The Untold Story of the Finnish School of Watchmaking
By James Buttery
Considering that Finland has a population just over half that of London (5.5m vs 9.3m in 2020), producing two internationally renowned watchmakers in a single generation, each with successful eponymous watch brands, is an impressive feat and suggests the sparsely populated Nordic nation might be something of a horological hotbed.
Whether it is or not, there is irrefutably a single point of origin, the Kelloseppäkoulu or The Finnish School of Watchmaking.
The school was established in Lahti in 1944, presumably after the cessation of hostilities with the Soviet Union in August of that year but while the Second World War was still raging in Europe. The school would move south to Espoo, Finland’s second largest city in 1959, before settling into its current building in the late 1980s and is overseen by the Kellosepäntaidon Edistämissäätiö, or Finland’s Foundation for the Advancement of Watchmaking Skills.
Today the Kelloseppäkoulu offers two three-year degree programmes, Watchmaking and Micro-Mechanics, with 15 students joining each programme cohort annually. Demand far outstrips supply though, and earlier this year 100 applicants submitted themselves for the psychological evaluation, practical tests and interview the school requires of potential students.
Rather than adopting the Swiss WOSTEP programme, something it predates by 20 years, the school adheres to a nationally approved curriculum, although many students later seek to further their knowledge by taking some of WOSTEP’s more specialist courses.
For watchmaking this means the ‘development of hand-eye co-ordination, craftsmanship and problem-solving', logically beginning work on larger movements before progressing to smaller pieces.
The course, as you might expect, includes many ‘hundreds of hours’ of practical work, but is often conducted on clocks and watches submitted to the school for repair by members of the public, which the school believes improves motivation and students’ capacity for problem-solving. Students are also taught to make replacement parts using traditional techniques.
Such open, real-world conditions would seem to replicate the kind of practical experience many new graduates from other paths seek out in vintage repair or restoration roles.
Graduating watchmakers are qualified to work in ‘repair, sales, wholesale and independent entrepreneur positions’ as you might expect, but some go on to work in the field of instrument and gauge technology, which employs a similar skillset.
But the Kelloseppäkoulu differs from other schools of watchmaking around the world in two distinct ways. Firstly, rather than conduct lessons in English like the more internationally orientated WOSTEP, the school teaches in Finnish. While, according to Kelloseppäkoulu’s principle Tiina Parikka, the school gets ‘a lot of inquiries from abroad’, this means the vast majority of students are Finnish, the language stipulation virtually ensuring that the school serves only citizens of its nation as Finnish is not a language that travels particularly far beyond its borders.
That might sound somewhat insular until you consider that the school, although private, is entirely state-funded. There are no course fees... of any kind.
“The students only pay for materials, tools and books that remain theirs.” Parikka confirms. “Meals are free as well.”
Consider, for a moment, your own formative years. If you were weighing up your career options, were practically minded, had more than a passing interest in watches (if you’re reading this the chances are high) and were presented with a completely free three-year degree course with virtually guaranteed employment after graduation, would you send off for an application form?
This is only made possible by Finland’s unique balance between its egalitarian approach to education and its Nordic attitude towards higher-than-average taxation in return for a public sector that not only funds healthcare and education, but also free pre-school childcare.
As Finland sought to transition from an agrarian economy to an industrialised one in the first half of the 20th Century, it established a level-playing field for students whatever their background or whether they hailed from rural areas or urban ones. In 1948 it became the first country in the world to provide free school meals to all student and by the 1970s it had removed two-tier schooling altogether, also moving away from standardised testing.
The country developed a ‘learning to learn’ system that seeks to foster an enthusiasm for education and personal development through play from a pre-school age, with children not entering compulsory education until the age of seven.
Teaching too, is also a highly respected profession, an attitude Parrika believes has filtered through into Finnish watchmaking.
“It seems in Finland we’ve succeeded to make the profession of a watchmaking-teacher the most appreciated ladder of the career.” she adds.
Teachers require a Master’s degree and despite a national curriculum, operate with a certain level of personal autonomy. Until recently, Finland’s education system topped global rankings, only recently overtaken by those in South Korea, Japan and Singapore.
Students leaving compulsory education at the age of 16 have the choice of continuing into upper secondary or to undertake vocational, skills-based training (which can still lead a student to university). The split is roughly equal, which certainly goes some way to explain the popularity of Kelloseppäkoulu.
Kelloseppäkoulu’s curriculum might not be as universally recognised as that used by WOSTEP but it seems to fit the bill with employers as Parikka points out graduates find little difficulty gaining employment, either at home or abroad with all of the major watch brands.
