How to Become a Watchmaker – Part One – Introduction

So you have an interest in watches, and like the idea of becoming a watchmaker. As a watchmaker myself, who made a very conscious decision to choose this career and embarked upon a path to become traditionally trained, I cannot recommend the industry highly enough.

The sense of satisfaction from taking something old, worn and broken, restoring it to working order and rebuilding its aesthetic appeal, is second to none.

Becoming a watchmaker can be a daunting prospect for the novice though and there is a lot of confusing and contradictory information available. Having gone through the process myself I thought I’d set out what I’ve learnt along the way in a 5 part guide to becoming a watchmaker.

Part One: Introduction

The first part in the series is this one, the introduction

Part Two: Training and Education

After deciding on becoming a watchmaker the first thing you need to do is get trained. Watchmaking employs a lot of skills, both mental and physical, that most people won’t naturally develop. Where can you train, how much will it cost, what do you need and how long will it take?

Part Three: Watchmaking Roles and Specialisations

We will take a look at the different fields and specialisations within the sphere of watchmaking. Do you want to just make your own watches, or restore old pieces, or just concentrate on newer models?

Part Four: Finding Work as a Watchmaker

Here we will talk about places to go to find work, what sort of things employers will look for, and how you can set out your CV and sell yourself

Part Five: Working as a Watchmaker

This will explain what the best tools to use are and good work practices. As well as talk about the most popular places you can find equipment and parts for watches; particularly parts for old vintage or obsolete models

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Introduction to Watchmaking

Most people who currently work as watchmakers are involved in the servicing and repair of existing timepieces.

Watchmaking as a career has been massively deskilled since the introduction of mass-production techniques in the 19th Century. Despite the name, the vast majority of people who class themselves as watchmakers don’t make watches. Watchmaking has changed a lot since its beginnings and most of the making nowadays is done by machines operated by computers.

It is however a curiously traditional career, and despite cheap battery powered quartz watches being far more reliable, durable and accurate than mechanical ones, there is still a huge demand for these machines; which in any other industry would have been rendered completely obsolete.

Hand-made products carry a romantic quality that overwhelms the advantages offered by modern technology and watches currently enjoy the top spot in male jewellery. Almost contrary to expectations there are a significant number of people that are willing to spend several months wages on a watch.

Most watch brands have their own dedicated service centres, where groups of watchmakers work solely on that brand. They are aided by independent repairers who work on a variety of brands, and are encouraged to become officially accredited in repairing a certain brand. Rolex, for example, will not supply an independent watchmaker with parts unless that watchmaker has passed their very difficult testing process; as well as equip and set-out their workshop to Rolex’s standards.

Historically Britain, France, America and Switzerland were the homes of watchmaking, however during the crises that the industry has faced over the centuries only Switzerland has survived in any significant capacity.

Today almost the entire industry is centred around Switzerland, mostly in the Western area bordering France with the highest concentration around Neuchatel and La Chaux-de-Fonds. Germany also has a growing industry focused in the East around Glashütte. Beyond that Japan has a significant presence with the brands Seiko, Casio and Citizen.

The top jobs will be found in these locations, with almost no research and development opportunities elsewhere. Salaries are also higher in the main watchmaking regions.

cnc watch

A computer controlled high precision milling machine can now automatically create any part of a watch; reducing the skill requirements of a watchmaker

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Watchmaker Requirements

So what do you need to be a watchmaker? Well, the requirements aren’t extensive if you boil it down to the basics – just three things.

  • Hands

It sounds simple but watchmaking is a manual labour career that where you need to have two functioning, steady hands. Watchmaking is an art that requires great hand-eye coordination. You will need to make miniscule movements with your hands in a 3D environment, and so having subtle muscle control is necessary

  • Eyes

Something else that sounds obvious is your eyesight. You don’t need perfect eyesight, as you can always wear glasses, but you will need to be able to see clearly with correction and be comfortable using a magnifying eye-piece for long periods at a time

  • Knowledge

You have to be able to absorb technical information and relate that to the watch in front of you. The vast majority of a watchmaker’s skills come from repetitive practice to learn muscle memory; how much pressure to put on your screwdriver, how to hold your tweezers, how much oil is too much or too little. It’s a career where you will constantly learn and improve

So, as long as your hands and eyes work, and you have the mental ability to learn, rationalise and use knowledge, then you can become a watchmaker and continue as one long past your normal retirement age.

smashed watch

From time to time most watchmakers will sympathise with this image

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Watchmaker Characteristics

Skills can be learnt, but there are a number of defining characteristics that are beneficial to the aspiring watchmaker. You don’t need all of them in abundance, but you need to at the very least appreciate their importance and factor in a work-around if necessary.

  • Problem Solving

Someone who naturally enjoys finding solutions to problems, and can think laterally and logically to figure out why something isn’t working as it should, will be at a big advantage when learning how to become a watchmaker. Watches are some of the most creative machines man has ever made; and as a watchmaker you will have the opportunity to discover and explore this ingenuity

  • Calm & Patience

If you are not a naturally calm or patient person and you find your frustration building up, then you have to be aware of that and learn to take a walk outside or make a cup of tea, or whatever else you find cathartic to remedy the situation. Because if you can’t control your mood, you can’t be a watchmaker. There are many situations where you can make a difficult situation ten times worse when trying to continue in the wrong state of mind. A watch can take 4 hours to repair, but 4 seconds to ruin

  • Perfectionism & Concentration

Do you find a crooked painting on a wall frustrating? Can you notice tiny marks on an otherwise blemish free surface? Are you able to single-mindedly spend time making small adjustments until something is just right? Being a watchmaker is about not accepting anything less than what is required

So that’s the basics. Still interested? Well next we’ll talk about the different steps you can take to teach yourself the necessary skills and knowledge you’ll need on your path to becoming a watchmaker!

