James Palmer has just started making his first watch. A five-minute tourbillon, it is classic in style and showcases impressive finishing. It is due for delivery by the end of next year, and he’s already taken orders for a further two pieces. “I’m at the start of my watchmaking journey and that appeals to collectors I think,” says the London-based maker, who apprenticed with Roger Smith for 18 months and, prior to that, was the youngest graduate of the British School of Watchmaking in Manchester, at age 18. “But I know I have a lot of work to do now.”
The movement of a school watch made by a host of now famous WOSTEP alumni for the Only Watch charity auction, courtesy of SJX.
Palmer has actually made a watch before, or at least in part. At the BSW, he made what is termed a “school watch”, one that requires completion in order to graduate. He worked with a basic W01 movement - a large and simple one devised by WOSTEP, the Swiss watchmaking school, whose course has been franchised to some 13 schools around the world. The process involved the finishing and assembly of plates and bridges, but also the making, from scratch, of a balance staff, winding stem and, most impressively, the hairspring. His and the other students’ ability to do so was examined.
“You learn the basic finishing - graining, snailing, bevelling and so on - but only make a few components,” explains Palmer. “But what’s crucial is what those components teach you. The winding stem, for example, is a great part to work with to learn how to use the lathe, but also because it has a thread that needs hand-filing too. And with the balance staff you’re working to tolerances the width of a human hair. Making these components gives you an incredible feel for making, how to bring multiple disciplines together into a single project.”
The school watch made by Philippe Dufour, still ticking away in his workshop.
And to a certain standard at that. Each of these watches is submitted to COSC for their certification for precision. The upside is that if it gets said certification, the student gets to keep their watch, free of charge. And if it doesn’t pass? “Well then you can buy your own watch, in effect,” chuckles Palmer, who gave his school watch to his father, who wears it on special occasions. “But getting your school watch just working is hard enough. Most courses offer the chance to also take on a more creative project watch too. I planned a moon-phase, and then a planetarium, but that proved unfeasible over the two years you have. I was a bit too ambitious. The teachers do tell you to keep it simple.”
“Getting your school watch COSC-certificated is a bit like getting an A* [the best possible mark] on your final exams,” explains James Robinson, the general manager of the British Watchmaking School. “Only about half of the watches ever get it, not least because school watches are, of course, hand-made, so they vary widely. They’re not standardised things like production watches. But [even if you don’t get that A*] there’s no real substitute to hands-on learning in terms of making your own mistakes, and then finding out why your school watch doesn’t work as it should. You can read the textbook, but the real lesson comes when you destroy your own component at the workbench.”
Teachers have likely been explaining that hard lesson for 55 years, all the way back to 1966, when the Swiss government created WOSTEP to train would-be watchmakers within its national borders. They would later expand the programme to train watchmakers internationally, essentially to allow the repair and servicing of Swiss products around the globe. Today, WOSTEP offers three programmes of differing lengths - for a technician, customer service watchmaker (which would allow the repair of movements to chronograph level) and, the most advanced, that for a precision watchmaker. It’s with the latter that the student makes a school watch.
“The fact is that 85% of watch industry needs are covered by the customer service level of training,” says Johann Kunz, director of Foundation WOSTEP, whose alumni include the likes of Stephen Forsey, of Greubel Forsey, Peter Speake, formerly of Speake-Marin, Tim and Bart Grönefeld, Kari Voutilainen and John McGonigle. “But it’s one thing to be able to dismantle a watch, check the parts, replace them if necessary - even make those replacement parts - and another to make your own watch from scratch, to make the parts and pursue your own design too. What’s important to stress is that this isn’t really about book learning. Making a school watch is a concrete exercise - from making the calculations to working the lathe. Yes, training to become a watchmaker with your father is one traditional way, of course. But watch school training doesn’t just provide the competence, it provides the accreditation that reassures collectors too now, given the value of many pieces.”
The mainplate of a school watch in progress, courtesy of Aaron Saeauer.
Much of this training is done using a standard ETA movement, though some WOSTEP partnership schools might set their own movement, based on a generic Audemars Piguet pocket watch calibre. Different schools make different demands of their students too, in part in response to local market needs. “Some school watches are basic in their movement, but make a great show of decoration skills and focus on the finish, more like an artistic project than a technical one, while other are all about complications,” explains Robinson.
“Getting your school watch COSC-certificated is a bit like getting an A* on your final exams…”
Since apprenticeships in watchmaking are hard to find in Finland, for example, demand for places at the Finnish School of Watchmaking is high. Some students are there just to study micro-mechanics and electronics - of a kind that might not end up in watches, but which nonetheless reflects the realities of the watch market at large. Other students learn assembly and finishing, whilst also sometimes even make their own watch cases. They work with an ETA 6497 or 98 movement, chosen for being basic, dependable, a good size for beginner hands to manage and not least because these are made in their millions, so better prices are possible.
The School Watch that was made by a host of famous graduates from WOSTEP for the Only Watch charity auction, courtesy of Quill & Pad.
“A school watch remains a really good learning task for the student, especially when it comes to making precision parts the likes of the hairspring, which isn’t something they’re likely to do again if they end up servicing watches,” insists the school’s Vice Principal Simio Ylitalo. “It’s in making a watch that you really, deeply, understand how a watch works, but also how to manipulate the parts to make it work better. Even our micro mechanics students make a hairspring from beginning to end because it’s such a good test of precision hand work.”
