Preparing for a new generation of UK watchmakers

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The recent rising interest in mechanical watches has meant that the watchmaking skills gulf created by the industry’s shift to quartz could start to cause problems. Rachael Taylor investigates just why there is such a gap and finds out what the british watch industry is doing to plug it.

When you think of a watchmaker you will imagine an old man, probably balding, hunched over a bench in well-worn overalls peering through thick glasses, locked in steady concentration on the laborious task of stacking miniscule components in search of the exact combination that will magically erupt into a guardian of time.

In fact, indulge in a spot of generic Google image searching and you’ll have to delve a few pages deep before you see anything but this stereotype, and when you do spot any signs of youth – or indeed female watchmakers – they will be lightly peppered throughout those studious gentlemen of a certain age.

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Experience and longevity are traits that should be celebrated, particularly in a highly skilled trade such as watchmaking, but the problem with an aging workforce is that at some point in the not too distant future they have to retire, and then who does the torch pass to?

The advent of quartz watches meant that the need for trained watchmakers became less and less and so the training of a new generation slipped. What wasn’t forecast at that time, or perhaps wasn’t practical to prepare for, was that there would be a renewed interest in mechanical watches in the future. Quartz technology and digital hasn’t pushed mechanical out of the market, in fact it has been quite the opposite – it has made mechanical watches all the more desirable.

No matter how much money you spend on a mechanical watch, the fact is that from time to time they will need to be repaired, and when that time comes you will need a watchmaker. And with the majority of skilled watchmakers in the UK nearing retirement age there is about to be a major skills gap.

This is not an issue that has gone unnoticed by the British watchmaking community. In 2004 Nick Towndrow and Gordon Bryan felt the issue was pressing, so much so that they started working on what would become the British School of Watchmaking.

When they first started work on the project Towndrow was group services manager at MW Group and Bryan was UK service manager at Signet, now Towndrow has moved to Swatch Group as head of customer service and Bryan is now working at Breitling as an after sales rep. They have kept up their day jobs in the watch industry while building up the school, which opened in Manchester in 2006.

The intake of the British School of Watchmaking is tiny. It takes just eight students a year, although this is actually a recent expansion on previous levels of six students per year. There are two year groups at the school so the maximum number of students studying at any one time is 16.

James Robinson is a lecturer at the British School of Watchmaking and says that while he welcomes the recent expansion in student numbers, the school just isn’t set up to take on any more students at present. “It’s mainly down to the size of the building we’re in,” he says. “And we don’t want too many students per instructor as it’s a practical course.”

While the timing was coincidental, according to Robinson, Towndrow and Bryan started working on setting up the school in 2004, the same year that the British Horological Institute stopped offering Watchmakers of Switzerland Training and Education (WOSTE) approved courses, a respected curriculum for teaching horology set up by André Farine in Switzerland in 1966 with the original objective of teaching American watchmakers Swiss skills.

The British School of Watchmaking has since picked up on the WOSTE link in the UK and is now an affiliate. Its courses last two years and during that time students spent 3,200 hours working towards a horological qualification.

When the British School of Watchmaking was founded it was done so in collaboration with a number of industry supporters – Breitling, Patek Philippe, Richemont, Rolex, Swatch Group, Aurum, Houlden Group, MW Group, Signet and FA Buck. This list has since grown to include WEMPE, Berry’s, Boodles and David M Robinson.

These organisations financially support the school and in return the majority of its places are sponsored by these organisations, which can put forward students for the courses. There are still independent places available – this year there is one independent student, last year there were two – but the involvement of the groups means that the people being placed on the courses are mostly already working in the watch industry as the independent places only arise if there are any slots not taken up by the partners.

“We have some people here who have already been working for the brands but other people just have an interest in it and one thing leads to another,” says Robinson. He adds that the average age of students at the British School of Watchmaking is older than your average university student age, with some students in their 40s, which still leaves the problem of a skills gap in the younger generations.

“[Watchmaking] is a bit of a niche in this country,” says Robinson. “[The school launched because] as much as anything a lot of the industry had to wake up and realise that there wasn’t much training going on in the UK and there is quite a big gulf. It’s something that can only get worse in the next 10 years.”

