Re-appreciating Horology: A (Half) Day As A Watchmaker

Cultural Perspectives • 01 Oct 2018

Re-appreciating Horology: A (Half) Day As A Watchmaker

by Ida Lee

How a class with the Horological Society of New York gave me a new appreciation of horology.

I’m going to make a bold claim: to take your appreciation of horology, especially haute horology, to the next level, you should make at least one attempt at watchmaking. A daunting prospect (it certainly was to me), but be assured, it is possible for a novice to take apart, then put back together, a working mechanical watch.

In 2015, the Horological Society of New York (HSNY), America’s oldest watchmaking guild, introduced Watchmaking 101, and the start of HSNY’s public education program. In September 2018, the Society saw a new milestone: hosted by The Hour Glass, their travelling Horology 101-103 program came to Asia for the first time. In less than 10 days, the workshops were sold out, proving yet again the immense popularity of the program.

The half-day workshop offered in Singapore is roughly equivalent to three separate evening workshops offered in New York. It covers the basics of the escapement (Horology 101), gear train theory (Horology 102), then finally winding and setting works (Horology 103), through the supervised disassembly and reassembly of an ETA 6497 movement.

The instructor is Vincent Robert, director of HSNY’s Travelling Education program, and himself a watchmaker trained in Switzerland. Assisting him was Andy Quek, head of after-sales service at The Hour Glass, and a third-generation watchmaker in Singapore. After a brief introduction to the history and types of watches, the content quickly turned to delivery of theory and practical activities. Sounds relatively simple, right? Not so easy when Vincent compares the second step of the session – removing the balance bridge – to “performing open-heart surgery on a watch.” No pressure. The room goes silent as each of us attempt this delicate act, followed by audible sighs of relief as the bridges take temporary residence on the tray, with the bridge-side down.

The course runs like clockwork. It’s clear that with 3 years’ worth of experience, HSNY has updated their content to anticipate most, if not all, the likely steps that will stump their participants. Each step of the process is clearly explained, with diagrams on the screen showing which parts will be manipulated, which tools are required, and what role the parts play in the movement explained. Just the right amount of time is allowed for completing each step, and for the instructors to check that every participant is on the right track. All this makes for a very smooth content delivery for a heavily packed 4-hour session. And while it is intense, the program is still very much manageable, even for those who have no prior knowledge about mechanical watchmaking, or even horology in general.

Perhaps, and probably the most surprising aspect is that the experience can be very meditative. That the detailed guidance from Vincent and Andy quickly builds confidence as the logic of the mechanism design is explained. It becomes easier to see how the parts are linked, how they come apart, and how to put them back together. There are moments of contemplation and reflection as parts are slowly eased into their rightful places, and gently tapped into place. There is no temptation to rush the process, even though time is limited. The quiet satisfaction as the balance bridge and spring start moving again, and the final screw turned. It leaves you feeling giddy for hours, even days, afterwards.

It almost seems paradoxical that only by spending thoughtful time looking at these stationary parts, does the whole genius and beauty of watches become that much more obvious. Any fledging enthusiast has probably all spent quite some time looking through loupes, studying the details of different movements, but sometimes it’s easy to miss what is right in front of one’s eyes. Much of the ingenuity and delicacy within a watch movement are often there, just not in direct view; the tiny pivots beneath the jewels, the elegantly curved yoke spring keeping the yoke against the sliding pinion… When assembled, these parts don’t look like much; when taken apart, they look even less. On their own, the wheels, springs, screws appear even smaller, and ever so fragile; yet someone has made them. And then you’re hit with the realisation that, centuries ago (and in some cases, even today) these parts were painstakingly made by hand, then carefully put together to form a working, ticking machine. And before the parts can be made, someone had to conceptualise and design these mechanisms. Precision, poise, engineering and creativity lie at the heart of watchmaking. It is a form of art attainable through practice and aided by talent.

Needless to say, it is impossible to fit in all there is to know about horology within a 4-hour timeframe. There was so much ground that could not be covered (lubricating the jewels, for example, is a whole different art in itself). The good news: HSNY is currently developing a further half-day program to follow on from Horology 101-103, looking at the escapement, oscillation, and regulation. For anyone with an inkling of interest in watches and horology, I highly recommend enrolling in such a workshop, especially those, like me, who are too scared to do it on their own. And along the way there’ll also be the opportunity to meet like-minded watch enthusiasts, and who wouldn’t want that?

The author attended the workshop courtesy of The Hour Glass.

Article banner image credit: Horological Society of New York

Tags: horological society of new york horology hsny travelling education watchmaking watchmaking class

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