The solitary watchmaker and hand-made watches

 By: cazalea : March 23rd, 2021-08:27
I have been thinking about how a hand-made watch can be made by one person, and was provoked by a recent article by Vincent V. Cherico in the Watch & Clock Bulletin from NAWCC.  The article is copyrighted so you will have to go to NAWCC to get the whole thing, but here is his opening page:

In this article, Cherico makes the amazing statement that 

"Perhaps the most important thing to know about English “watchmakers” in the 18th and early 19th centuries is that they rarely spent any time making watches!"

“Watch-maker” might have originally denoted a single person making a watch out of rough materials; but this was the case only in the infancy of the art. That is, until the demand for pocket watches became so great that they became commercial objects. Division of labor was found to speed up their manufacture; and each specialty (there were many!) had its own tools and tradesmen. Thousands of families (yes, children too) were employed creating individual components, without needing communicate with or compete with other specialists, who were making different parts.  The capital investment in tools was reduced for the single-item producer, and skills and speed could be improved more easily than for those trying to make a watch themselves.

NOTE: Of course this was not unique to England. A snow-bound Swiss family beavering away at special mechanisms all winter come to my mind. They would schlepp down to Geneva in the Spring to exchange their handiwork for cash.

At one point in the 19th century, England had an annual production of about 200,000 watches. In the City of London alone (that tiny financial district) 8,000 workers were occupied — producing 10,000 watches a month with 40% destined for local customers and 60% for export.

By 1819, Abraham Rees’s Cyclopedia (you can find this on Google Books; look for chapter 27 Watches) described the process of making watches, and listed:
13 different “principal workmen employed in manufacturing a movement” 

21 additional “workmen employed on a watch to complete it from the state in which the movement is received from the country.”

The 13 trades required to produce the rough movement to be sent to London (in modern English)
  1. Frame (plate) maker working in brass
  2. Pillar-maker, who turned the steel pillars (linking plates, bridges and cock) and made the stud for the stop-work
  3. Cock-maker, who made the balance cock and the stop-work
  4. The barrel and fusee-maker, who made the barrel, great wheel, fusee and parts
  5. Going fusee-maker, a special device that allowed a watch to continue to run while being wound with a key
  6. The center wheel and pinion maker
  7. The small pinion-maker, who used fine drawn wire to create the tiny pinions, the 3rd and 4th wheels, and the escapement-wheel pinion (and pinions of repeater trains, if equipped)
  8. The small wheel-maker, who created the 3rd and 4th wheels and fastened them to their pinions
  9. The wheel-cutter, who cut gear teeth in the wheels
  10. The verge-maker, who mades the verge for watches with vertical escapements
  11. The movement-finisher, who turned the cut wheels to finished/fitted size and put all the movement parts onto the plates
  12. The balance-maker who made the balance wheels of steel or brass
  13.  The pinion wire drawer (if not done by #6 and #7 themselves)

The resulting rough movement, as sent to the London "watchmaker", included the main plate (with all the above parts) and the balance cock screwed to the outside of the upper plate. 

The following two dozen categories of workmen were employed to assemble the watch components and complete a watch AFTER the rough movement arrived:
  1. The slide-maker
  2. The jeweler, who jeweled the cock and the plates, and any other jeweled holes.
  3. The motion-maker, who created the spacers and edge plates and any other pieces required to lock the movement into the case
  4. The motion wheel-cutter who made the rings to edge the gold, brass or steel case
  5. The cap-maker, who mades the cap (crown)
  6. The dial-plate maker, who creates the dial
  7. The dial-painter who puts on the logos, numerals and other decoration
  8. The case maker
  9. The joint-finisher who polishes and completes the cosmetic details of the case
  10. The pendant maker, who creates the bow and other items on top of the case 
  11. The engraver who does the decoration and names of maker, retailer and/or recipient
  12. The piercer who punches, saws and/or decorates the balance cock
  13. The escapement maker
  14. The mainspring maker
  15. The fusee chain maker
  16. The finisher who completes the watch, and adjusts it
  17. The gilder who does gold or other plating of components of the watch
  18. The fusee-cutter who makes the grooves the barrels to receive the chain
  19. The hand-maker who makes the hands for the watch
  20. The glass-maker who makes the crystals
  21. The specialist making springs for opening half-and full-hunter watch cases
  22. The artist who cuts and tunes gongs and chimes for repeater watches
  23. Specialists who create and calibrate temperature-compensated balance wheels 
  24. Women (generally) do the final polishing to perfection

