Watchmaking is not a well traveled path and for many it may seem extremely daunting. I have received many questions from watchmaking students in regards to what to expect and how to manage expectations.
If you're an aspiring watchmaker, watchmaking apprentice, or watchmaking student, you will want to read this. I applaud and thank you for your commitment and interest. The very fact that this field has piqued your interest is worthy enough.
It takes a special kind of person to get into watchmaking. I'm being dead serious. It is not a common career choice. The fact that only a handful of watchmakers enter the field each year already means you're part of the statistical few. I want to personally welcome you to the club.
"I WISHED I HAD THIS INFORMATION WHEN I FIRST STARTED WATCHMAKING"
Consider this as a personal guide in the beginning stages of your watchmaking career. Since you're part of the club now, I will be blunt. I wrote this article with one thing in mind and one thing only. I wrote this because I wished I would've had this information when I first started watchmaking. I wrote this so that one of you will benefit from this and in hopes that you won't have to learn the hard way like I did.
FUNDAMENTALS ARE CRUCIAL
Master the Fundamentals. The advance is always the basics on top of basics. Everything seriously points back to the fundamentals. The basics are not "basic." The basics are the fundamentals that you need to know on a day-to-day basis. You'll slowly realize that as you work on more complicated pieces, there's nothing really too fancy about it. More complex jobs simply require a higher fluency in the fundamentals.
Here are some quick things you should remember:
- Master filing screwdrivers. "Give me 6 hours to chop down a tree and i'll spend the first four sharpening the axe" - Abraham Lincoln. This is seriously one of the simplest (simple doesn't mean easy) things you can do. Improper screwdriver profiles can and will damage screw profiles. Damaged screws from improper screwdriver tips is a rookie mistake. One of your goals as a watchmaker when you service is to get in and out of a watch without ever leaving a single trace that you were there. Screws should look like they are factory new. Also, when brands come and do shop inspections, one of the very first things they look at are your screwdrivers. Keep it looking good.
- Oiling is about quality and not quantity
- Know how to oil by hand and with the automatic oiler (some brands will make you do both during evaluations)
- Get fundamentally good with the lathe (make sure you know how to create your bare basic parts)
- Master the proper pressure when using tweezer (which you probably won't). Holy shit. You have no idea how many times I've lost parts because I squeezed a fraction too hard (it'll save you a ridiculous amount of time looking for parts). I know plenty of watchmakers who've been in the field for 50+ years still making this mistake. Don't be like us.
- Drill down how to change jewel endshakes. You should know what the bare minimum tolerance feels like by heart.
- Hairspring adjustment is crucial. You will almost always have to adjust hairsprings on a bench test. Remember, when adjusting hairsprings, you want to go opposite of the curve is to fix the issue.
- Escapement oiling can make or break your service. Get real good at it. Omega tested their 1120 testees on how well they oiled the escapement without the use of Epilame.
- Escapement adjustment is a staple if you like working on vintage watches. Vintage watches most of the time require shallacing.
- Polishing case and bracelets will take a long time to master considering the many different shapes and sizes of watches. Rule of thumb when you're polishing- you always want to remove the most amount of scratches, dings, and dents while removing the least amount of material possible.
23 THINGS I WOULD'VE WANTED TO KNOW WHEN I FIRST STARTED
Focus on the process of elimination each time you work on a repair.
It's easy to just replace parts until the watch finally works. It's a completely different mindset when you're trying to actively figure out why and how it happened. Everything in watchmaking should be a if-this-then-that mentality. The location of the issue may not necessarily be the root cause of the issue. This mindset will cross over to everything in your life. If you're able to get really good at the process of elimination, you've already done half of the leg work.
Your name will travel in the watchmaking world
Believe it or not, watchmaking is an extremely small world. Your reputation will travel far and fast long before you meet someone. If you royally f*** up, you better believe that someone will hear about it. Someone always knows someone that knows someone that knows you. Think twice before you do anything in this industry.
Use the Microscope more.