The school’s success at teaching the traditional horological arts led to the development of a second, far more modern, degree programme aimed at supporting the huge growth in Finland’s technology sector in the 1990s which would, pre-COVID-19 at least, go on to account for 50 per cent of the country’s exports and employ, directly and indirectly, some 700,000 people.
Developed in conjunction with Finland’s Technology Industry Association in 1997, the Micro-Mechanics course might centre on precision technology with emphasis on electronics and connectivity, but it still uses the mechanical clock as a teaching device, believing the skills learnt from its operation can be adapted for other devices and mechanisms.
Prototype design, production and, most tellingly, teamwork are also aspects that Parikka points to as being distinct from the watchmaking course.
Before the unfolding pandemic of 2020, a boom in quantum computing and space technology saw demand soar for the skills of this course’s graduates, both internationally and from homegrown tech companies such as Bluefors, who develop refrigeration for quantum computers, and Aurora Propulsion, which specialise in booster systems for satellites.
While the school has been drip-feeding watchmaking talent into the industry since the 1940’s, today much of the interest it generates abroad stems from its two most famous alumni, namely Kari Voutilainen and Stepan Sarpaneva, with rising star Torsti Laine making a name for himself recently.
Voutilainen arrived at the school in the 1980s but was inspired to enter the profession as a child, liking the atmosphere of the workbench of a family friend, who repaired watches and clocks close to the family home. Upon completing his training (and a year of aftersales experience in Finland) Voutilainen enrolled in WOSTEP’s complicated watch course in Neuchatel in 1989. Before building his own atelier, he would go on to work at the legendary restoration workshop of Michel Parmigiani, where he would cross paths with fellow Finn, Stepan Sarpaneva.
Sarpaneva’s own path to watchmaking was perhaps preordained, his family name being synonymous with design in his home country. His father Pentti, a famed jewellery designer and his uncle Timo, a celebrated glassware designer. But young Sarpaneva preferred old cars and motorbikes to objets d’art (he would eventually sell his first motorbike, a 1976 Harley-Davidson Shovelhead FX he rebuilt himself, to fund his business) something which drew him to the mechanical engines at the heart of every watch.
Another independent watchmaker who has been making a name for himself recently that also passed through the halls of Kelloseppäkoulu is Torsti Laine. He originally studied computer science and started his career in the field but later found his calling in horology and excelled in his studies. So much so that we won the Lange Watchmaking Excellence Award in 2014, for designing an ingenious moon-phase complication, for which he received €10,000. Since then he has established his own brand, with his first pieces, like those of Voutilainen, were based on vintage ébauches and now offers a range of four watches, all with remarkable levels of customisation.
But if the Kelloseppäkoulu is to help educate future Voutilainens or Sarpanevas something must change, and change soon. Even before recent austerity-driven public spending cuts and the even more recent Covid-19 related strain placed on the Finnish budget, cuts were being made to the school’s funding.
“State funding has dropped over 30 per cent during the past eight years and now the school is on the final edge with its’ future,” Parikka states ominously. “If the funding won’t be corrected, the trust fund of the school will have to close the school in a few years. It is not very well understood how important skills that are produced at our school. Skills that serve medical, space, computer science and their innovation.”
It is difficult to know how to position an argument for public funds towards training watchmakers when so many other vital sectors of society are suffering from under-funding. One might argue that the future of the school perhaps centres around the more forward-leaning Micro-Mechanics programme than it does around the somewhat arcane practice of watchmaking, but here too government cuts to research programmes have well and truly bitten, causing a brain drain that saw a 37 per cent increase in PhD-educated Finns leaving the country between 2011 and 2015.
Perhaps the solution lies with the industry itself, as witnessed with the pro-active foundation of the British School of Watchmaking in 2004, its founding partners being the brands and retailers that require talented, qualified watchmakers to continue operating. That became easier last year when the BSOW gained charity status, thus making any support towards its operating costs tax-deductible donations. But any such move on the part of the Finnish school would require wholesale change.
“It is possible for the trust fund to take donations but it cannot encourage people to do so because of legislation,” adds Parikka. “Sometimes it seems that our school is more appreciated abroad than in Finland. I think that the work that we have done is considered self-evident and it is not understood how much we’ve put our heart and effort, also on the personal level, to save this incredible skill that still exists!”
“It must be remembered that we wouldn’t have Voutilainen or Sarpaneva or any others in this field if we didn’t have a school that is at such a high level and motivated to save the craftsmanship and ready to develop it in the best of modern technology as well.”