March 2022 12 Min Read

Women In Watchmaking

By A Collected Man

In 1866, The Clerkenwell News published a series of exchanges between two individuals discussing the merit of women and girls working in watch factories. But rather than it being a one-sided tirade, we instead see a real-life response from an individual who signed themselves as “Female Watchmaker”.

Arguing in favour of women becoming apprentice watchmakers, our anonymous “Female Watchmaker” speaks with great authority on the subject, affirming that “I know instances where [women] have learned the lever escapement making and the finishing, examining etc, all of which branches are very suitable for them. They could also be profitably employed at the repairing of watches, at this they would be able to earn a good living anywhere: it would not confine them to a watch manufacturing district such as Clerkenwell and in this respect would possess a decided advantage over a branch of the trade.”

Coventry Watchmaking Factory from the 1900s, courtesy of the Allnutt Collection.

This exchange is forthcoming as part of a project entitled Women and Horology, put together by Su Fullwood and Geoff Allnutt in conjunction with the Antiquarian Horology Society, but even from this small excerpt we can see that women’s involvement in watchmaking has a long and significant history that has since been obscured. Keeping in mind the constraints of the time, it is remarkable that these women were able to carve out a space for themselves – but if we look within the watchmaking industry today, we see that women largely remain in the same roles, rarely afforded the same attention that their male counterparts are given at the highest levels.

Representation and opportunity are perhaps the biggest reasons for there being so few watchmakers in the modern scene. This is perhaps compounded by the fact that as a profession, watchmaking is still fairly traditional and is undoubtedly a male-dominated space – especially when it comes to the names that are fast gaining recognition through auctions and on social media. Independent watchmakers such as Eva Leube, Rebecca Struthers, and Fiona Krüger are going down a more individualistic route, with others like Annegret Fleischer, Carole Forestier-Kasapi, and Janina Thiele spearheading developments in complications and movements. Meanwhile, on the horizon we also have Danièla Dufour and Venla Voutilainen, who are fast moving upwards in the horological industry. Charting a course from past to present, we explore the question of where women in watchmaking stand now.

Past

To return to the very basics, it should be noted that the definition of “watchmaker” was not solely limited to someone who made watches. Fullwood and Allnutt define the term in a way that encompasses a diversity of roles, including “those who ran retail businesses that included the repair and overhaul of watches”, including, but not limited to, fusée chain makers, repairers, and other relevant areas of the trade.

A census dating back to 1911 in which is recorded the name “Edith Moore”, who was a “watchmaker”, courtesy of the Women in Horology project.

Rather than just being apprentices and makers, women were also involved in running the business and dealing with clients. In most of these instances, they were widows who took over the clockmaking business after their husbands had passed away, but in rare cases, they were also responsible for the actual making of the timepieces. According to Fullwood and Allnutt’s research into census documents of the time, there were hundreds of women working in the factories, a number that increased between the late 1880s and early 1900s, with the most common jobs being “polishing and burnishing, and the making of dials, watch chains, cases, keys and hands”.

The use of signatures to mark watches illustrates this point. While Fullwood and Allnutt acknowledge that the signing of watches during this period is still a contentious subject, they also note that “at times the signature can be shown, as in the case of the male names to be the retailer and business owner, [and] it is rare that the name on the watch (whether male or female) is the person who made the watch in the way that, for example, George Daniels did”.

In the image below, we see a rare instance of the watch being signed by “Eliza Andrews” – both a business owner and a “watchmaker” in Cornhill in the early 1800s. Additionally, there are some watches bearing masculine-sounding signatures that were actually part of businesses owned by women, such as H. Samuel or M.F. Dent. This not only demonstrates that women in the watchmaking industry were not as rare as previously thought, but in our attempt to understand the past, there are still plenty of unconscious biases that need to be unlearned.

A movement signed E. Andrews, who was a watchmaker in the early 1800s, and a pocket watch with the dial signed H. Samuel (1865-1900), courtesy of the Allnutt Collection.

But the signature is not necessarily all that there is to a watch – Anna Rolls, curator of the Clockmakers’ Museum and Archive, comments: “I suppose we have to move away from the fixation with the name on a dial. I receive a lot of enquiries from people who want to know more about the ‘maker’ of their clock or watch, and I suppose they are thinking this refers to a singular person, rather than a business. But of course, it takes many people to manufacture a clock or a watch, and of course women were involved, but it is only by researching evidence like census returns that one can start to see the real picture.”