When I first started watchmaking, I learned a blend of new and old school techniques. One of them was being prideful in being able to make any situation work for you. I never had a microscope when I started learning watchmaking. Everything was done with a 2.5X, 4X, 10X, and on rare occasions with a 25X loupe. I learned escapement oiling with a loupe (probably not the best way to learn it). As you can tell, we did everything "old school". For the longest time, I took a great deal of pride in not having to use a microscope to oil. I still kind of do for the most part. One thing is for sure, I almost always use the microscope to do the escapement now. Save your eyes. You're going to be spending a great deal of your time peering through a loupe. Take it easy on your eyes.
Always be on the safe side.
Murphy's law states that anything bad that can happen will happen. This is especially true for watchmakers. You have no idea how many times I've messed up because I thought to myself "ah, what are the odds of that happening?"
Know the 2 types of watchmaking performance measures- Production and regular work set
Production workset is when you’re evaluated on the amount of watches you pump out each week. I’m not a huge fan of this model. Some independent service centers will pay you a cheap hourly rate but will explain to you that you’ll make it up in the production side. So say you overhaul a watch- you could be paid $45-100 dollars per overhaul. It could be a 200 dollar day if you overhaul 2 watches a day on top of your hourly rate. It’s less micromanagement and more “work at your own pace” type of deal. The problem I have with this model is that watchmakers will usually shortcut everything to get the overhaul done. Also, if you have any sort of issues with your watches (we call them “comebacks”) then forget about being anywhere near productive that day. You will have to fix the issue for free.
Regular workset would be your normal working watchmaker. You start an overhaul and finish it when you finish it. You will be based on a performance metric weekly. Sometimes they'll tally it up at a weekly, bi-weekly, quarterly, semi-quarterly, or annual basis. There won't be anyone breathing down your neck (yet). You should be averaging roughly 1-2 watches a day. Maybe even less if you're dealing with other types of jobs (battery changes, polishing, etc.)
Believe in yourself when you first start.
"People constantly warn against the dangers of overconfidence; but in all honesty, I tell you this- For every match lost by overconfidence, a hundred are lost due to excessive timidity." -John Danaher
I lacked confidence in the beginning and I'm not sure why. Perhaps it was because I didn't go through traditional schooling at first and it's because I started as an apprentice. It's one thing to not be confident in the beginning, it's another to lack confidence all together. I know plenty of professional watchmakers (and certainly way more qualified than the big names out there) who have no confidence whatsoever in their own ability. I still try and wake them up whenever I talk to them but it kills me to see untapped potential. Another issue I see with watchmakers is that they get stepped on almost all the time. Salespeople and watch customers will step on you in the retail environment. Don't be a doormat for people. Confidence is king. Build it early and build it fast. There's a difference between being confident and being cocky. Cocky is walking into a room and worrying about what everyone thinks of you. Confidence is walking into a room and not giving a flying shit about what anyone thinks of you. Know the difference and walk this line carefully.
You don't need the latest gadgets.
Someone that is good at what they do does not always have new tools. Take this to heart.
Don’t do small jobs. If you’re going to put your name on it- make sure the job is done right the first time around
Seriously. If there’s one thing that you take away from this post, it’s that you shouldn’t do small jobs. If I took this advice early on, I would’ve saved myself numerous self-inflicted headaches. No matter how small the job is or how sweet that old lady may look, don’t do it. Small jobs may mean putting a hand back on the dial, fixing the crystal, putting a loose screw back in, refitting a marker on the dial, etc. You get the point. The watch will always come back and bite you on the ass. I’ve had to eat expensive repairs because I did a “small job” on it. No matter how many times you tell the customer that there is no guarantee on the movement, they will not hear it. They will nod and say yes yes yes I get it. But when shit hits the fan, they’re pointing their fingers at you and saying you did a full service on it.
Don’t give away free repairs. Or at the very least be selective. It will never benefit you in anyway though
I’m not really sure why but giving away free stuff seems to be one of the default moves that supervisors and managers revert to. Stand by your employees and understand that not everything needs to be given away just because the customer complains once.
