Friday, July 19, 2013

Back to roots: There is something special about being known as the last watchmaker...

My recent visit to my ex-homeland was yet another opportunity to reflect on my watchmaking roots.

As most of you know, I am a third generation watchmaker and both my father and grandfather are still alive and kicking.

My father can be best described as 'technologically redundant'. At the peak of his career, watchmaking made a sharp turn from mechanical watches to digital, battery operated timepieces. That meant a slow death for many skilled repairman who were forced to either adopt or disappear. According to them, battery replacement was nothing more than 'a job for a half-trained monkey'.

Surprisingly, my father quickly embraced the new trend with both hands! It was obvious that a quick battery replacement meant less hassle with customers, more pay per hour and a 5 hour siesta (a siesta is a short nap taken in the early afternoon, often after the midday meal).

It also allowed him to devote his life to his two only passions: good home made food and religious debating. Nowadays our family watch repair shop is frequently visited by farmers offering fresh daily produces, cheese and eggs, and keen Bible students. And according to my father, his early seventies are proving to be the best years of his life!

It goes without saying that a visit to my father's shop was both brief and formal. I guess my father felt the same - after all, second hand watch dealing in his books is at the same level of attractiveness as bacon.

A visit to my grandfather was really something I was looking forward to. A 320km drive was a small sacrifice to see the man who is still regarded as a true watchmaker.

Grandpa started his watchmaking apprenticeship in 1938 and spent his entire life working on mechanical watches. I saw him last 10 years ago when he was recovering from a serious illness. Today, he is probably the most enthusiastic 90 year old watchmaker you'll ever find.

For the entire time we talked watches. He was keen to learn about my business; the watches we sell, repairs, customers and the usual 'workshop' stuff.

Together, we browsed online our entire stock. While he was not overly impressed with Rolex or Omega, he patiently waited until we reached the "other" section. At this instance, I finally realized why I always loved Zenith watches: they are grandpa's favourite brand too! He was a bit disappointed that there were no Vacheron in stock, which is another brand he regards highly.

"Do you remember my Atmos clock, one I bough brand new in 1960?" - he proudly asked? Of course I did! Who can forget his stories about Jaeger Le-Coultre, the "one and only true maker of fine Swiss clocks and watches".

His most recent job: a repair to a pocket watch which came in with no balance assembly! In surgery, this would be called a heart transplant. "I had to start form scratch - do the math's, make the hair spring, modify a balance wheel, make a new balance staff. It took me almost 2 weeks, but the watch is now within 3 seconds per day!"

( My father shrugged his shoulders, opened another bottle of non-alcoholic kvas and started his lament with "... I would reject this job straight away..." at which point my mother kicked him out)

"Would you like to see my new set of drills?" Proudly, grandpa showed me a small container. A few seconds later, he was drilling a tube with an inside diameter of just 0.175 of a millimeter. On his hand-powered lathe, of course. "It comes with all attachments- have a look!"

"There is something special about being known as the last watchmaker in a radius of 30 km", he continued. "I am known as someone who does all 'impossible to repair jobs' for other watch repairers. Of course, there is no money in it (he could only charge 50 Euros for the two-week balance wheel job) but I have plenty of time, and after all, what else would I do?"

I showed him 'the most travelled watch' and explained the story behind the project. "This looks like Unitas 6497!" he proclaimed after turning the case back. He quickly put his eyeglass on: "...except it is now stamped ETA?" I explained that ETA bought Unitas in 1990 (or there about) but I was amazed with his attention to detail and willingness to stay updated. "We use to fix truck loads of Unitas. Fine movements, reliable and good timekeepers. No wonder they are back in fashion!".

The day passed quickly and it was time to head back east. The trip to grandpa's modest workshop was the highlight of my three week journey. It was also a great opportunity to introduce my boy to a real watchmaker. Who knows: maybe one day, he too, will decide to 'get into watches'. Choosing between selling, repairing un-repairable watches or battery fitting is not an easy choice :(

But after all, blood is thicker than water, and yes, time will tell.

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