Buying Time

So finally my apprenticeship was complete and I left the workshop with more skills than I’d ever thought possible. But I love to keep learning so I lived in Switzerland for the next 5 years, honing my craft and working with the best in the profession.

switzerland-viewThere were times when I took on watch cleaning jobs just to get the experience of working with them. I made no money to speak of but I considered it part of my education, something that would pay me back over and over throughout my life.

I love Switzerland and during those 5 years much time was spent exploring the mountains and trekking or skiing, depending on the season of course. Between these outdoor activities I learned to work on old, primitive clocks and became something of an expert in period time pieces. It is always such a delight to come across a unique, ancient clock that benefits from care and attention.

And it wasn’t just my love of timepieces that blossomed in that beautiful country. It was during those wonderful years that I met my wife Gelda. We courted for 4 years before marrying in a gorgeous traditional village near Lucerne. In honour of my love of watches, I wore a fabulous timepiece lent to me by a watchmaker friend. It was such an honour though I was terrified of losing such a precious item.

Once we married, we settled in Lucerne for a while, until my work took me to other parts of Europe, specialising as I was in ancient timepieces. It was a wonderful time for us both as we visited Germany, France, Spain, Monaco and England together.

Once in the UK we decided to put down roots and opened a workshop and watch showroom in Bristol. Gelda loves Somerset and surprisingly some of the hills in the area remind her of home, although I’ve never considered that county to be much like Switzerland. But it’s subjective and Gelda derives much comfort from walking in the Quantocks and it’s true there’s a lot of wilderness in parts of the West Country.

bristolOur shop prospered, we had a peaceful and pleasant life, then along came two beautiful daughters to complete our dream existence.

Today we live in an unusual property on the banks of the River Avon, not too far from the City.  Between us we run three shops and a busy workshop and have a good lifestyle.

I’ve been delighted that our two girls are also interested in timepieces. Adriana is become quite skilled at taking watches apart and her small hands are definitely an advantage. So I have hopes that ours will become a family business that’s handed down from generation to generation. It would be wonderful to think we had founded a business for the future! My children’s interest reminds me so much of my own childhood

Half Past

From the point of playing the memory game, we began to work on how assemblies came together, why certain pieces worked with others, how to create balance, and most importantly how to operate the springs. The coiled up spring you find if you pull apart any wound clock or watch may look simplistic in it’s design, but I can attest to how difficult it is to get in right, wind correctly, and not slice into part of your finger if it does inevitably snap out of place, which I did at least a half dozen times in my first six months there. By this point I was learning the layout of the shop pretty well, the drawers were becoming familiar, and I was learning to put gear systems into place efficiently.

Some of the mystery of the clocks that I remember having as a kid, staring in the hallway at our grandfather clock started to become unravelled. My teacher was extremely proficient in his means of teaching, and I was finding that I could retain a lot of what he taught me through his simple actions. And I guess that when it comes to this type of teaching, you need to emulate the object you’re learning. That every tiny piece comes together in the end, and even though something looks or feels simplistic, without it the whole mechanism would fall apart. It was really impressive when I started to reflect on all I learned in such a short time.

After spending a fair bit of time doing runs, I would learn to wind, how to lathe gears, and other minor tasks that every respectable watch and clock maker should know. I got to see and somewhat understand the intricate work of pocket watches that I always admired, and spent a lot of time looking up from my tasks at hand to watch him deftly putting pieces together in much more intricate or larger time pieces. It was a humbling experience that I’m sure is never taken into account when you look at your own watch or clock, the amount of work that goes into high quality ones, and why they can have such a high asking price, the majority is the skill level of the work that goes into it.

Nearing the end of my first year, I began to assist with some minor repairs, either to the gear work itself or to the structure that frames it, and began to dread my time coming to an end. We talked at the start of my first year about my perhaps staying on, but if there was anything I had learned over this time, is that my teacher would never make a final statement until all the pieces were in place, and as much as I admired that, I wondered if I would have enough time to get everything I needed to into place to be able to extend my stay here, as there was a lot of paperwork to fill out.