Your boss will hate you. It's normal
I've had terrible experiences in my early beginnings with bosses. I completely understand if I was slacking off and or being unproductive but I wasn't any of those! I was often the most productive worker there. Being blacklisted always took me off guard and made me resent the workforce. I'm not sure if it was because I was a watchmaker and they weren't or if it was because I had more responsibilities. There's some cosmic sway to having someone "superior" than your position to hate you. Expect this early on and don't let it take you by surprise when it does happen.
Fail hard and fail fast.
“One day, in retrospect, the years of struggle will strike you as the most beautiful” - Sigmound Fred
The more you fail, the more you grow. You have no idea how many times I've failed. Each time someone is amazed at my work, I laugh because I know how many times I've failed terribly to get to this point. Failing more means you'll fail less in the future. It doesn't mean you won't fail again. It just means you'll fail less. I still fail to this day.
Problems add meaning and importance to our work. Embrace the hiccups, issues, and difficulties. It’ll make you a better watchmaker.
Often the solution is daily decrease... not daily increase.
What are the consequences of too much information? This one is short and simple. I find myself pondering this more and more. This will mean something different to each and every person.
Be careful of shop inspections.
You will have co-workers who do not give a shit about the shop inspectors and will tell you that it's not a big deal. This is not true. I don't care if you run a state of the art facility. If a shop inspector is coming to your shop, you spruce up everything. Yes, I understand that if you're regularly cleaning that this shouldn't be an issue. The last thing you want though is to lose your parts account because you were too lazy to put in the effort the night before to spruce everything up. Shop inspectors from the major brands are meticulous. They will finger check everything for dust. Make sure you have weekly cleaning lists for the shop where you note what was done. I have a cleaning list at my shop that states when the floors were mopped, solutions changed, drawers cleaned, desks dusted, etc.
Cut out interruptions as best as you can when you work.
Stop multitasking. Multitasking is not efficient or effective. Your best work is when you're in the moment. I find that my best work comes from being uninterrupted. This is especially true when I'm a servicing a watch. The more breaks I get in between my work- the shittier the quality. I find that my work takes longer if I'm interrupted as opposed to when I'm not. I actually did an interesting A/B testing on this analysis. I found that when I was not interrupted, I serviced caliber A in 4 hours as opposed to 6 hours when I was interrupted (minus the interruption time). I reckon this has to do with what many scientists call the "zone".
Before you ever do anything ask yourself WHY 3 times.
Usually your first why is something artificial. The second why is getting into the meat of it. Your answer to the third why is generally closer to the real reason to why you feel you need to do it. This is definitely something I would recommend aspiring watchmakers to thoroughly examine.
Have your own work log separate from whatever production sheet your company has you on.
Go old fashion and have a seperate log where you jot down the work you do. Detail the job number, brand, model, and work that was done. You will thank me for this. You have no idea how many times my own work log has saved my ass with employers. This could stem from a simple mix up. It's always good to have an insurance plan when someone points the finger at you.
Work obsessively on your craft.
If this is something you're truly dedicated to, be the absolute best version of yourself in this. The way I phrase it with myself and my students is this: “Someone once told me the definition of Hell: The last day you have on earth, the person you became will meet the person you could have become.” Don't forget, even Achilles was only as strong as his heel.
Appealing to the masses is the fastest way to appeal to no one.
If you're creating a watch, dedicate it to your ideal customer. If you plan on pleasing everyone, you will end up appealing no one. This is especially true with my book, 100+ No BS Watch Tips for Watch Enthusiasts and Salespeople. I wrote to one person in mind and one person only.
A bird sings and chirps regardless of whether or not you like it. In watchmaking (and in life), be the type of person who is not attached to the end result. You should enjoy the journey and process for the sake of doing so. I find that I enjoy the journey of doing a complete service rather than the end result. The end result is simply just that, the end result. The process is where the golden nuggets are at. If you're in school, stop focusing on when school ends. Enjoy the student life. You will probably miss it when you enter the workforce. It's a lot like traditional schooling. When you're in elementary school, everyone tells you that junior high school is the next best thing. When you're in junior high school, everyone tells you high school is even better. You're left chasing the next best thing until you realize that the journey in and of itself was the golden nugget. Alan Watts explains it way better in this video.
