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A day in the life… of a watchmaker

A day in the life… of a watchmaker

Wednesday, 12 May 2010
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Christophe Roulet
Editor-in-chief, HH Journal

“The desire to learn is the key to understanding.”

“Thirty years in journalism are a powerful stimulant for curiosity”.

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2 min read

The initiations organised by the Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie plunge neophytes into the heart of mechanical watchmaking. A fascinating, hands-on incursion that gives the full measure of a highly-qualified profession.

On the table are five tools, a watchmaker’s loupe and an ETA 6497 calibre, a hand-wound, Lépine-style mechanical movement, originally developed by Unitas and reprised by ETA (Swatch Group). At the table, an aficionado of mechanical watches that inspire as much as they intimidate the novice about to probe their heart. Because the Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie has a mission for the aspiring watchmakers in its initiation workshops: three hours to take apart then reassemble this mechanical marvel. Fortunately not blindfolded, and fortunately too under the guidance of the Foundation’s specialists who explain each step, after first dissecting the four major functions of a mechanical timepiece, which are to accumulate energy, transmit this energy, divide and regulate. Sheer bliss for someone who has never had the chance to “roll up their sleeves and dig in.”

First things first, out come the hour wheel and the cannon pinion, followed by the balance cock and balance complete with spring, the pallet cock and pallet. Next come the crown, the ratchet, the click and click spring, the barrel, wheels, setting lever spring and yoke spring, to end with the winding stem, winding pinion and sliding pinion. Four lines to sum up an hour spent meticulously unscrewing, uncoupling and lifting out components to be carefully set aside and whose names, for the most part, have been pulled from a dictionary unknown to the common of mortals. Yet what a pleasure it is to put a label on parts so often seen yet never truly identified.

Like a game of Lego, this disassembling is the “fun” bit where you’re convinced you’re a born watchmaker. Putting it all back together is a different matter. Think about it: for an “average” person who already has to juggle between the loupe and their bifocals, and steady a treacherous trembling hand lest they lose one of the precious parts, to grasp between tweezers a screw measuring a millimetre in diameter is an exploit in itself. To slide it into its tapped hole to secure a bridge, then insert and tighten a tiny spring is an achievement that would make any man proud. Which is precisely the aim of these workshops. After these two hours of assembly, punctuated by sighs, trickles of perspiration and muttered oaths, the ETA 6497 calibre reappears before the starry eyes of its “maker” who, for a short moment, feels they have touched the Grail. An experience no lover of mechanical watches should miss, and a reminder how small we are.

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