Consider the modern watchmaker. There he or she sits, calmly working at the bench in a white coat. As a paragon of horological excellence, the watch technician is a maximally chill, placid oasis of tranquility in what can often be a raucous retail environment.
But like every other iceberg, today’s watchmaker is 1/4 ease and 3/4 barely hidden status anxiety leavened with gut-wrenching terror. Watchmaking is a technical discipline, so it stands to reason that everyone in the profession is governed by a tangle of professional organizations, national and international certifying bodies, and overlapping layers of contradictory vendor-specific guidelines and requirements.
I hope you brought your flippers, ‘cause it’s time for a deep dive into the frightening world of watchmaker certification.
More Like Your Grandfather’s Watchmaker
Today, the minor mis-calibration of your Yacht-Master is an irritation your spouse tires of hearing about. There is, after all, a network of geosynchronous satellites backstopping the chronological needs of Human Civilization. But if you were working the railroad in the first half of the last century, watchmaker error could rapidly increase the supply of widows and orphans. Watchmakers in America were licensed, examined by the state, and issued a serial number. In much the same way that failing to wind the deck chronometer of a naval vessel during wartime used to be a hanging offense, watchmaking had consequences.
With the advent of more accurate electrical (and then quartz-regulated) timekeeping, this relative importance disappeared, and for much of the 70’s and 80’s the profession lay fallow. But with the rediscovery of mechanical watches as a luxury product, and the ensuing race for ever-more-complicated pieces fashioned from ever-more-exotic materials (and costing ever more money), watchmaking got kind of scary again.
Welcome to the (Acronym) Jungle
For example, both of the full-time watchmakers at JB Hudson are WOSTEP certified. That would be the “Watchmakers of Switzerland Training and Educational Program,” and it is an internationally recognized qualification for working on fine timepieces. Another common certification in the United States is the CW21, for “Certified Watchmaker,” administered by the AWCI – The American Watchmakers-Clockmakers Institute. Not to be outdone, Rolex currently funds the SAWTA (“Swiss American Watchmakers Training Alliance”) certification, which is rapidly eating into the hegemony of the other two.
For the consumer, all this means is that you would prefer your personal watchmaker to have been professionally certified by somebody, somewhere. For the technician, it means that all of this certification must be confirmed by the demonstration of tangible horological skill in something called a “bench test.” If you want to be a watchmaker, you’re gonna have to get used to bench testing. Lots and lots of bench testing.
As a child I recall praying – fervently – that my pet cat would find her way home after she was lost for a week, which she did. My WOSTEP bench test took three full days, involved a written exam and the overhaul of 3 separate watches, and was the culmination of two years of full-time vocational training. At one point the hairspring from my Lemania 1873 chronograph (which you may be more familiar with as the Omega 861) became so tangled and knotted that I think my heart stopped for about 14 seconds. I consider myself at best an agnostic, but you better believe that test involved a certain amount of fervent prayer.
Was I heard by a loving God? I can’t answer, but I will tell you that every stage in the watchmaker’s professional advancement is adorned by yet another bench test. So you’ve successfully completed your professional certification? Lucky you – every prospective employer will require another bench test! And should you be fortunate enough to find work, that’s only the beginning.
My words come to you today from the Holiday Inn in sunny [redacted] where I am participating in a two-week training interval with [redacted], this to secure access to factory parts. To qualify me for this training, a [redacted] employee was dispatched to administer a bench test wherein I was asked to overhaul and case a 2892A2 movement. Fair enough. On my first day of training I was asked to take (that’s right!) another bench test on the ETA 7750 to confirm my fitness for training. On my final day of training, a certificate will be awarded — after one last bench test.
It’s All for the Best
My mental health aside, there are practical reasons for this. Contemporary watch brands, especially our friends in haute horologie, jealously guard their reputations. And yes, we’re all familiar with the industry flim-flammery, the tricks and traps that so often inform the marketing of the latest fancy must-have thing. But the avid enthusiast, the true lover of watches, should be comforted by these small dramas behind the scenes. They demonstrate that the foundation of watchmaking is still personal – still dependent on an individual’s decision to submit to an idea of quality that may outstrip his or her abilities.
Many times, I’ve lingered after hours in some lab far from home, doing my damnedest to be better. And always someone else with more experience and a strong loupe saying No, you haven’t quite got it. Not yet.