In the United States, the number of watchmaking schools is also growing, although the number of watchmakers they produce is relatively small. There are now 12 schools in the country; two have been opened in the past five years.
Part of the problem is that there is no quick and easy way to train someone in such a complex craft, watchmakers say. At the Lititz Watch Technicum, the tuition-free program lasts two years, the admissions process is highly discriminating, and the yearly graduating class is just 12 students. The unrushed precision of the training process is as crucial in schools as it is in watchmaking itself, said Herman Mayer, principal at Lititz.
In the spare, clean and quiet classrooms at Lititz, there are no shortcuts, Mayer said. Students must learn that the Swiss way — the uncompromising insistence on precision and quality — is the only way. It will be six months before the freshman class even touches a watch, and until then, they will spend their days learning the tedious process of shaping some of the tiny metal parts that make up a watch movement.
Here, the old-fashioned methods are still the best methods. Before they make their first part, they must learn to make the tool to make the part. But before that, they must learn to make the tool they will use to make the part-making tool. Eventually, the pieces will be sent to Switzerland to be graded, and their competence will be judged on their skill at machining to tolerances many times thinner than a human hair.
“You cannot allow yourself to make a mistake at one point and still have a running watch,” Mayer said. “Our only legitimate reason for existing as a profession is to be extremely quality-oriented, because nobody needs us.”
Dexterity and exacting standards are instilled from the first day, but so is an ability to think abstractly, to envision how and why a watch is malfunctioning. Students who are accepted also must prove they have the patience to tolerate working with parts barely bigger than a grain of dust.
At Lititz, the current freshman class is working to master the art of machining the stem that winds the watch. But at first, the process was more about brute force than delicate precision. “For four weeks, we filed,” student Todd Martin said. “Nothing but brass parts and stuff.”
“Before you know it, we’re making something with a hundredth of a millimeter tolerance,” said student Keaton Myrick.
They come from across the country, and while most of them are in their 20s, there are a few older students who came here from other technical professions. In the end, they will likely work for high-end watch retailers, or watch companies themselves, starting at salaries of about $40,000 a year.