I’ve been staring at tiny watch parts for seven hours now, and for the last 15 minutes, I’ve been trying to put one screw into one hole that holds one clamp. It’s kind of important. The clamp holds the watch’s heart, or movement, to the inside of the watch case. It’s the easy part, I’m told, yet here I am cursing this screw the size of pencil lead. I start imagining that I can skip this step, but I bump my hand and the clamp disappears. I feel like I am playing the childhood game of Operation and the patient’s nose just lit up. I find a clamp nearby and install it. I think it was mine, but I’m not really sure. I shrug my shoulders and hope I can get it serviced later if I hear the part rattling inside.
I’m not a watchmaker, but I played one in Las Vegas. I traveled there to build a watch in a class sponsored by the American Watchmakers and Clockmakers Institute (AWCI). And contrary to the saying, what I did in Vegas did not stay in Vegas. I was assembling a mechanical watch and taking it home. AWCI was capitalizing on the abundance of watch-related events in Sin City in early June to offer this build-a-watch class to people like me.
Not everyone would go this far for a watch. On my way to the class, my Uber driver told me as much. I said I was in town to write a story about building a watch that’s not powered by a battery, and he asked, “Why?” He then pointed to his smart phone and told me he doesn’t need a watch. He was right, but this is what you do if you’re a horological geek like me, and I’m not alone in my mechanical-watch worshipping.
I call myself a geek because I read a lot about watches and write about them too. I meet with friends to talk about watches. I do additional work to buy watches. But really, I’m a normal guy and my wife and kids thought my trip to build a watch would be an early Father’s Day event too. It seemed fitting since my earliest watch-related memories are of my dad. I sat on the floor of his company’s darkroom lab as he processed black-and-white film, and all I could see was the illumination of the hands on his Wyler watch. I still have that watch, and I cherish the memories that surround it. We all seem to come to the Watch Altar by some emotional connection to our past or a deep curiosity of the micromachines that mark our passage of time.
I was one of six students who traveled from Atlanta, Vancouver, Chicago and Birmingham for the six-hour build-a-watch class. When I arrived at the hotel suite on the 45th floor, we greeted each other, did a wrist-check to see what watch we were wearing, and took our seats. Our class was made up of enthusiasts and collectors like me. Some brought their spouses. Two of us had our spouses’ blessing.
My new friend from Atlanta joked how his wife would catch him studying watches online at night. It’s what we do when we can’t stop hunting for the next one. My Chicago classmates were a husband and wife team who arrived and left the same day on the red-eye flight, while our Vancouver friends had a similar travel schedule and just as much curiosity about building a watch.
Our two instructors were smart, patient, family-guys who have been professionally trained in every aspect of watchmaking, and their quiet and steady demeanor might also be found in medicine or ministry professions. One had a goatee and bow tie, and the other had a ponytail. Both had an Apple Watch on their right wrists, and a mechanical watch on their left. Their two watches might be a picture of how they embrace the mechanical and digital world in which we live.
Our class began like you’d expect. There was a PowerPoint that slowly introduced us to the process and parts. We had to learn how to walk before we ran. They explained how you hold the tweezers. They showed how the color of the screwdriver corresponds to a screw size. They mandated that the finger cots go on your index finger and thumb. These basic steps kept us from leaving marks and damaging the watch parts and preserving the delicate structure.
In front of us was a small plastic box that looked like a pill box with a week’s worth of prescriptions. Instead of pills, it was filled with the parts of my ETA 6497 watch movement.
Our first step was to place the base movement in a holder. Once it was secure, we had to remove the barrel and balance bridges. This alone took us several minutes as we fumbled around wearing our tiny condom-like finger cots. I felt like an elephant using an iPhone.
We installed the escape wheel and the third, fourth and center wheels before we got our first lesson in lubricating the pivots, the points of friction for the metal parts.
As our instructors walked the room and bent down to inspect our novice work, we speared our needle-like oiler into the lubricant. I wanted only the smallest amount since directing a drop of oil to a watch part is like threading a needle and drawing a smiley face on the other side of the opening.
Our first functional test was to make sure the train of wheels could spin. As simple as this seemed, it was an accomplishment and a joy to see these three tiny Ferris wheels spin in unison. We all looked up at each other and smiled like we just got a call from an authorized dealer telling us a new watch had arrived.
The watch parts could spin, but they needed an energy source. The barrel was next and oiling the arbor pivot was easier said than done. Again, the drops of lubricant required were so small. The instructors pointed out that if bought in a barrel like the ones holding crude oil, the oil we are using would cost $200,000.
As the class went on, the sun went down and left the LED-lamps on our desks spotlighting our clumsy work. We all seemed to embrace our shared awkwardness throughout the night as we became a merry band of brothers and sisters.
Working small was hard. Working carefully was my challenge. I had most of the movement assembled and had to install the balance bridge, which holds the balance and hairspring. The hairspring is the Slinky-like spring we all like to see turning in the back of a watch. I used my Plexi-stick to press the bridge onto the base and suddenly the hairspring coil jumped onto the table and wrapped around its bridge. And, just like that, I had damaged the part.
The instructor quickly assessed the tangle and deemed the hairspring too far gone. Within a few minutes, I had another part, and, with shaky hands, I was installing the replacement part in the same spot. I can’t imagine how traumatic this would have been if it had been a rare movement and the replacement parts in very short supply.
Through the rest of the night, we completed lubrication and installation of the dial washer — or cowboy hat as we called it — and we finally took a break. At dinner, we selected one of three dial designs and laughed about our work and wondered if some of us could catch our flights out that night.
Our last step was to case the movement and pressure test the watch. There were high-fives shared as we each passed this last functional hurdle. We lined up to do a group photo with our watches, but I still had a nagging feeling that my casing clamp was floating inside somewhere.
I’ve gotten to know a number of watchmakers in the last few years through AWCI. I’m fascinated by their path to a profession that continues after hundreds of years even though modern-day Uber drivers think it is unnecessary. Despite the indifference from some, the interest in these micromachines continues to grow. AWCI knows this and continues its work to certify and train its members as well as enthusiasts, with classes planned for the rest of this year in Austin, Dearborn and Chicago.
My new, hand-assembled watch is keeping time, but that’s not the reason I traveled across the country. I don’t wear it for accuracy. I wear mechanical watches because they engage me by making me wind them, set them and maintain them. They also connect me to stories, experiences and people in my life.
My kids marvel that their dad assembled a watch as they stare through the display caseback. I do too, but more because I have a better understanding of how it works and an appreciation of the skill it takes to keep them running. I expect this watch will be one my daughters will wear one day. I bet thirty years from now, they’ll tell the story of how I assembled it, lost a clamp and fear how it might still be banging around inside. I can only hope they’ll say: “That’s ok. I bet our watchmaker can fix it.”