Document your journey now.
My life would've been exponentially different if I had started documenting earlier. I tell every single aspiring watchmaker, watchmaking student, and current watchmakers to document their process now. Stop thinking of it as creating content. Think of it as documenting your process. It's a game-changer the minute you stop viewing it as creating content. Approach it like a diary. You're documenting your journey. It doesn't always have to be good/bad. Just be transparent and honest. Approach it with humility and you will be amazed at what happens. You can't find your voice if you don't use it.
Integrity is doing the right thing even when no one is paying attention.
You'd be surprised at the number of "watchmakers" that cut corners when no one was watching. Don't be that guy (or gal). Do you want to have the title of a "Watchmaker"? Or do you want to be a watchmaker?
If you had all the money in the world, would you be doing watchmaking?
I use this litmus test for many people entering the field. Do you currently see yourself doing watchmaking because it's a "passion" of yours? If the answer is no, I would highly recommend reevaluating your position. On the flipside, you can also be so good at something that it becomes a passion. Honestly, I would've certainly failed this test if I asked myself when I first started. I recommend reading So Good They Can't Ignore You by Cal Newport (Amazon aff. link)
Another thing you might want to ask is “What am I willing to struggle for?” Are you willing to struggle with working out and counting calories to get 6 pack abs? Are you willing to endure long hours of working with micro pieces to become a watchmaker?
“What am I willing to struggle for?” is an infinitely way better question than “What do I want to do with my life?”
"If this was the only thing I did today, would I be happy with my results?"
Before I start each day at work, I generally ask myself this question. What's that one repair that I need to work on? What's one thing I need to do today? What's the one thing that I can do today that will have the biggest results? Once you figure out the one thing you need to do, make sure you finish that one thing at all costs with no interuptions. My productivity has soared immensely on the bench once I realized this one thing (no pun intended).
COMMON QUESTIONS FROM WATCHMAKING STUDENTS
"What are the biggest mistakes beginning watchmakers make?
Some of the biggest mistakes beginners (even seasoned professionals) consistently make is oiling. Beginners will start off with sloppy oiling and rely on Rodico or other fail-safes to clean up the oil until they achieve their goal. I see seasoned watchmakers make this mistake as well. The best case scenario is to get the job done right the first time around. It's simple but extremely easy to get wrong. Slow is steady and steady is fast. Check out The Art of Oiling and Lubrication 101 here.
"How can I get secure a job after I graduate?"
This is a multi-part tactical answer that you can deploy right this second. First one is that during your schooling, you should be documenting and amassing a portfolio on Instagram. Instagram is currently where it's at for watchmaking. Not Facebook and Snapchat. Instagram is great due to the increased amount of wrist-shots and what not.
Second, get on LinkedIn ASAP. Traditional head hunters have no idea how to find watchmakers so they will always resort to using LinkedIn and asking around. If you're on LinkedIn and you have "watchmaker" or "watchmaking student" you will have already increased your odds dramatically (speaking from experience).
Third, don't be afraid to approach local jewelers and watch companies to work for free. Yes, I said it. Free. Work for free, part-time, 3 hours a day, 2-3 days a week for 3 months (of course you will have to figure out your financial cushion). This way you can still manage your schooling and or part-time job. When your 3 months is up, ask if you can work there full-time. You will be amazingly surprised at how well your odds are.
"I don't know if I want to work in retail or work at a manufacture when I graduate, which do you recommend?"
This is a tough question. If you just graduated from a watchmaking school, perhaps you'd want to work at a manufacture instead. The retail environment is fast, hectic, and snappy (not including rude). It depends on how the environment was at your school but most watchmaking schools are the complete opposite. I've watched fresh graduates burn out and completely quit the field all together because it wasn't anything close to what schools were preparing them for.
"I'm in love with watchmaking, but there are no schools near me. What do I do?"