The next part of my story is called Buying Time

Time Keeps Moving

I remember coming into the last day of my first year apprenticeship. I walked through the door as I always had, talked to the lady at the front desk for a few minutes as always, and then made my way to the office to greet my teacher. He was sitting at a bare desk, sipping a cup of tea, which is not normally as I would find it. I found myself wondering if the last day would just be more talking, but after our greetings he told me to follow him. I walked into the shop behind him to see the mirrored desk across form his was no longer empty. On top of the desk was the small cuckoo clock from my first day, all taken apart, each piece laid out on the desk, my mentor motioned to the chair.

He put his own pocket watch down on the table, and waited until precisely nine o’clock. He then told me I had two hours, and walked out of the room closing the door behind him. I started to panic a little, for as much as I had done there, I had never taken a piece from nothing and made it into something, but I knew that I couldn’t let nerves get the best of me. I remembered him pointing to each piece, recalling their names in my head. I remembered the small repairs I would do and knowing what order they had to be in. As each piece went into my hand and onto the gear work, it started to dawn on me exactly how much I had been taught when I wasn’t paying attention.

After three quarters of an hour, I had rebuilt the entire clock. Not really sure of what I was supposed to do next, whether I should track him down, or wait out the other hour and a quarter, I went in depth looking at every piece to ensure that it was all correct. I watched the second hand and listened for it to fall in time with his pocket watch. Then the watch struck the exact second of ten, he opened the door from his office. He walked over and put his watch back in his pocket with a smiling remark about how one hour was enough time for me. He then began his own inspection of the piece, which made me even more nervous.

After a few minutes of looking about, and feeling it in his hands, he put the clock down on the table and clapped his hand on my shoulder with a smile. I breathed a huge sigh of relief to see his appreciation of the work he put into teaching me. We went to his office and discussed the matter of continuing my training there, to which I eagerly agreed. That night I began filing the paperwork, and as I write this, just had it all confirmed. I look back on going from clock gazer to builder, and think of all the precise seconds that have ticked by.

First Gears

The second day I went back to the shop, which was a Wednesday because the shop was closed on Mondays, which took me a bit to get used to coming from American schedules. As I walked into the workspace, I was impressed with it’s size firstly. I always pictured clock and watch makers sitting at tiny tables surrounded tightly by the mechanisms of their work, but this place had a fairly open design plan and more tiny drawers than I had seen in one place. Hanging from hooks in the roof was hundreds of clocks of all shapes and sizes, in various states of construction. I was immediately hit with a sense of losing track of everything I was working on, that I would forget certain pieces, but then remembered that this gentleman had been at this for years, and probably had his own system.

Clock gears

As we made our way to two longer tables pressed against each other, their set ups directly mirroring each other, he told me that this was where we would begin to build when I was ready, until then, I would learn the ins and outs of every piece, gear and material within the shop. I would learn what each gear was used for, the terms and names of everything, and essentially spend a whole lot of time watching. This, coming from an engineering background, I was ok with. I knew coming into things that I would have a whole lot to learn, and wasn’t daunted.

He sat himself at the table, and asked me to pass him a piece he pointed to at the ceiling. It was a somewhat simple cuckoo clock design, that he stated would be the easiest place for me to start. I watched as he expertly dismantled the work that he had begun, and laid all the parts out on the table, I now see why we used a large table for his work rather than the tiny ones I was picturing, even in a simple clock there was hundreds of pieces to keep track of. He would point to one, say it’s name, and then continue on, every now and then making a backtrack to point to one that he had previously named, and look at me silently. I would attempt to recall the name, and found myself only getting about one out of every five or six.

He didn’t seem at all phased by this though, and we continued this game for the rest of the afternoon. Some may have felt at the end of the day that this long tedious game of memory would have been a waste of time after flying halfway across the world to learn how to actually do something, but then again, I once again credit my engineering background for giving me the patience to know that in complicated things, simple and tedious approaches build success. It took me just over a week to be able to name four out of every five to six.