In the 1952 book The Story of Watches, Aaron L. Dennison says that couriers would be tasked with:

“Taking these various pieces of work to the outside workpeople — who, if sober enough to be at their places, were likely to be engaged on someone’s work who had been ahead of him, and how, under such circumstances, he would take the occasion to drop into a ‘pub’ to drink and gossip, and, perhaps, unfit himself for work the remainder of the day.”

I love this description, and perhaps it reads true about the era! 

NOTE: When I moved to England 30+ years ago, my first day was spent mostly at the Hand & Spear, drinking ale and eating chips while being introduced to my new team. I suppose things have changed since then, sadly...

None of the above persons were “watchmakers”; that title was reserved for the masters who were responsible for overseeing the final assembly and arrangement of the components when they were all brought together.

As Robert Campbell described in 1747:

The Watch-Maker puts his Name upon the Plate, and is esteemed the Maker, though he has not made in his shop the smallest Wheel belonging to it. It is supposed, however, that he can make all the Movements… He must be a Judge of the Goodness of Work at first Sight, and put his Name to nothing but what will stand the severest Trial; for the Price of the Watch depends upon the Reputation of the Maker only.

This is all ancient history, and mostly forgotten except by guys like author Cherico, whose full articles we should all read.

Alas, not too many watches are now made in England. Did the English give up their market willingly? I think not. There was competition from many countries, including the US, that eventually undermined this colossal cooperative system of manufacturing.

Swiss watchmakers began to develop thinner, lighter, and cheaper pocket watches, which were in great demand from those who saw them like we see watches today, as symbols of accomplishment. But even their prices seemed too high, and the tariffs and taxes too burdensome. Cherico reports: 

Smuggling problems grew — in 1831, French customs officers reported that smugglers would take packs of large dogs across the border into Switzerland or Belgium, attach bundles of watches to them, and then let them loose to run back to their masters’ homes carrying their untaxed cargo. These chiens fraudeurs — frauding dogs — were almost impossible to catch. Border agents reported that the dogs had learned to recognize their uniforms and either flee away from the roads or else attack them. 

By the 1840s, the English industry had been almost entirely surpassed by the Swiss. Fifty years later, American pocket watch makers became global leaders due to automation and production lines, then their lead faded in the 20th century as the Swiss incorporated technology and industrial production methods to rise to the top. Is that at risk? Not perhaps from another country but from new technologies like smart watches?

Another chapter in watchmaking history began with the 21st century ...

Now we as enthusiasts are seeking a grail -- the watch made by hand, for us, not as the result of an assembly line or child labor or mindless machines. But what is "hand made" and can we find an agreeable definition?


Personally, I don't think there is one right answer to the question. The best I can suggest is we find an artisan, make his or her acquaintance, get into a first- (or even last name) basis and be a patron of the arts, buying their product and receiving (and sending) Christmas cards (or better yet chocolate) to one another in subsequent years. 


We need to know by whom and by what method these watches are made! (London 1812)

 By: cazalea : March 23rd, 2021-09:11
The acknowledged importance of the art of Clock and Watch-making to the manufactures and trade of this kingdom; and the probability that it will be greatly deteriorated by the modes now in practice, if not totally lost to the country, at least so far as relates to the export of such machines, unless some legislative provision should be speedily made to avert the impending evil, have led to the following Observations on the subject.