9 Responses

  1. Andy Willett says:

    Hi Colin,

    I just thought I’d say thank you for these write ups.
    Over the past few weeks I have been toying with the idea of changing my career and following my father’s footsteps into watch/jewellery repair.
    I’m 31, with a young family so attending a full time Uni course away from home wouldn’t / isn’t an option but I’ve decided tonight after reading through your posts that I am enquiring tomorrow about the BHI distance learning course…
    And hopefully kick start a career of which I hold an interest!

    Thanks again!
    Andy

    • Colin Colin says:

      Hi Andy,

      Thank you so much for you kind comments!

      It’s a tough journey, but well worth it in the end. It’s one of the most rewarding careers there is, and it is fantastic that you have made your first steps towards the light!

      Please keep me updated. I’d be happy to help you along the way in any way I can.

      Colin

  2. Edmund Beckett says:

    Hi Colin,

    Thank you for sharing your knowledge and love about this noble profession. I am a beggining antique pocket watch collector and watchmaking hobbyist. However, thanks to Internet I have been able to make great strides and often surprise myself with the seemingly innocent repairs I can now perform, such as choosing and fitting a new mainspring, which nonetheless involve certain skills that escape the average collector. My biggest aspiration would be for one day to make my own parts, every single part, and set up my own domestic workshop to restore old timepieces. I post questions sometimes on a forum (see here my last question: http://www.watchrepairtalk.com/topic/5411-broken-centre-wheel-pinion/), but generally it feels a ‘lonely’ hobby as no one within my circle shares this interest. What would be your word of advice? By the way, I look forward to the second installment of the How To Become a Watchmaker series.

    Edmund

    • Colin Colin says:

      Hi Edmund,

      Thanks for your comments.

      Yes, it can be a lonely profession/hobby, because it’s such a small niche. There’s probably a local horology group in your area that you don’t know about. In the UK there’s the BHI branches, some of which are also overseas. Maybe ask at a local hobby fair if you’re not sure.

      With regards to your problem with the broken pinion, then as far as I am aware you should be able to microweld it to repair it. The centre wheel on your pocket watch is not driven directly from the barrel and so the torque should not be too high. You might have had a problem if it was an older watch with a fusee as they can have very powerful mainsprings.

      The best microwelder I know is Geoff Walker in Manchester. His details should be on the BHI website.

      Yes, I have been slow at getting more post out. I did intend to do one a month, but the problem with watchmaking is that you are very busy; and also a perfectionist – which means that an article which I should be able to do in a weekend gets more an more ambitious! Hopefully soon though.

      Thanks and have a great 2017.

      Colin

  3. michael says:

    This is an awesome series and your replies to others have helped me loads, especially on the WOSTEP vs BHI article. Whens part two!

    I think I am going to start the BHI courses as I have a full time job. I’ll start with the technician grade and see how I go. I have read in other places that this course is a little too heavy on clocks though? Can you confirm / suggest any other distance learning course that might be better?

    Thanks again,

    • Colin Colin says:

      Hi Michael,

      Thanks for your message. I’m glad you’ve found it useful. The rest of the series is being worked on, but I’ve been in the process looking for and then buying a house for the past few months and so it’s been delayed. I need to be able to find a good 6 hour or so empty slot in my schedule to get it finished but things popping up. Hopefully soon.

      The first year has a bit of clocks in it, but it’s only the theory exam where there’s anything linked to it, and even then you can choose which questions to answer and so dodge most of the clock related questions if you want to. Mechanically clocks are just big watches, and the principals are all pretty much the same and so knowing a bit about clocks, you’ll understand the evolution of the watch better. I found it pretty interesting. The 2nd and 3rd years don’t have any clock material, but you’ll still need to know some horological history, which obviously includes everything.

      The BHI course is the only one that has a decent set-up for learning. There is also the American CW21 qualification, and they run courses, but it’s not a self-study course like the Technician Grade. i hope that helps.

      Colin

  4. Alfie Short says:

    Hey Colin. I come across this, looking for horology schools.
    My names Alfie, I’m 18 and I love watches, everything about them, in fact I love them so much I decided I would get my own watches and attempt to disassemble and reassemble them. Its hard but gives me a feeling of amazement. (yes I failed all 4 of my many many more attempts. I got better every time though ad aim to get a lot better.) How tiny the screws and pieces are, incredible. might just be irony cause im 5 ft 3 lol.
    the way a watch works, the amount of time and knowledge you need to be able to make a watch let alone repair it. It honestly amazes me.
    well, I live in england and I cant for the life of me figure out how I can go to a school for horology. would I have to go to a different country? sweden? america? what schools are there that I might not know about in england? how can I get in touch with these schools and apply?
    I want this to be my career, it just seems like one of the hardest things to find a profession in because its so hard to find schools and places to learn.
    please email me if you have more info.
    Thanks, much appreciated

  5. Nanson says:

    Hi Colin,

    I read your article and it is informative and helpful, thanks.

    I am searching for something to move on with my life and came across watch making. I find the profession unique but I am not sure if I have the talent and interest to it, as I was never a watch enthusiast of any sort. I apologize for the foolishness, but do you have any advice to my situation?

    Thanks,
    Nanson

  6. jresquival says:

    That’s interesting that the industry is centered around Switzerland. I guess I’ve heard about a lot of high-end watches coming from there. I bet you could find some good Swiss resources to study.

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