In terms of the wider picture, there were, of course, also women working in the European watchmaking industry during this period. Fullwood and Allnutt mention Sir John Bennett, who “lectured widely in the UK about the Swiss tradition of employing women in their watchmaking centres [which] meant they could pay lower wages and be more competitive”. This was controversial, but Bennett felt it was necessary if English-made watches were to compete with Swiss-made ones. Furthermore, there were women working in France and America between the 1900s and 1930s, with even a few women having achieved the “master watchmaker” rank in Austria during this period.

“We have to move away from the fixation with the name on a dial. I receive a lot of enquiries from people who want to know more about the ‘maker’ of their clock or watch, and I suppose they are thinking this refers to a singular person, rather than a business.”

Anna Rolls

Taking into consideration the lack of opportunities for women within this historical context, in addition to other social and legislative restrictions, we can see that even back then, there was not a blanket belief that women were less skilled or unsuited for watchmaking as a profession. However, our modern world has continued to obscure, misrepresent, and dismiss their contributions – a problem that projects like Women and Horology are only just beginning to unravel and rectify.

Present

In the present, there continues to be an unspoken community of women holding up the horological industry, who are responsible for individual, specialised tasks within a watchmaker’s workshop – and of course, women have begun to take a bigger role in managing businesses and running companies that deal with watches. We focus here on the women who are most directly involved with the making of watches, examining the philosophies of independent watchmakers as well as the creations of complication specialists whose work powers some of the most recognisable watches of today.

Independents

One of the defining characteristics of a modern independent watchmaker is that the maker is responsible for building a watch from start to finish – or is at least involved in each step of the process, crafting the watch in accordance with their vision. The female independent watchmakers discussed here also work under their own brands, and this spirit of independence allows them to create their pieces on their own terms. Each of these watchmakers has a different story with regards to their journey to becoming independent, and the approaches that they take to watchmaking are widely varied.

One such watchmaker is Eva Leube, who has worked with Rolex, Ulysse Nardin, and Thomas Prescher, developing the Tempus Vivendi series and the triple-axis tourbillon with the latter. Leube says, “[I have] a special fascination with hand-made watches and clocks from the time before industrialisation. Each of those unique pieces tells a story about their maker, in addition to the technical advances and fashions of their time. In the same vein, I have been working in a relatively traditional way so far.”

The curves of the Ari watch, created by independent watchmaker Eva Leube, courtesy of Eva Leube Watchmaking.

Leube’s Ari watch is a cuff watch that is intriguing because of its shape – rather than just the case being curved, the calibre and movement are too, requiring specialised tools and blocks rather than sheets of metal. “I wanted to display a beautiful, big straight-line movement out in bright light, and for it to be immediately visible from all sides and to wrap around my wrist,” says Leube.

Freedom from the conventional shape and design of a watch is a sentiment shared by Fiona Krüger, whose designs have managed to captivate collectors. She is certainly making a name for herself within the independent watchmaking scene thanks to her jewel-encrusted, multicoloured, skull-shaped watches inspired by the death watches of Mary, Queen of Scots.

Krüger, in an interview with Robb Report, said, “There are certain assumptions that come up when you’re developing the design of your product. I got a lot of suggestions about putting diamonds on things and working with mother of pearl, and making things very soft.”

Meanwhile, in another interview with Luxury Society, Krüger argues that existing brands “design watches for girls rather than watches for women. And there’s quite a difference between the two … what I’m saying is that women have a much broader range of tastes, and not all women just like [flowers and diamonds].”

While watchmaking and women’s watches are separate areas of discussion, when we consider them in this instance, both are subject to stereotypes that continue to restrict women into certain roles and designs, despite the changing standards within other fields.

On the subject, Dr. Rebecca Struthers, an independent watchmaker and the first woman to obtain a Ph.D. in Horology, says, “From the perspective of being a practising watchmaker, we have a lot of women in very junior roles in this industry, a few incredibly talented and very successful women at the top, and a lack of real mobility connecting the two. Larger companies need to do more to build solid career progression routes for women. A lot of that will come with taking female watchmakers more seriously. I have personally been exposed to those who have expressed the opinion that there’s no point training women as we’ll only have children and drop out of work – including from those responsible for educating watchmakers.”

