Watchmakers: manicuring the hands of time

Knowing the time of day has always been important to people. Prehistoric people reckoned time by the sun, having noticed a relationship between the passage of time and the movement of shadow. As early as 1400 B.C., the Egyptians kept time by dripping water through a hole in the bottom of a bowl. Various efforts were made over the following two millennia to achieve greater accuracy, which culminated about A.D. 1500 with the invention of the coiled spring, making portable clocks and watches possible. The spring-maintained balance, which came into general use for timepieces around 1670, greatly improved the accuracy of watches. Use of this type of mechanism in watchmaking continues to this day.

A major step in precision came with the quartz crystal clock, developed in 1929 by the Bell Telephone Laboratories; the clock used quartz’s extremely stable vibrations to measure time. Miniaturization of the movement and the power cell was first accomplished in 1957. Since the 1960s, electrical movements have been widely used in watches and clocks. A Swiss group was the first to announce a quartz crystal wristwatch, but the Japanese became the first to produce such watches in quantity. By the 1970s, the electronic quartz watch became less expensive as well as more accurate than mechanical watches, resulting in much higher sales of such clocks and watches. This has resulted in the wide distribution of inexpensive quartz watches in the United States. Many of these watches are cheaper to throw away than to repair. Expensive watches are still made and sold, however. Some people choose to own fine quartz or mechanical watches that cost from hundreds to many thousands of dollars. They prize the accuracy of such watches or value them as jewelry or for the status they convey.

Mechanical watches and clocks are complex, containing many moving parts. Sooner or later they require service. Quartz watches need to have their power source changed every few years, and those that have water-resistant cases need to be carefully opened and closed afterwards to maintain the seal. Mechanical watches must be lubricated to ensure accuracy. As a result. workers are needed who know how to adjust and repair the mechanisms.

Nature of the Work

Watch repairers (or watchmakers) and clock repairers (or clockmakers) perform repairs and adjustments as well as the regular cleaning and maintenance that mechanical watches and clocks require. Watchmakers and clockmakers remove the mechanism from its case and examine it for defective parts or accumulation of foreign matter like dust. Often with the aid of a magnifying glass, they disassemble the parts using pliers, screwdrivers, and tweezers. They check the alignment of parts and replace worn or damaged parts. In the case of a quartz watch, they may replace the battery.

Industry sources report that many individuals entered this occupation as a result of their military benefits following World War II, and that, therefore, many watchmakers could retire in the next several years. Demographic data, which support this notion, show that the average age of watchmakers is almost 44, compared to 37.6 for all workers.

Qualifications and Advancement

Watchmakers and clockmakers are generally required to have postsecondary training, which is available from a variety of programs offered by junior colleges, private watchmaking institutes, and vocational programs. Some go overseas to attend training programs offered by various manufacturers. This training generally takes from 1 to 2 years to complete and involves learning to diagnose and repair various problems, as well as how to work on a lathe, fabricate tools and watch parts, and use special equipment such as demagnetizers. Some institutions also teach basic soldering, filing, and fabrication of hinges.

At the completion of training, some watchmakers and clockmakers become certified to do certain kinds of repair. The American Watchmakers Institute certifies watch and clock repairers based on a written examination and a test of repair skills. The Institute confers the titles of Certified Clockmaker or Watchmaker and Certified Master Watchmaker or Clockmaker to repairers who pass their exams.

Most watchmakers and clock repairers start as helpers or apprentices upon completion of their formal postsecondary training. Employers generally prefer high school graduates with good mathematics skills. Good eyehand coordination is absolutely essential.

Experienced watchmakers and repairers who wish to start their own businesses need management ability. As with many other industries, a high percentage of such ventures fail. Industry sources report that enough do succeed, however, to indicate that this field offers individuals who do not wish to attend college an opportunity to be self-employed.

Employment and Outlook

It once seemed that the development of cheap quartz watches might result in the demise of the mechanical watch, which would in turn have a negative impact on the prospects for the watchmaker trade. However, according to the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry, world production of watches is increasing, partially due to the increasing popularity of expensive watches, which often are mechanical. Although employment in this occupation has declined from 1985 to the present level of about 6,000 in 1994, there is considerable need for repair services for mechanical watches, particularly in urban areas where there are larger concentrations of people who own more expensive watches and clocks. As a result, the number of new watches and clocks that may need repair in the future appears to be increasing. In addition, there are many mechanical watches and clocks manufactured before the boom in quartz watches that are still in use and require regular maintenance.

Related Occupations

Watchmakers and repairers combine dexterity with precision and accuracy to make repairs and replace parts as necessary. Other occupations that require similar abilities include jewelers, locksmiths, and camera and musical instrument repair technicians.