December 24, 2006

Watches, geeks, Rolex and free tuition.

Link to article, picture is a person adjusting a hairspringLink to article, picture is a person adjusting a hairspring

I dove into watches a year or so ago, and have been enjoying it ever since.

So it was with some amusement that I found this Business Week article about the Lititz Watch Technicum in Pennsylvania. It’s a free school for watchmakers and servicemen, primarily the latter. (Pardon the gender-specific pronoun, but it reflects the sad reality.)

Even more amusingly, the story was posted to Slashdot, which surprised me. Usually my two worlds of computer geek” and WIS don’t overlap.

From the article, it sounds immensely cool:

Located in the small town of Lititz, Pa., in the heart of Amish country, the Technicum is housed in a Michael Graves-designed modern stone barn. The sun-filled interior contains the school’s two classrooms, labs for waterproofing and cleaning, and a library. The stainless-steel cafeteria offers students espresso served in porcelain cups. The second floor houses a Rolex service center.

From the article, a picture of the building:


Wow, free espresso and fifty thousand dollars’ worth of free education. Although they get 1000+ applications each year for a class of 12, most apparently have jobs as soon as they graduate:

Demand is so high for skilled watchmakers that the students are almost all assured employment upon graduation. Starting salaries range from $45,000 to $55,000 a year. The 40 Lititz alumni have gone on to work for independent jewelers, as well as Breitling, Chopard, and Patek Phillipe. Rolex has hired three of the graduates. Mayer says that while the school doesn’t encourage students to go out on their own immediately, preferring that they work with an experienced watchmaker first, about 10% to 20% of the students have opted to start their own shops.

The timing of all this gets even more amusing when you realize that I’m currently wearing a Fortis Aviator (ETA 2824-2, undecorated base grade) that belongs to my neighbor. He’s got my Aviator and I’m adjusting his as a favor.

(-7 seconds in 15 hours, if you must know. I need a timing machine.)

So maybe I’m the vanguard this time, having discovered mechanical watches before the hordes of Slashdot. Somehow I doubt it, but it is damned funny.

For those of not fortunate enough to attend Lititz, check out the TimeZone online watch school. It’s an online course, where you buy parts and tools and complete the lessons at home. It gets excellent reviews in the various forums, and is probably as close as I’ll get to a real education on the subject. (If nothing else, my caffeine addiction would probably be a showstopper!)

The TZ sample lesson makes it sound pretty amusing:

Because the TZWS offers a curriculum designed largely for those who would be amateur watchmakers, it is hoped that the spirit of fun, experimentation, and learning will be maintained throughout. Our early work, on inexpensive movements, is an opportunity to make the inevitable–absolutely necessary– mistakes from which we learn. Mistakes, frustrations, and setbacks will be part of the experience and should, as nearly as possible, be expected and taken in the spirit of learning.

Watches–excluding complex pieces like repeaters, chronographs, and perpetual calendars–are actually very simple mechanical devices. They are, however, very tiny and much of our learning will be in the handling and manipulation of very Watch Bench in the Bermuda Trianglesmall parts. Half the skill of watchmaking is about simply learning how to hold very small parts while they are worked upon without damaging them or losing them. While learning, everyone will do both. The other half is probably about finding pieces once they have flown from your grasp. Every watchmaker’s bench exists within the Bermuda Triangle. There is simply nothing to do about that but come to peace with it. Parts almost never return from the Triangle. Time, practice, and patience provide dramatic improvements in the ability to handle small parts with facility. When work becomes too frustrating at some point, simply walk away from it and return when fresh and in a more recreational mood. Watches never respond to force.

In the illustration below , the author may be observed with a flashlight, magnetic pickup, and an expensive Swiss cigarette searching for very tiny parts (at the red arrows ) that he will never find. After an hour of futility, he left his horological enterprise for another day and had a Cognac instead.

parts searchparts search

So far, I have a decent book, a few tools, and am teetering on trying the TZ course. I’ve a broken Poljot pocket watch as an ideal starting problem (bigger parts = easier) and a desk that could probably double as a bench.

What the hell, it keeps me off the streets…


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