These extremes are not entirely unfamiliar, as we are reminded of the vast gap between part-maker and business owner in the 1800s. While things have changed, fundamental differences still remain when it comes to how women are perceived as active members of the workforce. Struthers’ own journey towards becoming an independent watchmaker was not an entirely smooth one either, as she admits that it has been challenging to “learn the difference between genuine allies and people looking for a quick fix to their diversity issues”.

“[I have] a special fascination with hand-made watches and clocks from the time before industrialisation. Each of those unique pieces tells a story about their maker, in addition to the technical advances and fashions of their time. In the same vein, I have been working in a relatively traditional way so far.”

Eva Leube

In terms of how the industry can encourage the next generation of skilled watchmakers, Struthers had this to say: “Presence is an important factor in inspiring the next generation of female watchmakers. For young people to see this as an accessible and welcoming career, it’s important they can see people like them succeeding – whether that’s women or any other underrepresented group. We’re critically short of highly skilled watchmakers and restorers, so improving access should be a priority for the whole industry.”

But on a more hopeful note, when we ask the same question, Leube says that for women intending to become independents, “the watchmaking world looks pretty bright to me”. “Women are welcomed in the big industry as well as the small manufactures,” she adds. “In fact, I feel the odds are better than ever to make it on your own since there is now endless information out on the net, paired with the opportunity of easy self-marketing tools at almost no cost.”

One thing is for certain – with more women taking a prominent position in the spotlight for their work as watchmakers, we can be sure that we will see a greater breadth of individuals on the independent scene in the coming years.

Big Brands

In addition to female independent watchmakers, there are other women who work in specialised roles at some of the larger manufacturers such as complication development and movement design who have become formidable forces within the brands they work for.

The Datograph movement, a legendary calibre admired for its function and design.

Take, for example, the Datograph movement developed by Annegret Fleischer, an engineer and designer still working at A. Lange & Söhne. The Datograph movement has been widely admired for its design and construction, but it is often not shared that the movement was invented by a woman. The calibre stands out all the more for having such a range of functions and a unique design.

According to Fleischer, when designing the Datograph she had to ensure that the piece was not only functional, but beautiful. Fleischer has since gone on to work on movements at Lange for pieces such as the Double Split, a chronograph mechanism that features two chronograph hands and two rattrapante hands, as well as the Pour le Merité Tourbillon, a piece for which the development of the movement took nearly eight years, and combines a chronograph and rattrapante mechanism.

The Double Split and Pour le Merité Tourbillon, courtesy of A. Lange & Söhne.

We also spoke with a young woman currently working at A. Lange & Söhne, Janina Thiele, who was an apprentice at Lange when she won the 2010 Concours Institut Horlogerie Cartier (IHC) competition for her take on a “striking mechanism” in a pocket watch. Thiele notes, “[I wanted] to be able to do more complex work, so production management eventually suggested perpetual calendar assembly to me. Since then I have new models with new techniques on the table almost every year. It’s extremely challenging and very varied.” Unsurprisingly, what comes through most here is the emphasis on technical understanding and an interest in complex timepieces, and in places like Lange, women make up around 55% of the manufacture, which comfortably balances out the gender divide.

Janina Thiele at her workbench, courtesy of A. Lange & Söhne.

Someone who has been the head of movement complications at illustrious companies such as Cartier and, currently, TAG Heuer, is Carole Forestier-Kasapi. The movement specialist has made a name for herself in the watchmaking industry by reinventing existing complications, bringing something new to the table each time. Her work looks to tackle some of watchmaking’s long-standing challenges, including forces such as gravity and magnetism. Some of the pieces she has worked on include complications such as the Astrotourbillon, created under Cartier, in addition to an antigravity system for the Calibre 9800MC, which was able to counteract the effects of gravity when the watch was put in a vertical position.

In Robb Report, Forestier-Kasapi said, “The fact that I am a woman does not influence the way I design things. I consider myself a watchmaker first. My vision is different due to the fact that I have a watchmaker’s eye, first and foremost.”

The Cartier Astrotourbillon and the Panthere Joueuse, both housing movements developed by Carole Forestier-Kasapi, courtesy of Cartier.

Like Krüger’s previous definition of what constitutes a “woman’s watch”, Forestier-Kasapi’s statement raises an interesting question about the gender division within watchmaking as a craft – and as separate categories in the first place. In recent years, collectors have begun to break down these distinctions, bringing into relief the fact that these are arbitrary divisions in the first place.

