Desperately Seeking Watchmakers

Sound the sirens. Mechanical watch repairs are in a state of emergency. Retailers complain that repairs are unreliable and unpredictable, often forcing impatient customers to be put off for months.

The cause isn’t hard to pinpoint. There’s a shortage of qualified watchmakers in the United States, and it’s reaching a critical juncture. The number of watchmakers available to service mechanical watches has been declining for 20 years, owing to the popularity of quartz watches and the retirement or deaths of seasoned watchmakers. Exacerbating the problem has been the explosive increase in the volume of mechanical watches introduced in recent years.

Many observers say the watch industry has been slow to react. “Until the water reaches your nostrils you don’t care if water continues to rise,” says Peter Laetsch, president of the Watchmakers of Switzerland Information Center, Rochelle Park, N.J. “You don’t care until it becomes life and death.”

Lengthy turnaround. “Watchmaker” has become an accepted term for experts who repair watches as well as those who restore watches or create them from scratch. It’s a potentially lucrative skilled craft that is in high demand by retailers. Jewelers are happy to see the growing popularity of mechanical watches in recent years. But as experienced watchmakers approach retirement age, it won’t be long before the paucity of qualified repair experts becomes all the more acute.

“The watchmaker shortage in the United States is obvious by the long turnaround time of the repairs I send out,” says Adam Chein, service manager for Cambridge, Mass.-based Alpha Omega. “And our in-house watchmaker is besieged. We have to farm out a lot of repairs to freelance watchmakers who work exclusively for us.”

Years ago, Laetsch courted the U.S. Department of Labor to recruit military personnel for watchmaking jobs in the wake of military base closings. But the government officials labeled watchmaking a “declining profession” and chose not to cooperate. Laetsch is now pushing for the recruitment of high school students to learn watchmaking. He also advocates the development of a private watchmaking school by watch companies and retailers.

“Young Americans don’t even know this occupation exists,” says Frances Strauss, vice president of Perobin Jewelry Corp., the exclusive U.S. distributor for Juvenia watches. “They have never been exposed to it. The public relations is not out there.”

Recruitment is easier in Western Europe, thanks to the proximity of Switzerland, the epicenter of watchmaking. While many young Americans today are technophiles, their career interests lie more in information technology than in watches. Throw in the fact that some watchmakers consider today’s craft unchallenging, and it’s a tough sell. That’s a far cry from 50 years ago.

Haunted history. Watchmaking took off after World War II as disabled veterans, funded by the G.I. bill, flocked to watchmaking schools and entered the profession. One watchmaker estimates there were at least 50,000 of these craftsmen in the United States at the profession’s height in the late 1940s. That compares with about 10,000 today.

The genesis of the shortage is easy to explain. In the 1970s the Baby Boomers turned their backs on the low wages and disrespectful treatment watchmakers received from retailers. Around the same time, U.S. watch manufacturing dwindled in the face of cheaper overseas production. The number of people entering the watchmaking profession dropped accordingly.

“In 1948, watchmaking was viewed as a respected profession, but jewelry stores took advantage of watchmakers,” says Felix Zaltsberg, watchmaker and president of Right Time International, a Denver-based retailer with four trained watchmakers. “Watch repairs were done for free, generating no profit. As a result, watchmakers were a dime a dozen and got paid pity wages. This didn’t register well with their children. No one wanted to follow in the footsteps of their poor watchmaking father.”

Ironically, the watchmaker shortage ultimately led to increased demand and better pay for experts in the craft. Today’s watchmakers can virtually name their price. They are also taking charge of their own destiny by opening watch trade shops and retail shops, as Zaltsberg has done. His retail/watch-repair business now exceeds $500,000 annually, a figure unheard of in the past. A skilled watchmaker at a prestigious watch trade shop today can pull down $60,000 to $70,000 a year plus overtime, with holidays and benefits. A freelance watchmaker can rake in more than $50,000.

Retailers’ watch-repair profits come mainly from vintage watch restorations, from complete watch overhauls, or from being an authorized service center for a watch brand. For Alpha Omega, restoration of a vintage watch can run from $150 to $700. Otherwise, watch repair is a meager profit center.

Less complexity. Many jewelers complain that after-sales service has become an afterthought for watch producers and distributors. Repairs take too long and parts often are not available. In some cases those doing the repair don’t return old parts after finishing the job. Some jewelers bypass distributors and manufacturers altogether, opting instead to hire their own on-site watchmakers for repair jobs or use outside shops.

While there’s an undeniable shortage of watchmakers, it’s easy to exaggerate the problem. Watchmaking today is more “assembling” than “creating.” According to Zaltsberg, 80% of today’s watch repairs require similar movements and less skill than in watchmaking’s heyday. Most movements need cleaning rather than restoring, and many quartz movements can be replaced in 10 minutes. “You don’t have to be a genius to replace a quartz movement,” Zaltsberg says.

The relative simplicity of today’s repairs means that fewer watchmakers can service more watches than in the past. Also, many predict the mechanical watch sales boom will be short-lived. If so, that will diminish the urgency of recruiting new watchmakers. “Everyone predicts this shortage will be catastrophic, but I don’t see it that way,” Zaltsberg says.

Recruitment sources. So where can you find qualified watchmakers? Write to watchmaking schools for referrals for qualified graduates. Prestigious watchmaking schools include North Seattle Community College; Ohio Valley Watchmaking Institute in Cincinnati; Okmulgee at Oklahoma State University; the NAWCC School of Horology in Columbia, Pa.; the American Watchmakers Institute in Harrison, Ohio; and Paris Junior College in Paris, Texas.

Also ask around, whether at trade shows or among your vendors, for recommended freelance watchmakers. Or call prestigious trade shops, such as Universal Watch Repair or Right Time International. Don’t rule out recruiting from abroad; you may find an eager young watchmaker aching for practical experience and the chance to live in the United States.

Some liken the watchmaker shortage to the Y2K computer dilemma, which was identified as far back as 1984 and virtually ignored until recently. Watchmaking faces a similar danger now. The clock is ticking. One can only hope that the watchmaking world awakens to that danger before a consumer backlash cuts into sales.