Where Have All the Watchmakers Gone?

The decrease in trained timepiece technicians (“watchmakers”) in the United States is getting worse, and the American Watchmakers-Clockmakers Institute (AWI), the world’s largest professional horological organization, has called on the U.S. watch industry for support and advice.

“This is a critical point,” says AWI executive director Jim Lubic, citing low enrollment at watchmaking schools and training programs’ lack of financial resources. “We need to work together [with watch brands and retailers] to find ways to communicate the need for more watchmakers and for the trade to support watch training.”

Only a few thousand U.S. watchmakers remain, many near retirement age. The Watchmakers of Switzerland Training and Education Program (WOSTEP), which tracks watch training worldwide, says the United States should produce at least 450 to 500 new watchmakers annually to keep pace with the rate of attrition.

Yet only 10 U.S. schools still teach watchmaking, and together they produce fewer than 50 graduates a year. Even worse, few new students are enrolling. Without action to support training and attract more people to the craft, jewelers and others will confront a worsening shortage of watchmakers.

There are some glimmers of hope, including support from a few individual suppliers, such as Rolex’s recent $1 million gift to North Seattle Community College; a new Rolex school, opening in 2002; and revival of AWI’s Industry Advisory Board, to discuss such issues with industry leaders. But overall, initial industry response to AWI’s call for help has been tepid, despite the dependence of watch and jewelry industries on horological technicians for after-sales service. Only five watch brands-of the 80 invited-attended the July 31 meeting of AWI’s Industry Advisory Board in New York City, called to discuss watchmaker education, certification, and industry support.

Steady decline. The number of trained timepiece technicians in the United States has dropped steadily in the past half century. In 1953, there were 44,000 watchmakers, many of them World War II or Korean War veterans who learned the trade to become jewelers or independent entrepreneurs. By the early 1970s, there were still 32,000. Over the next 20 years, though, fewer entered the trade, partly because many people thought the advent of mass-produced disposable quartz watch movements in 1970 would make watch repair unnecessary. But the 1980s’ renaissance in mechanical watches and the 1990s’ surge in watch sales proved that presumption erroneous.

But the damage was done. By 1993, there were only 9,000 watchmakers. The number steadily declined to just a few thousand today (see sidebar above). Of those, half work for major watch suppliers, even though 70% of watch repairs are performed in jewelry and watch shops, says AWI.

The sharp loss of skilled watchmakers and the closing of many U.S. watch schools (such as the well-known Joseph Bulova School) in the 1990s worried officials of AWI, which is dedicated to excellence in horological repair and restoration through both instruction and practice. In 1996, AWI set up its own Academy of Watchmaking, offering a 45-week training program. (This is in addition to AWI’s hands-on seminars and workshops.)

WOSTEP. The decline in watchmakers is a global problem, not just an American one. (There are only about 30,000 worldwide.) In 1992, WOSTEP, the international training center of the Swiss watch industry in Neuchatel, Switzerland, launched a project to promote the training of watch repairers worldwide. A key feature is WOSTEP’s “partnerships” with select watchmaking schools, which present its two-year, 3,000-hour course, the recognized standard in watch repair training.

Currently, 14 schools around the world are WOSTEP partners, including four of the 10 watch training programs in the United States. The four are St. Paul Technical College, St. Paul, Minn. (whose own watchmaking program started in 1919); North Seattle Community College, Seattle, Wash. (the first U.S. school to use the WOSTEP program); Oklahoma State University, Okmulgee, Okla.; and AWI in Harrison, Ohio. AWI in late 1999 approved using the WOSTEP curriculum in place of its own 45-week program, whose last class graduated in June.

Problems. All these schools are well equipped and have qualified and capable instructors. But U.S. watch training programs, whether WOSTEP partners or not, can afford only small staffs (usually one or two full-time teachers, plus visiting instructors) and thus can handle only small enrollments. For example, the program at St. Paul’s, one of the most successful in the country, has 25 students enrolled and graduated nine last year.

Even with small enrollments, schools struggle to attract enough students. Oklahoma State University’s WOSTEP program graduated just two people in December and enrolled only one new student for its next two-year class. “I have an eight-bench lab and could teach up to 16 people,” says head instructor Wit Jarochowski.

At AWI’s Industry Advisory Board meeting, Lubic announced that AWI had to “suspend indefinitely” the start of its first two-year WOSTEP training class because only three students enrolled. Originally scheduled to begin Aug. 7, it’s delayed until at least Jan. 22, 2001.

“I was shocked and dismayed,” says Lubic. “We have the capacity for 10 or 12 students. We would have been happy with eight-but not three.” Of the 20 people who originally applied, 14 met the course requirements. However, six dropped out weeks before the class for various reasons, and five of the remaining eight didn’t want to start in August. “Hopefully, with the three who enrolled and the other five, we can start in January,” Lubic says.