It was that insider watch knowledge that persuaded Daniel Somlo – of London’s antique watch dealers Somlo Antiques – to complete the two-year BSW course back in 2012, starting out on its Birmingham-based clockmaking course before getting sponsored by the Swatch Group to attend the Manchester course. His non-COSC second school watch, which he still wears occasionally, is based around that ETA 6498 calibre movement, “in which everything is spaced out nicely, making it forgiving to work with and flexible to build on,” he explains. Taking a simple, English pocket watch style of the kind made famous by Dent, he also added a centrally mounted date indication hand.
“Well, that sounded simple enough in principle, but in practice was pretty hard, especially after I decided to make my own wheels and to make the tools to make the wheels,” he adds. “I ended up altering one wheel and making two, studying a lot to get the gear ratios right. It’s a big movement but I have very small wrists, so I wanted as small a case as possible and to somehow wedge the movement in, which in the end I squeezed into 39mm. And then I had to make 21 sets of hands before creating a pair that actually worked properly. So for me the most valuable lesson of it all was perseverance.”
That, perhaps, and an appreciation for watchmaking more generally. “It was amazing to me to use a precision lathe and just incredible to then think of someone doing the same 300 years ago using a pedal, and by candle-light,” Somlo adds. “More practically, fundamentally very few people within the watch world actually have this kind of knowledge, and that helps with buying watches. We don’t want to source anything that will require a lot of work, and it also helps when it comes to assessing authenticity too. You develop a sense that the wheels aren’t commensurate with the watch, for example.”
Somlo still wears his watch sometimes, appreciating not only that it’s his own work, but that it’s one of a kind. As for his COSC project watch... “I was about a second out to get it certified, unfortunately, so I keep that in a box somewhere,” he laughs.
Big picture, making such a school watch, of course, also ensures the preservation of skills that, while the market may appear to have less need of them now, risk being lost should it be left to market forces alone. James Robinson admits to being disappointed in the lack of interest across the manufacturing industry in helping to keep those skill sets alive, “such that they risk being lost, as they have been lost in so many other industries,” he stresses.
“I do sometimes feel that the skills embodied by the school watch are not viewed as important within the industry as it modernises, not least because mechanisation means there’s an almost an infinite supply of parts now,” he adds. “It’s not like the 1940s, for example, when parts had to be made, modified, corrected by a watchmaker. But that’s progress I suppose...”
An unwound hairspring prior to being set in a watch, a delicate undertaking for any student watchmaker, courtesy of WOSTEP.
Unfortunately, it may well be that the school watch is also, as an exercise, on its way out. Many schools around the world no longer insist that their students make one, or perhaps don’t insist that certain key components - the likes of the hairspring - are made. “It’s a matter of time and finances,” says Ylitalo, “and that can be down to how much national governments support their schools. Obviously, we think that support isn’t enough.”
“Making a school watch is,” concedes Kunz, “a rare thing now, simply because the market doesn’t need those skills so much anymore. Most repairs don’t need someone who’s capable of making a high complication. There’s a difference between a production watchmaker, which is most watchmakers, and a very select few who could make their own watch. And there’s little point training someone to the latter standard if they’re not going to put those skills into practice. Besides which, it’s not easy - only a few students can make a watch with, say, 500 parts and end up with a watch that actually works.”
A student at the Finnish School of watchmaking, Kelloseppäkoulu, back when a school watch would have been a more regular occurrence, courtesy of Kelloseppäkoulu.
This, however, may be changing. Kunz argues that while markets vary - there’s obviously a much greater demand for fully-trained watchmakers in Switzerland than in other nations - the growing interest in vintage pieces is putting repairs and servicing ahead of the skills of many watchmakers trained only to the service level. Given the decline in the number of students opting for the more demanding level of watchmaking training over the last 20 years, that is now expected to bring a new skills gap that may revivify support for training. It also speaks again to the value in having created a school watch.
“I do sometimes feel that the skills embodied by the school watch are not viewed as important within the industry as it modernises…”
Alan Burtoft, an ex-tutor at the British Watchmaking School and now education officer at the British Horological Institute, which runs distance learning and short residential courses, stresses that the industry is not without its deep-seated problems. He notes how, akin to car manufacturers some decades ago, watch brands are increasingly tight on the general supply of parts for the best watches, because they’ve realised there’s as much profit in servicing as in sales, which is one more reason why school watch-level training, and the consequent ability to make parts, still matters.
A vintage school watch bareing the name of the student who made it, P. Terraz, courtesy of Eric Ku.
However, he agrees that a resurgence of interest in handmade watches is gradually driving renewed interest in the learning of more advanced watchmaking skills, “even if few actually make it that far,” he points out, “given the demand on their skills, and their finance.” Indeed, in some senses the more specialist their watchmaking talents, the better for them. Those able to restore historic watches and clocks are, Burtoft says, “a really niche market and that means those who develop those skills are certainly not short of work”.
Indeed, the school watch is, as James Palmer hinted, the beginning of a rewarding but long road. Not for nothing does his course head, James Robinson, stress that’s it’s an extreme minority, perhaps just one or two students in any course year, that aspires to go on to become an independent watchmaker.
“Three years of learning just to become a good service watchmaker is tough enough for most,” says Robinson, “and it says something that the retention rate within the industry for our graduates is 100 percent. But it’s a much tougher process to get to the place where you’re not only able to make watches on your own, but also making watches that anyone wants to buy. That’s for the elite.”