A watchmaker is somebody who makes or repairs watches. A person skilled in horology is responsible for the concept, design, build and after-sales care of wristwatches for men and women.
The manufacturing aspect of watch production can range from small cottage-industry, self-employed watchmakers (the traditional one-man band), through to the big-name established timekeeping brands with hundreds of employees, all covering different elements of watch construction. Examples include the famous design houses of Patek Philippe and Breguet. The term `horology’ is a reference to the science of designing implements to measure time.
The modern-day cliché, “built like a Swiss watch”, refers to the dedication and long history of watchmakers in that country, and nowadays, much of the traditional manufacture still takes place in Switzerland. This also means that a bulk of the manufacture supply chain is based there too. However, watchmaking enjoys something of a cult following in the UK, and it is thought that there has recently been a slight resurgence in the number of practising watchmakers in England and Wales, according to the Guardian newspaper. The British Horological Institute currently has around 3000 registered members.
The salaries within the industry can vary somewhat, and depend on the individual skills of a person and their reputation as a skilled horologist. Starting salary in mainland Europe is equal to around £30,000. A busy repair shop in a popular location in London run by two partners could bring in around £200,000 per year in counter sales. A lot of the repair business is passed on by jewellery stores who contract out the watch repair work. There are very few new design houses in the UK, with Bremont as a considerable recent exception, but a watchmaker with five years’ experience who moves to a branded house could expect to earn around £60,000, or more if they are able to progress to the design bureau.
- In the case of a watch repairer, the main responsibility is to assess the parts required to adequately repair or service the customer’s mechanical watch.
- A watch repairer will need to identify components and source them from various suppliers to complete the repairs.
- They will also need to restore the watch cosmetically if it has suffered wear or damage to the casing or strap.
- In the case of a watchmaker, they are responsible for overall concept, mechanical design and eventual build process.
- The watchmaker will consider mechanical components needed to complete the movement apparatus.
- They will need to consider components to be employed in the construction of the case and strap.
Watchmakers study in a school of watchmaking. There are a number of such schools in Switzerland, and the course has recently been rolled out to other countries. In the UK, there are 15 schools with accreditation to administer the Watches Of Switzerland Training and Education Programme (WOSTEP). The training takes 4 years, and virtually all new apprenticeships take place in Switzerland. It is far more difficult to gain an apprenticeship in other territories.
In the ateliers (in-house art and design studios) of the school, candidates learn how clocks work and how to mend them. From clocks, the candidate will progress to pocket watches, and then finally down to small wristwatches. There are no specific academic qualifications required to join a school, and there are no formal demands in terms of watchmaker qualifications needed to practise. However, if the candidate chooses to practise repair and build before they graduate, they will simply not have the skills needed in order to carry out this complex and painstaking work.
- Ability to commit to a long project time. A new watch will take one person over one year if they were to work on it for 16 hours a day, according to George Daniels, a well-known horologist in the UK.
- Ability to complete complex, detailed and patient work.
- A good eye for tiny detail and ability to interpret mechanical demands in a practical way.
- Able to commit to long days (12 hours plus), as certain phases of the construction process should happen without interruption.
- Ability to identify component parts to complete repairs of existing designs.
- Complete understanding of mechanical movement.
A job which demands huge levels of concentration, a detailed theoretical and practical knowledge of movement and extraordinary levels of patience, watchmaking is not a job to appeal to the masses. However, watchmaking enjoys a strong following at amateur level, and there are many web sites offering guidance to members. Because the candidate will be expected to have graduated from a horological school first, they are assumed to have the requisite knowledge in order to carry out their duties in terms of mechanical assembly. In addition, spending a portion of their career with one of the well respected watchmakers lends further skills in order for the junior watchmaker’s skills set to increase. The eventual career goal for many watchmakers is to reach the level of movement designer in an established design bureau.
After completion of training, the young watchmaker will typically find a job in one of the many ateliers of a jeweller (such as Gubelin or Bucherer), a watch manufacturing company (maybe Longines or Oris), an assembly company or the atelier of a watch company. Over the years, this will demonstrate what skills they have as a watchmaker. Some are shown to be highly skilled, and will find their way to the ateliers of the established powerhouses of watch design, such as Patek Philippe or Jaeger Le Coultre, where they will work on very complicated movements. Other watchmakers with average skills (typically the large majority) will spend their life in an atelier, assembling and repairing mass produced watches with standard movements, which are produced by the million. Apprenticeships in the UK are difficult to find, and most newly graduated watchmakers decide to head overseas.
Also known as…
- Watch designer
What’s it really like?
Martin Pauli is a watchmaker with 12 years’ experience. He runs a small watchmaking business called Angular Momentum, based in Bern in Switzerland, which manufactures custom timepieces.
What made you decide to choose to get into this sort of career?
I personally never went to watchmaking school and was never trained. I started my career as a graduate display artist in a department store in Switzerland. Within 15 years, I made it up to the Deputy Managing Director of the holding company. Besides this job, I was always interested in art and craft, and was a pretty skilled custom knife maker, goldsmith and metalworker. One day – by way of accident – I started my own watch company, and learned step by step what was necessary to manufacture a timepiece.
Do you have a standard day or a standard type of `exercise’?
My working week is 7 days. Since all products are custom made, there are a lot of new technologies to be developed every day, and every timepiece is a new challenge. In our Ateliers, we need people who have a wide range of skills. We manufacture the entire timepiece in-house. Therefore, we all have to be able to assemble a timepiece, repair it, make watch cases, crowns, tubes, dials, hands and more on bespoke machines operated by hand. Larger manufactures have their different departments, with specialists for case making, dial making, movement assembly, repair and so on. Today, watch cases, for instance, are completed entirely on CNC machines. Even the finish and polishing is done using robots at specialised companies.
What is the most common type of problem/call-out/enquiry you must attend to?
In our industry, the most common type of problem is to coordinate the production. This means, for completing a timepiece, many suppliers are involved with a selection of reliable and unreliable suppliers. It’s a big challenge to get the suppliers to deliver parts of the quality you need within the right time frame. Exactly these problems made me decide to make all parts in house.
What do you like most about the job?
I most enjoy being able to work with customers in different countries and to learn about the different cultures. Also, I love to develop new products, to find new technologies and solutions.
What do you like least about the job?
Of course, doing the undemanding work – basic, series work (work on mass-produced movements), and obviously business administration.
What are the key responsibilities?
To manufacture products in time, and of the quality required, to prevent time consuming and expensive after-sales efforts.
What is the starting salary and how does this increase over time with promotion?
Salaries after watchmaking school are around CHF 4000 (around £2500 GBP per month). A well trained and experienced watchmaker will get 6 to 8000 (up to £5000 GBP a month).
How far is it possible to progress within the organisation?
In our organisation (and other small organisations) there are many possibilities to progress – first, of course, to become the head of a department. In small organisations, the skills of a person are crucial for their career. Very skilled watchmakers make it up to a construction bureau; this is where new movements are developed.
What advice do you have for someone who is looking to get into this as a career?
I think first, we should consider if a person has an affinity for mechanical processes, and if he/she can imagine going to a world of miniature. To understand the mechanical processes is essential. Imagine, you receive a watch you have never seen before in your life. It doesn’t work, you have to find out where the fault lies and finally you have to fix it. This requires technical understanding, which not everybody has.
Any closing comments/thoughts?
Every mechanical timepiece sold and used needs to be serviced after 7 to 10 years. There are 23 million watches exported from Switzerland every year to markets all over the world. For the industry, it is still a mystery as to how and who can perform these tasks sometimes!