How to Get into Watchmaking

WARNING: READ THIS FIRST.

A great deal of interest has been poured into Watchmaking as of late. It's a dying trade. Your average watchmaker is retirement age. Several hundred either die off or retire each year. Only a handful (roughly around 75-100 and this is being generous) enter the workforce. You have about only 3 watchmaking schools in the USA. It's not a widely publicized trade. Sure, watches in general may be popular but I still get a great deal of exorcist-style head turns when I tell people I'm a watchmaker.

IF YOU HAVE TO ASK- YOU PROBABLY SHOULDN'T

With Watchmaking, it's a binary decision. You can't be half pregnant. Either you're fully committed or you're not. If you even have to ask whether or not you should get into watchmaking- you probably shouldn't. People who are deeply invested and are serious about learning watchmaking will find a way. If there's a will, there's a way.

At this stage, you should already know whether or not you want to get into watchmaking. It's the HOW that you want. Some of you reading this may not have ever considered watchmaking as a career choice and that is perfectly fine. Watchmaking is often a second, third, and even fourth career choice. Extremely seldom is it someone's first. Watchmaking was taught to me as a fall back plan in case my original career choice didn't work out. 

THERE'S ONLY 2 WAYS TO GET INTO WATCHMAKING

There's only two ways to get into watchmaking. Apprenticeship or Watchmaking School. Both of which are fine. If I had to choose though, I would go with Apprenticeship. However, the chances of apprenticeship in today's day and age are extremely hard but definitely doable. 

1. Apprenticeship

  • 1 on 1 training is the best form of learning in any endeavor. If you can ever learn anything on a 1-on-1 level, you will speed up the process and cut off years from your learning curve
  • Personalized and straight to the point. I've learned things during my apprenticeship that took several hours to a day meanwhile I've also attended courses that took a whole 5 days to get the same points across. It's a very hands on approach in the sense that the watchmaker you're learning from will teach and personalize the issues to you.
  • There's a heavy emphasis in apprenticeships to just do. It's akin to being street smart vs book smart. Apprenticeships will often focus on you being able to get the job done versus in a school setting where you need to thoroughly understand all the levels via written and theoretical aspects.
  • Apprenticeship was really how watchmaking was originally taught back in the olden days. Watchmaking was taught to close friends, family, and relatives. There wasn't a certifying body to declare that you were a "watchmaker". Your results spoke for itself. It was only when the industry needed more watchmakers that certifying bodies had to be created to facilitate qualified watchmakers. 
  • Often deals with common repair aspects you'll come across in watchmaking vs the micromechanics and lathe work you may seldom come across. You'll do more battery and strap changes, and common overhauls rather than creating a barrel bushing with a lathe. 
  • Quick ROI. You'll find that the stuff you learn is extremely applicable in everyday repairs. This will mean more profits on the front end because you're able to repair common things.
  • Extremely hard to find a watchmaker today to agree to an apprenticeship. 
  • No income. You will not get paid to apprentice. You will actually have to find another job to pay the bills if you decide to apprentice full-time. Part-time apprenticing is your best bet.
  • Some of the issues I have with apprenticeship is that you're tied to the watchmaker teaching you the skills. There's no quality assurance that the technique and skill they're teaching you are up to industry standards. As you get deeper into the field, you'll find that the industry is plagued with old school watchmakers who refuse to get updated training.

2. Watchmaking School

  • Group setting with fellow aspiring watchmakers will usually help you in the grand scheme of things.
  • Lots of theoretical and hands on work. I like to think that Watchmaking school is more of a complete learning experience. You'll understand the underlying reasons why certain things work and that's extremely important the deeper you get into watchmaking. Extremely structured and organized.
  • Watchmaking school will teach you updated industry standards so you won't have to worry about the latest techniques for a good deal of time. 
  • Controlled and contained environment. You're taught in a controlled situation. The tests, practices, and environment are all manufactured to teach you one set of objectives. You'll find that in a real world setting, you'll be dealing with 3-4 sets of problems at the same time. It will never be as pretty and easy as it is in watchmaking school. I go through a great deal trying to explain this on my Instagram and have since received messages from watchmaking schools trying to incorporate more real world scenarios.
  • Watchmaking school can definitely help you network and get future jobs, prospects, and open doors. Often times watchmaking school instructors are in contact with industry professionals. It could be shop supervisors, brand technical trainers, jewelers, and other watchmakers. Their contacts are invaluable to you as a student. 
  • You're tide to the group's learning pace in a classroom setting. So if the instructor is teaching the group and you pick up on something right away, you may find yourself doing it until the whole class understands it. Or the complete opposite. If the whole group picks something up and you're the only one who doesn't understand it, you may find that in a group setting you're reluctant to let the instructor know about your inefficiencies. 
  • Hard to get into watchmaking school. There's only 3 in the USA and a handful across the world.
  • Expect to travel. Depending on where you live, you may find that you will have to travel to the school of choice. This may mean out of the town, city, state, or even country. If you have kids, spouse, family, etc. it could be costly to uproot your whole life.
  • Expensive. Watchmaking school isn't cheap. Factor in tuition, watchmaking tools, cost of living, rent, food, transportation, etc. you'll find that watchmaking school isn't cheap. You also have to keep in mind that you might need a part-time job to pay for all the bills.
  • Watchmaking school can vary in terms of time. Average time is about 2-4 years. 
  • Watchmaking school will teach you about 60% of the fundamental stuff you'll need as a watchmaker. You'll need another 5-10 years of on the job training for 35% of the stuff watchmaking school doesn't teach you. Just to put things in perspective, some of the best watchmakers I know in the world haven't even completed the last 5% of the puzzle and neither have I. Herein lies one of the beauties of watchmaking. You will never complete the puzzle.
  • Side note: If you live in the USA, you can also take 5 day Watchmaking Courses with AWCI (American Watchmakers Clockmakters Institute) in Harrison, OH. This is a great alternative that allows you to get up-to-date watchmaking education in micro-doses. 

