Reduction In Wait Times For Watch Servicing Repair And The Disturbing Reality Of What It Means For You
by Ashton Tracy
It’s no secret that customers are frustrated with the time it takes to get things done in the watch industry. Even something as simple as ordering a strap takes several weeks if not months; a complete overhaul is another matter entirely.
But be careful what you wish for because the watch industry seems to be listening, with companies employing procedures to drastically reduce service delays.
And there’s a dirty downside.
Lack of qualified watchmakers is the underlying issue when it comes to watches taking so long to repair. Understaffed workshops throughout the world struggle to keep up with demand for repair, which in turn causes lead times to swell out of control.
Qualified watchmakers are hard to find, and watchmaking schools are still harder to find – these schools being expensive to operate, and finding suitably qualified instructors being nearly impossible.
Countries that offer watchmaking programs not affiliated with WOSTEP, the British Horological Institute, or a similarly recognized institution are considered second rate – with students not even recognized for positions within the industry.
Schools that do offer these accredited courses are relatively few, only accepting 8-10 students per year and operating in as few countries.
The luxury watch market has had its share of ups and downs over the past few years, but one fact remains: the number of watchmakers graduating doesn’t even come close to the numbers required to sustain and maintain a reasonable repair service.
So the industry took another route.
The first route is deskilling the industry via a sequential repair system.
A sequential system of repair resembles a production process, with each member of the team focusing on one area of a watch.
A technician removes the movement from the case, another the dial and hands, someone else disassembles the movement, yet someone else takes care of assembly – but only some aspects of assembly: the barrel and train by one, the escapement by another, and the dial and hands by someone else entirely.
The beauty of this system is it requires very little skill with an individual trained on one aspect of a movement only. And that person can have practically no knowledge of watchmaking, let alone any passion for the art, and can be taught the new “craft” in a matter of weeks. And be replaced at the drop of a hat.
Deskilling is great for watch brands because they no longer require a workshop full of qualified watchmakers, only a few to oversee the whole system. It could even be seen as a good thing for the consumer because we all love decreased lead times and getting our watches back more quickly.
We must, however, look at what is being sacrificed.
Watchmakers tend to be passionate people in love with their craft. You would be hard pressed to find a retired watchmaker; they generally don’t give up. Passionate repairers are needed to ensure watches, especially vintage or – particularly high-end – are looked after and treated with respect.
Sending your 1969 Speedmaster in for repair, knowing it is being repaired by a team of unqualified individuals with very little understanding of watchmaking principles, is a fairly scary prospect.
When one individual, who is highly qualified and appropriately trained, is responsible for completing a task and seeing it through from beginning to end, there is a sense of responsibility involved. With the outcome always producing superior results to that of the production line.
Exchanging movements instead of fixing them
The second way lead times are being reduced is by exchanging complete movements rather than servicing them.
We live in a throw-away society, and the world of modern watchmaking is sadly no different. It has been fairly commonplace in the watch industry for quartz movements to be exchanged for a new or refurbished model due to the fact that these are usually inexpensive when compared to mechanical movements.
However, over time certain companies have adopted the method of exchanging simple three-hand automatic and manual-wind movements and date models that are fairly inexpensive.
These days we see a new trend developing, an alarming one in my opinion. Watch manufacturers that don’t have the repair infrastructure in certain markets, even surprisingly in larger countries, have taken to exchanging more costly movements rather than servicing and repairing them.
Even chronographs equipped with an ETA 7750 that have been C.O.S.C. certified are being exchanged for refurbished models sent back from the factory. Movement serial numbers that were once unique to your watch are now being replaced with records updated to match the C.O.S.C. database.
Your old movement complete with your individual serial number will later down the track be placed into someone else’s watch entirely.
This process isn’t limited to ETA movements. Companies that produce in-house calibers certified by C.O.S.C. with individual serial numbers are also replacing movements with refurbished or even new movements, whichever is cheaper.
I spoke to a watchmaker once who had previously worked for SSIH (the precursor to the Swatch Group). He expressed to me that multiple watches would be disassembled at one time; all the components were mixed together and sent for cleaning, upon return from cleaning the movements would be re-assembled in no particular order with parts being put back wherever.
The only thing that needed to be checked was putting the bridge with the movement number back in the right watch.
To be honest this shocked me.
As a naive young watchmaker at the time I wondered how such a gross injustice could occur: customers deserve to have their own watch back in their entireties.
Is there a better way?
This is what is happening today. Perhaps I am still a little naive, perhaps we really do live in a different time and this is what today’s consumer is after. But I feel I have spoken to enough collectors in my time to know that this isn’t what they want.
In fact, I have spoken to plenty of individuals who have purchased vintage Omegas and the like based on movement numbers that have corresponded with dates that are important to them.
We would all love to have shorter wait times to receive our watches back from repair, but surely there is a better way.