Time to Revive a Dying Craft

Sales of luxury timepieces are booming in the United States. The problem is there aren’t enough people to repair and service them. Rolex decided to remedy the situation by training watchmakers in the heart of small-town America.

By Peter Hossli (text) and Robert Huber (photos)

The student watchmaker’s world revolves around an area of just 736 cm2, a thin rubber mat measuring 32 cm long and 23 cm wide. This is all the space Brigitte DeGroff needs for her work utensils – a mechanical timepiece no bigger than a postage stamp, a finely woven steel basket full of tiny replacement parts, screws and springs, and a couple of thin precision tools.

With the jeweller’s loupe firmly positioned on her right eye, she plunges into the world of miniatures, where everything ticks along nicely and there’s no room for mistakes. DeGroff, 24, fair-skinned with long, blond hair, is exploring the inner workings of a mechanical Swiss-made watch. “I love watches,” says the former art student, “especially their shape and the ticking noise they make. They’re wonderful objects.” Even better “when you manage to restore something as complex as that to perfect working order.”

This is what Brigitte DeGroff is learning to do in Lititz, PA. Nestled between the soft green hills of southeastern Pennsylvania and just a 3-hour drive from New York, Lititz is right in the heart of the lush farming country once settled by European Protestant sects such as the Amish, the Mennonites and the Herrnhut Brethren.

A year ago, Swiss luxury watchmaker Rolex opened its watchmaking school, the Lititz Watch Technicum, on the outskirts of Lititz. Each year a fresh batch of 12 student watchmakers are admitted to the 2-year course. “Upon graduation, they should be able to service and repair all makes of high-grade chronometers,” says the Director of the Watch Technicum, Hermann Mayer, originally from Germany.

The “quartz watch crisis” struck at the heart of the profession
Tuition is free at the Rolex school, but students are expected to provide their own watchmaking tools, which cost about $2000. The school is funded by a non-profit foundation, created and funded by Rolex to the tune of $250,000 a year. The company contributes the same amount again to another watchmaking school in the northwest of the USA. With the industry in desperate need of fresh talent, Rolex decided to invest heavily in training schemes around the world. Another Rolex school is set to open in Tokyo next year.

Watchmakers are in serious short supply in the USA. While sales of exclusive timepieces have never been better, there is a dearth of good technicians qualified to mend them and keep them in working order. America is the Swiss watchmaking industry’s most important market, but there hasn’t been a domestic industry here to train new artisans for almost 20 years now. The average age of a watchmaker in the USA is pushing 60… too old to provide this booming business with all the support it needs. The shortage is easily explained: the introduction of automatic quartz watches, mainly from Japan, began to edge out mechanical watches in the late 1970s. In turn, this threatened the very existence of the watchmaking craft, which had remained unchanged for centuries. The “quartz watch crisis”, as Mayer calls it, struck at the heart of the profession. Entire companies closed down. Watchmakers were laid off in droves. Germany’s Employment Office even removed the profession from its official list. And then Nicolas Hayek invented the Swatch, amassing a fortune with his plastic watch – and almost single-handedly saved watchmaking as a profession. He bought up a number of existing companies and now produces 99% of all watch mechanisms, even for luxury brands. “There is an overwhelming shortage of watchmakers at present,” says Mayer, 36. “Now we have to make up for the missing generation.”

This is no mean feat when you consider that only a dozen trainees are taken on here each year. “Watchmaking is hard to learn and hard to teach,” says Mark Jones, one of the three full-time instructors in Lititz. Like all his colleagues, he wears a plain tie under his long workcoat, almost resembling a doctor. Despite his appearance, he sometimes feels like a wildlife conservationist deep in the Amazon. “It’s as if we’re trying to save some rare species of animal from dying out.” This takes a lot of patience – and a calm environment.

A classroom straight out of Switzerland
The two classrooms, separated by a soundproof glass partition, look more like a workshop-cum-operating theatre. Clinically clean. The brand new desks, in perfect condition, are arranged in groups of four, each equipped with its own table anvil, a bright light, a compressed air pipe to blow away the fine dust, and a variety of tools. Most of the equipment has been shipped directly from Switzerland: the furniture from Lista and USM and, of course, all the precise watchmaking tools. There’s also the high-pressure machine to test whether a watch is waterproof. “It’s as if the Technicum was plucked out of the middle of Switzerland and whisked across to the pastureland here,” says Ron Landberg, the oldest student at 38.

His desk is in the east-facing room, with the advanced class. Here the budding watchmakers wear a white overall with “Lititz Watch Technicum” on the front. On the other side of the glass partition are the beginners, who just started their two-year course in September. They wear a clay-coloured workcoat to distinguish between the two groups.

