Monday, December 30, 2019

What makes a watch- a watch?

Even a two-year-old can easily tell the difference between a rocking horse and a pony. A skilled carpenter can make a beautiful wooden toy with his bare hands, just from having seen a photo. However, if you want to discover where the real, living, breathing, and jumping animal comes from the best thing to do is ask a farmer.

A finely designed and perfectly crafted mechanical timepiece is not a sum of ad hoc, put together components which somehow 'keep the time'. The very DNA of a mechanical watch comes from strict, rigid, mathematical calculations which determine the shape of wheels, levers and springs as well as their relationship, engagement and physical position in space. The components themselves are then machined to perfection, which is a real challenge due to their size. In other words, a watchmaker's ability to make a watch – to manipulate its DNA - comes from a deep understanding of mathematics, physics, mechanical engineering, metallurgy, precision machining, precise measurements at sub-micron level, and plenty of fine tuning.

So, what makes a mechanical watch a watch?

Fundamentally, its ability to keep time accurately. If it doesn’t keep time, or keeps time poorly, it is not a watch.The accuracy comes from a number of factors, but essentially, it all boils down to the ‘freedom’ of a mechanical oscillator to resonate at an exact frequency, regardless of its position in space. I choose the word freedom – as a synonym for an oscillation free of friction, immune to shock, temperature changes, gravity and every other force trying to interrupt or disrupt that perfect, harmonical oscillation.

This is the theory. Practically, accuracy comes from a watchmaker’s ability to strictly follow and execute the mathematical calculation of oscillator escapement design. This means components manufactured with strict tolerances, perfectly burnished pivots, perfectly polished jewels, exact spacing between all the components, and impeccable parallelism. To do so is incredibly hard, and it takes decades to master the art of watchmaking.

Recently, it was brought to my attention that couple of young Australian "watchmakers" are working hard to hand-make their first watch. Hats off to them for giving it a go, but judging by what I have seen so far, both young men are trying hard bring to life a wooden pony using 15th century tools and techniques. And they are not alone: Instagram is flooded with young wannabe watchmakers from all over the world who are doing exactly the same: trying to make their first watch - a tourbillon- by following George Daniels sketches. What a waste of time.

Before good old George made his first watch, he spent 40 years behind the work bench. Before making, he perfected the art of watch repairing and restoration, until he was recognised as London’s top repairer, specialising in old masters like Breguet. Daniels had another slight advantage over the rest of us – he was a natural mechanical genius. To start a journey from where George finished is simply ridiculous.

Here is my advice to all young students of horology. Step one: focus on learning the trade from inside out, the proper way: from learning the basics, to advance repairing techniques. That will – and rightly should – keep you busy for ten years. Once you become a decent repairman, you are ready for the second step: the ability to read and understand the DNA of the watch. This starts with measuring, so access to advanced measuring equipment is must. From then on, task yourself with making your first components while striving like crazy to make them to exact dimensions. If you are smart and hard-working, that should take no more than 10 years.

Keep in mind that it takes two to make a watch: a watchmaker and a machinist. Daniels had his machinist (Derek Pratt) and I have two of my own (Josh and Andrew). George could never bring himself to acknowledge his machinists contribution, but it was Derek who made many of the components for George’s watches, especially the difficult dual escape wheel at the heart of the Co-Axial escapement. On the contrary, I am more than happy to give full credit to my machinists. However, if you, as a student of horology, wish to combine and master both trades – watchmaking AND machining - then brace yourself for a very long journey.

As we have said number of times: our workshop is open and young students are welcome to join us, in either trade. We have nothing to hide and plenty to share, including access to the most advanced watchmaking machinery in Australia.

Come join us!                       

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