sold at auction for $11 million.

Underscoring further the need for watchmakers is the growing secondary market of vintage timepieces. For these watches, should a problem arise, not only would the owner need a trained repairman but many of the spare parts needed are no longer being manufactured. "Every watch has its own challenge," says Mayer. "Many pieces are individually made."
A Popular Program

Located in the small town of Lititz, Pa., in the heart of Amish country, the Technicum is housed in a Michael Graves-designed modern stone barn. The sun-filled interior contains the school's two classrooms, labs for waterproofing and cleaning, and a library. The stainless-steel cafeteria offers students espresso served in porcelain cups. The second floor houses a Rolex service center.

The Technicum receives at least 100 applications for each class of 12 students for the two-year, 3,000-hour curriculum. While Rolex underwrites the school, Lititz teaches the Swiss watchmaking skills necessary to work on every kind of timepiece, allowing its graduates flexibility.
Patience Required

Prospective applicants are vetted for their mechanical inclination, patience, self-motivation, problem-solving skills, abstract-thinking abilities, and discipline. Some, not all, have a background in watches or jewelry, a few have a college education, but most arrive fresh out of high school. Before they're accepted, final candidates are invited to spend a day at the school for interviews with the staff and then put through a series of tests to gauge their mechanical talents and thinking processes.

The first year is devoted to nothing but micromechanics. Pupils learn to handcraft and manufacture parts. For example, a four-day exercise consists solely of sharpening tools, so that the students learn the kind of precision, discipline, and patience they will need in working with watches. Likewise, 41 days are spent doing nothing but sharpening hairsprings. The only modern element to the craft is the use of a software program for mechanical drawings.

By the end of the first year, all students are required to build their own watch with a bridge, winding stem, and a balance staff. But most students create a timepiece well above the minimum requirements.

One of the most creative students, Kesse Humphreys, a 2004 graduate, has spent much of the past three years building a watch made of over 300 parts—all of them hand-made—including an instantaneous minute counter "In high school, I had no idea that I wanted to be a watchmaker," he says. "It's not for everyone. You have to be a very patient person and mechanically inclined."
Skills in Demand

During the second year, students concentrate on diagnosing problems, as well as the repair of simple and complicated timepieces, including manual wind, automatic, and electronic watches, and several types of chronographs. All student examinations are sent to Switzerland for grading.

Demand is so high for skilled watchmakers that the students are almost all assured employment upon graduation. Starting salaries range from $45,000 to $55,000 a year. The 40 Lititz alumni have gone on to work for independent jewelers, as well as Breitling, Chopard, and Patek Phillipe. Rolex has hired three of the graduates. Mayer says that while the school doesn't encourage students to go out on their own immediately, preferring that they work with an experienced watchmaker first, about 10% to 20% of the students have opted to start their own shops.

One of the legacies of the past 40 years of battery-powered watches, according to Mayer, is that consumers now demand high-functioning watches. "Thirty years ago, a consumer wouldn't mind if the timing was one minute fast," he says. "But now, absolutely not. That's just not acceptable. They're used to quartz." But he adds, "If a watchmaker knows what he's doing, it's feasible to [engineer] a mechanical watch to run within a couple of seconds."

Clearly pleased with the results of the Lititz school and hoping to encourage the rest of industry to follow suit, Rolex two years ago made a $1 million grant over five year to support watchmaking at Seattle Community College and launched a similar grant at St. Paul College in Minnesota. In 2003, Rolex launched a second Technicum in Tokyo, and is planning another, in a yet to be announced third country. For the next generation of horologists, it's about time.

To flip through a slide show on how students learn the art of mechanical watchmaking at the Lititz school:

Making Time with the Watchmakers

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