Another marked distinction is the noise level in the two classrooms. The new people are chatting away noisily while filing brass and steel pegs, polishing pins and drilling holes. Some of them are nervously shifting around on their chairs. Meanwhile, the more advanced students work in silence, almost withdrawn into their own little world. They sit there for hours, scarcely moving more than a rubber-tipped finger. The room is silent, the only sound is the soft hum of the ventilation. “My wife says I move in slow motion now,” says Landberg, a quiet, slender man with his hair and goatee beard clipped short. “The intense concentration required for this kind of work soon calms us down.”

No room for imperfection
And then there’s the daily frustration of seeing the slightest error wipe out hours of work. A good watchmaker has to accept this sort of setback, says Hermann Mayer, who describes his colleagues as “quiet, introverted and quite solitary at times”.

Characteristics that are not too difficult to find in a sleepy town like this. Lititz, pop. 8000, while not exactly godforsaken (with a total of 17 different Christian churches), is certainly off the beaten track. With more than its fair share of silos, the air is thick with the smell of fresh cow dung. The streets are empty once the sun goes down. The restaurants close early. Every so often an Amish buggy slows down the traffic. This is a region already steeped in the tradition of watchmaking. The Hamilton Watch Company in nearby Lancaster was originally founded by European settlers; the company now belongs to the Swatch Group. And not far from Lititz is a museum housing some 12,000 historical clocks and watches.

To scout out students for the first year, the Technicum advertised on local radio and in newspapers within a radius of just 50 miles. There were 150 applicants, of whom only 12 passed the acceptance interview and test. These were more likely to be creative individuals with an ability to learn, rather than readymade craftsmen. The only practical test they had to pass was to grind a bent nail flat to make it stand by itself.

“I look for people who can follow instructions,” says Director Hermann Mayer, who learnt the watchmaking craft only after completing his studies in German literature. The school complies with the “highly stringent” requirements of the Watchmakers of Switzerland Training and Education Program (WOSTEP), the official course of the proud Swiss profession. After 3,000 hours of theory and practical training, as required by WOSTEP, the students become fully-fledged watchmakers, intolerant of the slightest error. “There’s something of a military culture here,” says Mayer. Anyone who doesn’t make the grade is out. Four left after the first year. “With our high standards, we can’t afford to compromise on quality.” The range of tolerance is around five-thousandths of a millimetre, eight times finer than a human hair. Only the primary senses of the human eye and hands can work with such precision; machines are just too clumsy. Prospective students should have a keen sense of touch and be able to think logically, analytically and visually and solve complex problems. They also need to be perfectionists, with a love of detail and “the highest standard of professional ethics,” says Mayer.

“Anyone who trains as a watchmaker will never be out of work.”
Instructor Mark Jones, 41, who completed several courses at WOSTEP headquarters in Neuchâtel, sometimes feels like a doctor. “Broken watches are my patients,” he says. Before he operates, he tries to find out what seems to be the trouble and makes a diagnosis. Like humans, each watch has its own characteristics. Jones even sees a distinction between male and female watches. The problems encountered in the somewhat bulkier men’s watches are quite different from those found in the more delicate women’s watches. When Jones is repairing a watch, he proceeds as cautiously as a surgeon repairing torn nerves. “I very often hold my breath for a long time,” he says. This prevents him from making any uncontrollable movements. Student Brigitte DeGroff has given up caffeine. “It’s hard to resist the smell of freshly brewed coffee.” But she “simply couldn’t afford” to have shaky fingers at her desk. Watchmakers very often live to a ripe old age. Hardly surprising when you consider they don’t include coffee drinkers, pill poppers or alcoholics.

But they are forever tinkering with some project or another. For as long as he can remember, Jason Behney, 27, has been dismantling machines of all sizes only to assemble them again. But it was chiefly the bright career prospects that attracted him to the Technicum. His future certainly seems assured, even in times of economic decline. “Anyone who trains as a watchmaker will never be out of work,” says Mayer. Most top-grade watches need regular servicing and last for generations. In addition, Rolex helps to place the graduates.

For the time being, Behney is still getting to know the materials of the trade. In the first year, the American students adapt to the metric system and concentrate on precision mechanics. In a series of monotonous exercises, they work first wood, and then brass and steel, the two most important materials in watchmaking. Each problem to be solved is on a smaller scale than the one before. And each one has an even narrower range of tolerance, which is the make-or-break criterion. Initially, the students measure in tenths of a millimetre, then in hundredths, and ultimately only in thousandths.

By the second year the students find it easier to locate the tiny screws and springs of yellowish brass against the white background. Then they spend almost a year repairing watches on a minute scale. The course culminates in an 8-hour exam, which entails dismantling and reassembling a faulty timepiece, and cleaning and polishing it along the way.

The luxury image is important to Mayer. Very soon the watchmakers here will be repairing timepieces worth over 100,000 Swiss francs. So, in order to hone their taste for luxury, the Lititz Technicum has been equipped to the highest standards: from the building’s elaborate architecture with top-grade construction materials – Swiss pear-tree wood, German zinc for the roof, floors from Brazil – to the design of the classrooms or the tools themselves. “You cannot expect a first-rate performance in a third-rate environment,” says Mayer.