While the British School of Watchmaking is working with people already in the trade to further develop skills, it is not actively encouraging people from outwith the industry to consider watchmaking as a career, and this is something that Matt Bowling, director at online pre-owned watch retailer Watchfinder, believes needs to happen.

“It hasn’t been a popular profession, but they can earn a fortune, partly because of the work they do and partly because of the shortage of talent,” he says. “There is not a queue of good watchmakers knocking anyone’s door down. I think if people knew what the financial rewards are they would do it.”

Bowling brackets watchmaking into the engineering skill base and adds that if school leavers were aware of what the watch trade had to offer them – “you can earn more being a watchmaker than a mechanic” – then they would perhaps consider it.

He adds that the way to get around this is to bring watchmaking out of the secret inner sanctum of the industry and into the mainstream. “People don’t seem to be aware that it is an option, so that’s a marketing job,” he says. “How do you know that going into the army is an option? Because you see the adverts on TV. ”

The image of watchmakers has long been one of an old timers’ tradition that is perhaps not as sexy as other career paths, but again Bowling believes that this is a myth that needs to be busted.
“A level five watchmaker at Patek Philippe is like an astronaut to me,” he says. “It’s a phenomenal job.”

One way that many school leavers decide on a career path is by browsing university prospectuses. Until now there have been no degree courses for horology, and so no prospectuses offering it up as a possible option, but that is set to change in September when the Birmingham School of Jewellery takes on its first students for its BA (Hons) Horology course.

The university has already got a small horology department in place but this has been limited to an HND course, but last month the Birmingham School of Jewellery successfully navigated the rigours of getting its horology degree course approved by its governing organisation Birmingham City University.

Jon Parker will be a lecturer on the course and he believes that it will be the first of its kind in the UK, and possibly in the world.

“From an academic point of view you have to write a pretty detailed brief about what you are going to teach and how,” he explains. “It goes through an approval board then they ask you questions about whether it is worth its academic qualifications – questions about academic rigour and learning outcomes.”

To make sure that the course is going to help students get a job in the watch industry after graduation the Birmingham School of Jewellery brought in some industry bodies, including members of the British Horological Institute and the British Museum, to advise on the content of the course.

Vocational courses are important to the Birmingham School of Jewellery and to date it has a near 100% success rate of students finding work after graduation. The only problem, Parker says, is holding on to those students until they complete the course, as many are poached while still studying.

It is not only the academic community that has given the course its approval, Richemont has delivered a financial pat on the back too. “We’ve formed a good working relationship with the Richemont Group and they have supported us with funding to get equipment,” explains Parker. “They have done this as they are aware of the fact that in order to supply their watches they need a good group of skilled technicians.”

Richemont is not the only professional organisation to throw cash at the course; grants and funding have been gifted by the George Daniels Trust and the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers, among others. “We are hoping there will be sponsorship opportunities and grants,” says Parker. “It is still in its infancy and we would welcome and interest from people to sponsor students.”

While there is obvious interest in the course from those in the industry who already know about it, what about the students themselves? Parker says that it has been a mixed bag of applicants but confirms that only a month after making the course official it has already accepted 12 students who will start studying in its inaugural first year in September.

“We’ve had all sorts, there isn’t a pattern emerging at the minute,” he says. “There are people who are interested from a tech point of view, and there are some people who just love watches and want to be around them as a career.”

Parker says that on completion of the three-year degree course, students will be competent to “take on many roles, from the bench to retail to auction houses to marketing”. He adds: “We want people who are just generally interested in the craft of horology. We don’t discriminate, they need a fair bit of practical ability, but we welcome everyone.”

While watchmaking is an incredibly skilled and technical craft, it requires an artistic flair and Parker reveals that one of the 2012 students is a current first year student on a jewellery course at The Birmingham Jewellery School who is planning to switch to horology after developing a fascination with it in the use of watch components in his designs.

The Birmingham School of Jewellery is bringing watchmaking out of closed industry circles and into the mainstream, and with interest from students and support from the industry this could be a milestone for the future-proofing of the British watch industry and securing the quality of fresh blood needed to plug the skills gap. With any luck, should demand require it, more will follow and one day horology could be as visible a career choice as any other.

This article was taken from the July 2012 issue of WatchPro magazine, out now. To view a digital version of the magazine click here.

 

 

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