HOW YOU CAN GET STARTED: THE PRACTICAL APPROACH

Watchmaking may not be for everyone. It would suck for you to spend all your time applying to schools and trying to get an apprenticeship only to realize that you hate it the first day. Here's a no nonsense practical approach to getting started in watchmaking:

  1. Get some Tweezers (Check out material houses like: Jules Borel, Casker, Otto Frei)
  2. Buy a Bergeon Loupe 4X -
  3. Buy a Loupe Wire Holder 95% of you will also need to get a wire for your loupe. Only about 5% of the people will be able to fit the loupe on their face without the wire holder.
  4. Buy a Bergeon 4040 Movement Holder
  5. Get a Watchmaking Screwdriver set (Check out Amazon here
    • Optional: If you can find a "watchmaking kit" that comes with a loupe, screwdrivers, tweezers, and a movement holder- you're golden. 
  6. Pick up a new 6498 ETA movement (from Jules Borel, Casker, or Otto Frei) or a 6498 ETA Clone on eBay. The 6498 movement is best for beginners because it's big enough for a beginner to see and understand. It's important that you use an ETA when you first start because of the quality. It's easier because we don't have to worry whether or not the watch is not working because we f'd up somewhere or because the movement is just shitty. Often times when you go for a shitty movement when you first start, there's just too many variables to cover. 
    • If you're strapped for cash, go for a new Quartz ETA movement. Anything that starts with a 955. is probably good. I would recommend getting this from Casker, Jules Borel, or Otto Frei. 
  7. Download this 6498 Technical Guide so that you can follow on for the disassembly/reassembly.
    • If you happen to use another ETA movement, check ETA's technical support portal to find the technical document for that specific movement. Go to the "Caliber" tab and search for the movement.

You're looking at several hundreds of dollars but it's worth it in the grand scheme of things. If you factor in how much money you could be saving if you realize watchmaking isn't your thing, it's pennies in the macro picture.  The upsides greatly outweigh the downsides. What if you realize watchmaking is your calling? Consider that a monumental life moment...

Now that you've gotten the tools, the premise is to just get started. Tinker and have fun. Designate a specific desk to watchmaking. Make sure the surface is clean, smooth, and preferably white (taping white printer paper onto a desk will do the job). Make sure you keep it clean daily (watchmakers dust off and clean their bench daily prior to beginning work). Disassemble the 6498 piece by piece and reassemble it. You'll find out relatively quickly whether you actually like watchmaking or not once you start. Some people find it therapeutic to take something functioning, dismantle and strip it down to pieces, and reassemble it to working order.

Here's what you can do to avoid certain pitfalls that plague first timers:

  • Don't tinker with a watch you value. Seriously. Do yourself a favor and buy a 6498 movement. If you tinker with a watch you value and end up destroying it- you have no one to blame but yourself. If you feel comfortable tinkering with one of your watches, make sure it's disposable and has no ability to hold a mental thought if you destroy it.
  • Disassemble each part piece by piece and reassemble it right away. Take the same screw on and off several times so that you can start building muscle memory. Treat it like a workout. 5 sets of 10 reps, 4 sets of 12 reps, etc. Once you get that down, start moving onto the next, and rinse and repeat.  Do not skip any part of the process.
    • If you remove Screw A, B, and C, and then a movement bridge. Make sure you put it back on in the reverse- movement bridge, Screw C, B, and A. That's 1 rep. Repeat it for 10 reps. That's 1 set. Repeat for 5 sets. That's old school repetition training and it works wonders. It sounds simple but simple doesn't mean easy.
  • Take pictures of the movement before and after you take something off. You'll find out pretty soon that your memory isn't all that great. This creates a foolproof plan so that you have a reference to refer back to if you forget where something goes. This tip in itself is gold whether you're an aspiring watchmaker or a seasoned veteran. This tip in itself has saved my ass a shit ton of times. 
  • Make sure every time after you reassemble, the watch is running. If the watch was originally running and it's not running now after you reassembled it, you messed up. Check and reevaluate the parts with the pictures you took. Are the parts in correctly? Check a side view of the movement. Are there any parts tilted? Any parts damaged? You will start an early form of the elimination process. The process of elimination and deduction are one of key pillars of watchmaking.
  • Holding tweezers are like holding chopsticks. Seriously. Be extremely careful at first with how you grip things using the tweezer. Squeeze it too hard and your parts will literally fly across the room. Squeeze too light and your parts will drop before you even make it to your intended location. 
  • Work deep on your desk/bench. Don't work too close to the edge of the desk. You want to be as close to the center of the desk as possible. This way if parts get misplaced or dropped, it won't fall off the desk. If and when it does fall off the desk, finding it will be extremely hard. You want to minimize your risks as much as possible. 
  • Lay out the parts deep on your bench during disassembly in an A-Z fashion. This way you have the parts laid out in front of you visually. This sounds simple but it definitely works. 

Here's the thing- you can't learn watchmaking by watching videos (I don't care who it is) and reading books. You just can't. You need to literally do it. You need that physical feeling. You can only do this by yourself at home for so long until you realize you need to take the next steps. Don't expect to become world class overnight. You will eventually need to go to watchmaking school or learn from a qualified watchmaker. 

LIKE WHAT YOU READ? YOU'LL LOVE THE BOOK

I go over 31 essential watchmaking tools you'll need, 11 essential pieces of advice for aspiring watchmakers, and how I would theoretically get someone ready for a watchmaking bench test in 8 weeks.