If you really love watchmaking and you know for a fact there are no schools near you, you're going to have to move. If you've truly exhausted all of your options (apprenticeship, online courses, training seminars, etc.) and you're absolutely sure you want to get into watchmaking- you need to move. You know what you need to do. You're probably just seeking validation. Of course you will have to factor in all of the expenses for living, eating, transportation, etc. but the sooner you realize this, the faster you can get on with your life. Recommended reading: How to Get Into Watchmaking
"What are some mistakes that even seasoned professionals make?"
Seasoned professionals make the same mistakes that beginners make. The only difference is that professionals make them less. Anyone that tells you otherwise probably hasn't done it long enough. I still lose screws every now and then. I still mess up on oiling every blue moon. We just make the mistakes less. The more you practice in the beginning as an "amateur" the easier it gets. Trust me. If you make a mistake 100 times in a year as an amateur, you will probably make a mistake 10 times in a year as a professional.
The industry likes to portray this image of watchmaking as a perfect art. The watchmaker is damn near perfect. They never make mistakes. It is definitely a beautiful art and craftsmanship. But to say that we're perfect is far from the truth. We're human and because we're human, we're prone to error. So the next time you make a mistake, don't worry. There's another watchmaker out there who's been doing it much longer than you who has done that same very mistake.
"How can I get private clients if I go the independent route?"
Great question, I'll go as tactical as possible so you can take action immediately. First, you'll need to have an Instagram/Facebook to showcase your work. One of the biggest pet peeves I have with most watchmakers is that they're very anti-technology for some reason. Not every watchmaker is like that of course but a large majority of them are against technology (perhaps it has to do with the "smart tech" craze). You have to showcase your work and display that you're a competent watchmaker. If you're active online and just put "watchmaker" and your location in your profile, you'd be amazed at how many people will contact you to see if you can fix their watches for them.
Second, I'd recommend attending more watch events. It could be as simple as going to these watch get togethers where everyone is slamming down shots and snapping wrist shots. Most of those guys will perk up when they hear you're a watchmaker.
Third, I'd recommend contacting your local family jewelers (2 generations or more- just so it shows that they have a track record), watch repair companies, etc. and ask about contract work. Many of these places will always want to have a good watchmaker just in case anything happens to their primary (vacation, medical leave, etc.). You need to start slow first but show reliability. Keep in mind these places will be marking up your prices so you also have to factor that into your pricing.
"Will I have the tools I used in school at my future job?"
Short answer is no. Let’s dive into the much longer answer: I’ve yet to see an independent shop have all the tools provided during watchmaking school. Independent service centers are for the most part economic (or cheap). They need to see a ROI in buying the tool/part. If you can convince someone that the $10,000 lathe you want will guarantee $20,000 in terms of repairs, they will instantly drop the cash for it. But for the most part a lot of these owners do not see the correlation to the necessity. In other words, you will probably have to McGyver whatever you need to do with what you have.
"Would tattoos hurt my chances for finding a job after school?"
Depends where. For the most part it’s a no, I’ve worked with some pretty rad watchmakers who’ve had tattoos on their necks even. As long as it’s somewhat covered, you should be good. If you have a face tattoo on the other hand, that’s a completely different type of story.
"How many watches are you expected to service in a day?"
1-2 watches on average. 1 watch a day is pretty good. Don’t get sucked into the independent service mindset where you need to pump out X amount of watches to make X amount of money each day. I would rather you focus on quality over quantity. If you focus on quality, the quantity will eventually come.
Some brands will actually pull you aside and take you into the office for a meeting if you’re pumping out more than 1 watch. The way they see it is that if you’re doing more than 1 watch a day, you’re shortcutting something somewhere. Play it by ear when you get into these jobs and find out what they expect of you. Knowing a clear expectation is better than not.
LIKE WHAT YOU READ? YOU'LL LOVE THE BOOK
I go over a lot of the reality sides of watchmaking. What to expect when you enter the workforce, how salespeople will try and treat you. You'll also read about my hilarious stories with customers and salespeople.