Ultimately, as Thiele notes in our interview, “it used to be a tradition in Glashütte that significantly more women than men worked in watchmaking”. While this is not a fact that is widely known or acknowledged, it is proof that despite collecting appearing to be a very masculine space, there is no such distinction within watchmaking itself. However, to return to what Struthers has previously mentioned, the gap in between has to be addressed.

Future

In independent watchmaking,an increasing number of women are taking on more significant roles. Venla Voutilainen and Danièla Dufour are two such women who also happen to be daughters of two of the most important watchmakers alive today. Despite their illustrious surnames, each have approached watchmaking on their own terms, and are currently poised to usher in a new era of independent watchmaking.

Venla Voutilainen at her workbench.

At present, Venla Voutilainen is part of the Urban Jürgensen team as the Head of After Sales Service, a significant role for a young watchmaker. She also collaborated with her father, Kari Voutilainen, on a modern variation of his school pocket watch, the Voutilainen TP1 Only Watch 2019, and has significant professional experience, having previously apprenticed at Vaucher Manufacture Fleurier and worked in Singapore at The Hour Glass. In an interview with The Hour Glass, Venla stressed that watchmaking was a path that she chose for herself, rather than it being an expectation that was imposed upon her. On a podcast episode with Fifth Wrist Radio, she notes that the possibility of her being able to take over the business has certainly taken a lot of pressure off her parents.

The pocket watch made in collaboration with her father, Kari Voutilainen, for Only Watch 2019.

Currently, Venla oversees the after sales servicing and the communication with customers regarding repairs. She says, “I like [working in] after sales because it’s like making a new life for the watch. In the future, I hope to grow and learn more in different departments.” In terms of her time at school and more generally, she comments that while she hasn’t faced any specific challenges because of her gender, “I have faced a few situations where men stated that women were not so suitable for this line of work, and other similar comments”.

Additionally, when it comes to her father’s long shadow, she admits that she has felt some pressure from being Voutilainen’s daughter. In the Fifth Wrist Radio interview, she mentioned that “many people, such as in workshops … assume that I am there because I am the daughter [of Voutilainen], not because of my skills or merit.” However, she has subverted those judgments, saying, “I have managed to turn it into a motivation instead.” Looking ahead, she hopes to continue her work in after sales, but, more importantly, hopes to follow her passions.

We see a similar story in the case of Danièla Dufour, who, when we ask her about her experience in watchmaking school and the heavy legacy she shoulders, says: “First of all, I think it is important to emphasise that I am a black woman, because that is the category that people put me in, and that I am the daughter of Philippe Dufour, who is considered the ‘Master of Watchmaking’. These are the characteristics that make me who I am – as well as my values and my education – and did not necessarily help me in my learning.”

Danièla Dufour at her workbench, using a bow lathe.

In describing a specific moment at watchmaking school, Danièla says, “I remember the feeling [that] when I succeeded in something, it was because my father had done it, and if I couldn’t do the task correctly, I should have known how to do it anyway because I was the daughter of [Dufour]… But if I had had all the knowledge from birth, I wouldn’t have gone to school!”

This may be a familiar refrain, but it seems nothing has changed in recent years. “I also experienced injustice, spitefulness, racism and male chauvinism,” admits Danièla. “And, unfortunately, people didn’t even realise that they were going too far. It was normal behaviour for them.”

'I think it is important to emphasise that I am a black woman, because that is the category that people put me in, and that I am the daughter of Philippe Dufour, who is considered the ‘Master of Watchmaking’. These are the characteristics that make me who I am – as well as my values and my education – and did not necessarily help me in my learning.'

Danièla Dufour

In terms of her plans for the future, Danièla shares that she intends to make her own watches – but, in any case, she notes, “I have a whole career ahead to devote myself to it in order to get there. I am a long way from my dad’s 55 years of experience.”

Parting Thoughts

Issues such as casual sexism or more ingrained unconscious biases are still being perpetuated within the industry, but simultaneously, opportunities are being created, either by organisations seeking to break down the barriers, or through the freedom afforded by the independent space. Whether or not this will be enough to truly change a deeply ingrained mindset is another question entirely, but only time will be able to give us the answer.

We would like to thank Su Fullwood, Geoff Allnutt, Anna Rolls, Eva Leube, Janina Thiele, Rebecca Struthers, Venla Voutilainen, and Danièla Dufour for taking the time to speak to us for this piece.