The Traditional Watchmaker- a Historical Perspective

When a search initiated in order to find a watch repair shop, what terms are usually used….antique watch repair…vintage watch repair…old hand-wound watch? Chances are it probably is not “watchmaker”. But this term was commonly used to describe someone in the trade of watch repair, that is before the advent of battery operated watches.

A Watchmaker was originally a craftsman or artisan who actually made pocket watches from scratch. In later years this term became synonymous with a person who repaired both pocket and wrist watches due to the expertise needed. Even though actual watch manufacture was not part of a watchmaker’s duties, the same level of craftsmanship was needed to repair a watch. Understanding of theory, mechanics, metallurgy, and manual dexterity were required. If a part was not available, it had to be made from scratch. This was especially true of the watchmaker who was isolated from urban centers where parts were not readily available.

Although requirements differed in each country, traditionally a watchmaker would have many years apprenticeship under a skilled craftsman, and then would join a guild (specialized groups for any particular craft or trade). In more recent times, states and provinces would issue an official registration for watchmakers meeting specific requirements. Many schools existed for watchmakers, and companies such as Elgin provided training for employees. As part of this training, many classes actually required the student to make a pocket watch (using pre-engineered part dies and molds).

As the mechanical watch fell from favor and cheaper quartz watches dominated the market, the number of watchmakers diminished as they aged and retired. Schools slowly closed and formal training opportunities  became limited. Traditional watchmaker’s were becoming rare.

Many watchmakers today have learned their skills through apprenticeship under experienced watchmakers. For the self taught, tremendous amounts of information can be obtained by searching scanned internet archives such as Google books. Certifications are offered to those who complete courses offered by the American Watchmakers-Clockmakers Institute (AWCI). A small number of Schools throughout the world offer certifications using the Watchmakers of Switzerland Training and Educational Program (WOSTEP). The National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors (NAWCC) offer workshops throughout the United States. Several modern mechanical watch companies such as Rolex offer schooling, but they take in a very limited enrollment. The British Horological Institute offers training, as well as some other various schools. The drawback regarding formal education is that there are only a handful of these schools left now, and they can only accommodate a small number of graduates per year.

Finding the right person to repair your watch depends much on the age of the timepiece, and the particular expertise of the watchmaker. This subject will be covered under a future article. 

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