I recently returned from a week photographing the annual conference of American Watchmakers-Clockmakers Institute (AWCI). I was there to teach photography and get images of the event that has been held annually since 1960. I felt like I was speed-dating at a club of modern-day watchmaking shamans, who openly talked about missing their watch bench and the trance-state in which they function as they solve our watch-wearing woes.  I learned a lot about what to look for in a watchmaker.

When these watchmaking wizards first met in Chicago in 1960, they were 1500-members strong. This year hosted about 100 who showed up for technical workshops, key supplier presentations and the latest and greatest in their technological tools of the trade.

I walked among them for the week taking photographs, attending their classes, and getting to know the folks who will, in a few years, take care of that watch I got for Christmas. It felt like speed dating, except my wife knew about it. I came away with three things you might want to know about this small, band of brothers.

(l-r) Fred White, AWCI president; Jordan Ficklin, AWCI executive director; and Henrik Korpela, from K&H Watchmaking Competence Centre

Lesson one: There are fewer watchmakers out there: Know where to find them.

I love mechanical watches but I hurts me to spend money to service them. Come on. You do too, right? The daily synchronization of my slow-moving watch is part of the charm, but that can’t last forever, neither can that noise you hear in your car’s front end. We all may have been faced with the limited budget dilemma: buy a new watch or service an old one. Let’s say you have decided on the latter and now you have to find someone who’ll do the work. Where do you start?

Yes, please use your friends as reference. Look to the forums if you like. Even try “the Google,” as we like to say in my house.

Here is another idea. The folks at the AWCI have made it even easier for you.  They have a member site that helps folks like us find guys like them. Give it a try here.

Another way to find a watchmaker is to let the brand do the work themselves. If your watch collection is pretty mainstream, chances are you may have or want one of their watches which include Brequet, Blancpain, Omega, Longines, Rado, Tissot, Mido, and Hamilton to name a few. Swatch published a site here that lists all its brands and their service costs.

Here are some watchmakers looking at some new equipment.

Lesson two: Watchmakers’ certification seems like a big deal.

Ok, you found a watchmaker, now what? Will you give them your family heirloom or grail watch because they’re listed on a Web site like AWCI’s? I suggest you look for a certification like the CW21, which stands for a “certified watchmaker of the 21st century”. There are others, too. The point is that this certification implies a certain standard in training and professionalism, and brands pay attention to that.

Now don’t think this is some beauty school diploma and barber license rolled up in into one. These folks take seriously the training and testing it takes to put one of these after your name. There’s a level of measured knowledge, skills and abilities this certification requires. (Geek out with me at the AWCI web site which has dozens of videos to support watchmakers’ training here.)

The certification doesn’t just give a sense of skill, it also gives the watchmakers access to supplies from brands. Some brands are evaluating who they sell parts to, and this could affect the guy at the strip mall who has been doing watches for years. Think “certification means access to parts.”

Here is the point. Depending on your approach to maintain your watches and what needs to be done to them, professional, certified watchmakers will be more likely to use brand’s parts and material to maintain the watch. Look for this certification if you want to maintain a watch that you want to keep around.

Nick Manousos teaches a class on nanofabrication. Nick is the Technical Editor at HODINKEE, and the Vice President of the Horological Society of New York.

Lesson Three: Get to know your watchmaker, if you can.

The watchmaker is a business-person too. Get to know to know both sides of the person. In Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi episode, the soup was so good that Jerry and George subjected themselves to the Soup Nazi’s business rules: “Walk in and move immediately to your right; keep the line moving; hold out your money; speak your soup in a loud, clear voice; and step to the left.” This guy was an expert at soup, but maybe not the best at customer service.

One of my first watchmakers I used was just the opposite of the Soup Nazi. He was very kind and a lot of fun to talk to, but his business practices kept me guessing if I’d ever see the watch again. He had my watch for a year, and after losing an original part, ordering a replacement, and losing the replacement part, I finally got the watch back. It stopped working before I got home. This was a great investment in my watch education.

The watchmakers I met in Chicago were all very serious about their profession and their personal connections to the others at the conference. They also love watches. They also are juggling the life issues we all deal with and sometimes that shows up in the small things on your wrist.

Consider their business processes for shipping and receiving your watch. Once they have the watch, get a clear timeline on when you can see the watch again and how much it will cost before the work is done. See if they ask you about the watch to understand its providence and intrinsic value. See if they dismiss repairs it as too costly to repair based on its market value.

You might want to discuss how they source parts and what their approach is to repairing the watches and if they warrant their work once it’s complete. The bottom line is that they are in the business to work on watches and make a living. Their time is worth something and don’t be surprised if it shows up in an estimate. Just make sure you want them to have your watch and your money.

Let me hear more about your experiences getting your watches serviced.

ByJohn Biggs

John lives in Brooklyn and has loved watches since he got his first Swatch Irony automatic in 1998. He is the editor of WristWatchReview.

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