Hidden. The reason for low enrollments, a number of watch training instructors tellJCK, is that few people even know the watch training schools exist. According to the instructors, the watch and jewelry industries aren’t doing enough to make people aware of the critical need for watchmakers, the available training programs, or the career opportunities in watchmaking.

“The industry has done a good job ofhiding the service end of the business,” says one instructor. “I have people ask me if you can make a living today as a watchmaker,” says Lubic. “Yet, all the big watch brands are clamoring for them.” Jean-Claude Vollenweider, Rolex executive vice president of administration, agrees. “Everyone-manufacturers, retailers and trade shops-is dying to get qualified watchmakers today,” he says.

Joe Juaire, director of the program at St. Paul Technical School, says more people should be told that watchmaking is a viable career. “I get 50 good job offers for every one student we have,” he says. In addition, entry level pay today is $30,000 to $40,000-triple the average a decade ago-and can rise quickly. Certified watchmaker and AWI president Ron DeCorte, for example, does well enough to live in Switzerland several months each year.

Recruiting. What can be done to bring more people into watchmaking? Some schools, like AWI, already provide scholarships and other financial help to students, and AWI has issued a new brochure promoting the organization and its training and services. But Jarochowski and Vollenweider think watch companies need to do more recruiting at schools and job fairs.

“We must take our pilgrim stick and start visiting high schools, have sessions with guidance counselors, and present

the viability of watchmaking,” says Vollenweider. Jarochowski suggests watch companies send speakers into high schools to “present the beauty of this profession, tell about [watchmaking] schools and offer scholarships” to interested students. It benefits the companies, too, he says, because “they’ll need trained watchmakers for years to come.”

AWI has considered a similar idea, Lubic said at the organization’s Industry Advisory Board meeting. It calls for dividing the country into regions and providing local AWI representatives with AWI materials for career fairs and schools. The main drawback: AWI alone doesn’t have the money to provide such materials or rent career fair booths.

Money woes. Indeed, lack of money is the other major factor affecting the promotion, growth, and health of many watch training programs. Rolex Watch U.S.A., for example, recently donated $1 million to the financially shaky program at North Seattle Community College, which “desperately needed funding [because] it wasn’t self-supporting,” notes Vollenweider.

Much of that college’s curriculum focuses on technology, with strong underwriting support from companies like Microsoft. The school was going to drop watchmaking if it didn’t get similar financial support from the watch and jewelry industries. So, Rolex stepped in “at the last minute” with its $1 million gift to keep it going for another five years. The only requirements set by Rolex: The program must have at least two full-time instructors and it must not condense WOSTEP’s 3,000-hour course.

Why such a generous action?

“It’s a well-run program, one of the best in the U.S., with the most WOSTEP graduates,” says Vollenweider. “We recognized its importance.”

It’s essential to support such quality instruction in the horology field, adds Walter Fischer, president and chief executive officer of Rolex Watch (U.S.A.)-and that support isn’t limited to money. Rolex is on advisory committees for watch training programs at Oklahoma State University, the Texas Institute of Jewelry Technology in Paris, Texas, and at Kilgore College, Kilgore, Texas. Rolex is also building a 40,000-square-foot technical center in Lititz, Pa., 60 miles west of Philadelphia, which will include a watchmaking school that uses the WOSTEP curriculum. The first semester is set for autumn 2002.

“It is imperative that we protect the future of this time-honored craft by ensuring the quality education of the watchmakers of tomorrow,” Fisher says. He hopes that “Rolex’s contribution and collaboration will encourage others to partner with educators to perpetuate exceptional education in watchmaking.”

Solutions needed. “We can’t rely on one giant in the industry” to solve the problems of recruitment, training and support for watch training, said Lubic at AWI’s Industry Advisory Board meeting. “Rolex shouldn’t be the only one doing something.”

He said AWI will talk with other major brands and with industry groups such as Jewelers of America, WOSTEP, and the U.S. office of the Federation of Watchmakers of Switzerland to “find solutions to these problems.”

Lubic says one possibility is for major brands and retailers to develop a generic public service marketing campaign to promote watchmaking as a profession. “With their big marketing budgets, large watch companies could easily fund such a campaign and lend their marketing experts to put it together,” he says. Another possibility, adds Vollenweider, is for watch companies to “give every U.S. watch school a certain amount of money per graduated students, or to create a fund backed by the industry, which would support these programs” on an ongoing basis.

But the time for action is running out. “The industry must take this bull by the horns,” says Vollenweider. “It needs strong lobbyists to lead it-like those of the Federation of Swiss Watchmakers or American Watch Association-who will plan and present a program to promote watchmaking and recruitment and get the industry to sign on.”

“This is a dire situation,” says DeCorte. “We need to face this reality now, talk, and find a solution.”


A DOWNWARD TREND



Year

U.S. Watchmakers

1953

44,300

1963

29,000

1973

32,300

1983

15,500

1998

8,400

2000

6,500

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics