Watchmaker

Watchmaker

In watchmaking, the skills are the same worldwide. Workers need an eye for detail, patience and good communication

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Photo: SCMP
In the 70s, the modern quartz clocks revolutionised the watchmaking industry. People predicted the death of mechanical watches, and watchmakers feared they would go out of business. But as it turned out, the exact opposite happened. Not only are mechanical watches still on the market, but they gained in value and skilled watchmakers are sought-after everywhere in the world.

Young Post meets Manfred Weber, Service Manager at A. Lange & Soehne for Asia Pacific.

Requirements

Watchmakers have a passion for micro-mechanics. Weber remembers that as a child he would already spend time in his uncle’s jewellery and watch shop tweaking and repairing old clocks.

In this job, it’s all about hands and eyes. So you need good eyesight and to be able to feel micro pieces with your hands and be meticulous (watch manufactures usually have a higher female ratio).

To become a good watchmaker, you need to be an extremely patient person. It takes hours and hours to assemble the few-hundred-pieces puzzle that make a watch. There can be over 1,000 individual parts in some watches, so you need great logical thinking to construct and deconstruct them in order. Being good at mathematics will certainly help, and you must enjoy the challenge of solving problems.

Qualifications

Watchmaking is as much about building watches as it is about training on how to build them. New movements are invented all the time, so regularly attending workshops and short courses is of primer importance to keep up with your trade.

To begin with, you’ll need at least two years of basic training. Luckily, the world renowned Institute Of Swiss Watchmaking (IOSW) founded by Richemont recently opened its doors in Hong Kong. It offers a two-year Certified Watchmaking Course, recognised internationally. Another option is to join the government-run Higher Diploma in Horological Science and Technology programme at the Hong Kong Institute of Vocational Education (IVE). This three-year course is less specialised then IOSW but provides students with knowledge in engineering, design, horological technology, marketing and management.

Work Prospects

Watchmaking can be divided into three different steps: manufacturing, producing and servicing. As a beginner, you usually start in servicing to gain experience. After basic training, most students start working for brands, but some decide to engage in fine mechanical engineering to construct watch movements.

After a few years, watchmakers can become teachers or they can specialise in certain techniques like regulating process, chronographs and minute repeater.

A watch manufacture has several departments, each of them essential to the completion of a watch. It takes an average of 10 people to produce one watch and up to a hundred people if it’s complicated.

Weber started as an apprentice at his uncle’s shop. After his studies, Mido offered him a service and marketing manager role at their firm in South Africa. He spent six years there before going back to Europe, where he worked in retail for nine years. He then returned to watchmaking, and became Department Manager at IWC. He worked in the assembly and regulating department, producing parts and movements for IWC watches.

Then Guenter Blumlein, IWC and Jaeger Lecoultre’s CEO and famous figure in the watchmaking industry, revived A. Lange & Soehne, which had fallen into oblivion after WWII. Blumlein knew Weber from IWC and offered him to manage A. Lange & Soehne’s service in Asia pacific, the second biggest market after Europe. That was 11 years ago.

Long term work prospects

After many years of experience, some watchmakers start their own watch brand, i.e. they manufacture the mechanical parts. Others work as director of production at a watch manufacturer. It is more business-orientated but still requires a background in watchmaking. Finally, some start their own retail business, i.e. they don’t manufacture the mechanics but produce their own brand.

Average salary

Salaries are on a case-by-case basis. They depend on what you studied, how much experience you have and how good you are. Fresh graduates from the IVE programme start with a little less than HK$10,000 per month. It takes time to get a good salary, because it takes time to acquire the many skills you need. You’ll need about five years to study the basics plus a speciality, then five more years to gain experience and expertise. After that, you can start earning a higher end salary.

Where to apply

Any big brand has offices in Hong Kong, and most of them will have service centres. They are all looking for watchmakers. It’s a job with no borders. You can apply in any big cities in the world; the skills are the same worldwide. Weber says there are around seven different nationalities working at his workshop.

A day at work

Weber spends 25 per cent of his time working on watches (bench work); 25 per cent travelling and doing educational and PR work (seminars, events, VIPs meeting, etc); 25 per cent taking care of costumer relations and answering clients’ technical questions; and 25 per cent on administration work. He says he’s lucky to constantly deal with influent and interesting people; people he would have never met otherwise.

After hours on a bench working on parts, watchmakers have to find a way to release the tension from the concentration. Many do sports. Weber knows a really good watchmaker who does black metal music after hours to compensate!

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