Time Craft

SwitzerlandWhen I first arrived in Switzerland the first thing to catch my attention was the scenery. The alps off in the distance, and the beautiful architecture, certainly something I wasn’t used to in my small town part of the US. I’m sure there are beautiful places across the country, but I can only go off what I saw, which was a suburban town with one street of stores. This city, was like something out of a fairy tale, and I spent the first two days there just wandering around, looking at every tiny detail. I’m sure I would have only been more obvious with a shirt that stated tourist in bold capital letters, but I was fine with being enraptured with the beauty of a place I was just now seeing for the first time.

By this point I was settled in the small apartment arranged ahead of my travels here. It was nothing overly special, mainly a room with a bed, and a separate room that doubled as a kitchen and living room. For the budget I had to work out over the span of the year I would be here, it was what I could afford, yet it still served my means, and I didn’t expect to be spending a lot of time just sitting in my apartment when there was so much to explore in the area. I had a four day rest before I was to begin my apprenticeship and so took the opportunity to truly explore my surroundings, take a lot of pictures, and video call the family back home to let them know I arrived safe.

I wasn’t sure what to expect the morning I woke up to get my first days apprenticeship under my belt, or who to expect even as I walked through the door to the workshop. I was greeted by a nice older lady, who spoke in fairly good English, pock marked with a heavy Swiss accent. She had me fill out some paperwork while I was there, and brought me to an office to meet with the master I would be apprenticing under. I expected a crazy haired man in a cardigan, those glasses with four sets of magnifying glasses attached to the side. But the man who walked in was maybe only 10 years older than me, sharply dressed with a leather apron over his dress shirt.

watchmakerHe was somewhat emotionless, giving me the once over, and then breaking out into a big welcoming grin and shaking my hand firmly. I assume he also wasn’t quite sure what to expect, and something in either my dress or mannerisms put him into a more comfortable state, I never really brought it up for fear of coming across as rude. We spent the afternoon talking about what we would be doing over the course of the year, and about the potential to continue my apprenticeship to second and third years if everything worked out with work and visas, and of  course finances.

           

Second Hand

Since I was a child I was fascinated with time. I remember spending hours in our family home staring at the grandfather clock that stood in the hallway, trying to figure out how it all worked. How the second hand kept going, the pendulum kept swinging, and how it did all of this without being plugged into the wall. I would count out seconds with each minute gone by, and wait for the chime every hour. I’m sure that to my parents, it must have been weird to have a child who would just sit there and stare at the clock for hours on end, but I’m sure it’s just as bad as kids today staring at the television for hours on end.

alarm clockThere was something about the mechanics of clocks that always grabbed my attention, and the older I got, and the more I understood some things, the more confused I actually became about how clocks worked. I remember having this open gear system alarm clock, and just watching in awe at all the moving parts required to simply turn three hands on a face. But all of this done with high accuracy, to the point of only losing a few minutes every few years, this was a cheap alarm clock after all, not a high quality Swiss design or something of the like.

Growing up throughout the years, my birthday and Christmas wish lists were always topped by time pieces. Whether watches or clocks of all shapes and sizes. I had amassed quite the collection by the time I was in college. When I moved out of the house to get my engineering degree, I left a lot of these behind in storage. Coming back after my tenure in school, I had grown my collection while on my own, and had the greatest time going through all the boxes to reopen all of these gifts that I had received over the years, it was like getting all new gifts all over again, the memory and wonder coming back with each piece I came across that I hadn’t seen in ages.

After graduating from school, degree in hand, I could have immediately gotten into engineering work, but I was still in love with clocks. After spending a lot of time researching, I found an apprenticeship program in Switzerland for clock making under master artists. It was pricey and it was across the planet, but it was something I couldn’t turn down. So after going through a lengthy application process, and getting a whole lot of paperwork done, I found myself on a plane heading to the land of the most elaborate and master built clocks in the world. I was more excited for this journey than anything else I had done in my life, and marvelled at the path of pursuit that my dreams had taken me to by this point, wondering where I was going to go next with all that I would learn while I was there.

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