What I’m about to tell you goes against my usual advice. Despite my admonishments about finding hobbies that are free and do not require room for storage, I have taken up watch repair as a hobby.
Watch repair has significant upfront costs for the tools. So far I have paid around $300. Fortunately, the tools show very little depreciation, and I get the impression from some eBay sellers that some of them use precision tools, rather than gold, as an inflation hedge. Also, there are very few running costs with the hobby, mainly cleaning supplies and oil. The storage problem is there but it is not bad. My tools fit in a little wooden box, about 3″x3″x12″ or so.
Thus far, from teaching myself via books (I suggest getting Watch Repairing As a Hobby by Fletcher) and an correspondence course from the Chicago School of Watchrepair from the 1950s, I have managed to take a 17 jewel movement, that is, a typical wind-up wrist watch apart and put it back together and make it run again.
A 17J mechanical watch is not so complicated. It is essentially composed for a barrel with a spring inside that provides the power, a gear train to ensure that the hands are rotating at the right speed relative to each other, a balance spring, which holds a constant frequency (the timekeeping part) and an escapement that connects the gear train to the spring. Essentially the gear train provides energy to the spring to keep it going, much like pushing a pendulum a little bit each time it goes past, and in return, the spring operates a lever that releases the power of the spring at a slow and constant rate rather than all at once.
This invention is more than four centuries old and like the deep plate, it is a climax technology having reached perfection many years ago. This means that watch technology is essentially unchanging.
A watch is a remarkable example of precision technology. A good mechanical watch keeps time to about 1 second per day. That is a precision tolerance of 1/86400. You do not find this in many places.
These days many people use quartz watches or cell phones to keep time. If you want to know the exact time or only care about your time keeper insofar as knowing the time, this is a much cheaper option. Today, these pieces have almost supplanted mechanical watches.
Mechanical watches, however, are pieces of art, or more accurately, they are technological art. While paintings and sculptures bore me, I can stare at a running steam engine for hours, and the same goes for a watch, so bear with me. Me putting a mechanical watch on my wrist or tabletop is the same as you putting a picture on your wall. Conversely, you putting a quartz watch on your wrist or a cell phone on your wrist is the same as me keeping my walls bare. Hence, today mechanical watches are somewhat of a luxury item on par with art—at least that’s how I see it.
Since quartz watches run on electricity, they require the occasional battery change. Despite being battery free, mechanical watches also require service. To keep time, mechanical watches can not have any friction causing dirt in them. Since oil dries out, they must be serviced every couple or years, much like an engine needs an oil change. Hence, watchmakers are needed in the same way that mechanics are. To keep with the analogy—you are unlikely to find many 20+ year old quartz watches in operation, just like you wont see many computers or cellphones still running after that time. Mechanical watches last a lifetime or more and so can easily be considered heirlooms. My 30mm Omega Seamaster is from 1961.
Anyway, it is an interesting hobby that could potentially be turned into a small business and a source of profit. It could even be pursued as a career. The typical education takes 2 years and starting salaries are 40kish. I have thought about that, but for now I will leave it at the hobby stage and keep practicing. My first goal is to repair watches for free. So …
Incidentally, if you (or anyone you know) have any old mechanical windup or old self-winding watches that run poorly or no longer run at all and just lying around in a drawer, I’d love to have them for study to practice on and possibly fix them up. Write me an email at jacob at early … com for more details if you are interested in sending me with some “study materials” (if outside the US, make sure to declare it as a gift).