It would, on a first impression, appear natural that every person should connect his attention and studies to the practice of that art or profession which shall appear most suitable to his inclination, or which may present the greatest probability of affording adequate remuneration for his labor. Thus it is that those arts and manufactures, the principles and practice whereof are the least understood by the generality of mankind, are the most subject to be attempted by persons of other professions who have neither had the opportunity, nor bestowed the requisite degree of attention to acquire the knowledge necessary to enable them to practice such art, with advantage either to the public or themselves: and the consequence is, that the works of the real artist are not only frequently depreciated in value, but also in the estimation of society, by the efforts of the untrained being offered for sale without certification or inspection.

The object of the studies and labor of the Clock and Watch-maker differs essentially from that of most other artists and workmen. The Painter produces his picture; the Architect his building; the Goldsmith his plate; the Weaver his cloth; and other artists and handicrafts their respeciive performances: the whole of which may be more or less perfect of their kind, yet all are inanimate and motionless; and if the thing produced should be adequate to some temporary purpose, which it can seldom fail to be, the end for which it was constructed is answered, and nothing further is required from the person who made it. 

But it is far otherwise with the Clock or Watch, from which, independent of the delicacy of the workmanship, a constant and uniform motion is required, to mark with accuracy the divisions of time, both to the eye and to the ear of its possessor: an unceasing operation, that may not unaptly be compared with the actions of animated nature. And such is the durability of these machines, when properly constructed, that even the third generation has, in many instances, enjoyed the use of the same Clock or Watch.

The art of making a Clock or Watch may therefore be justly considered an achievement of human skill and industry, superior to many, and inferior to none of those mathematical and mechanical professions, which tending alike to the honor of the nation and to the credit of the individuals engaged in them, are not to be attained but through a considerable period of labour and study; and which can only be properly exercised by those persons who have perfected themselves in it, and thus spurious productions and defective invitations which are sent forth by pretenders, to catch the eye of the unwary purchaser by their appearance of cheapness.

Some persons of late have asserted, that “Trade should be as free as Water,"and certainly, no one legitimately engaged in the practice of any part of the art of Clock and Watch making can object to this doctrine being allowed in its fullest extent, nor can any person, possessing the least knowledge of the subject, be unaware that even Water, free as it is esteemed, if not retained within proper bounds, would prove destructive to every thing within its reach; so likewise Trade left without due regulation, generally proves ruinous to the parties engaged in it. 

Every trade, as well as every family, requires to be well regulated, or anarchy and confusion will soon assume the place of good order: and notwithstanding Doctor Adam Smith and others have written much against all regulation of Trades, and Apprenticeships in particular, when the following extract is read, it must be obvious to the meanest capacity, that such reasoning and deductions are as inconsistent as they are visionary. The Doctor says, in the first volume of his Wealth of Nations, pages 190 and 191:

“Long apprenticeships are altogether unnecessary, except in the arts which are much superior to common trades. Common trades  such as those of making Clocks and Watches, contain no such mystery as to require a long course of instruction. Perhaps the first invention of 'such beautiful devices' might be qualified, become entitled to legal protection in the sole use of the profession. 

Machines, indeed, and even that of some of the instruments employed in making them must, no doubt, “ have been the work of deep thought and long time, and may justly be considered as among the happiest “ efforts of human ingenuity. But when both have “ been fairly invented, and are well understood, to explain to any young man in the completest manner, how to apply the instruments and how to construct the “ machines, cannot well require more than the lessons “ of a few weeks ; perhaps those of even a few days might be sufficient... The public would be a gainer, the work of all artificers coming in this way “ much cheaper to market." 

HOWEVER, it was well observed by an eminent Artist, now deceased, that “to become a good Watchmaker is the work of a man's life” Indeed it may be reasonably assumed that no person in the least acquainted with the practice of this art would subscribe to Doctor Smith's hypothesis, that it can be acquired in a few weeks, or that apprenticeships are unnecessary!!!

The history of Clock and Watchmaking, since that art has been established in this country, will not furnish an instance of any person having acquired it without an apprenticeship, or, what is certainly equivalent, a considerable period of laborious attention bestowed on it as the favorite pursuit of their lives. Yet supposing even that once within a century some luminous genius should appear gifted with a perfect knowledge of this delicate and important art as it were intuitively, no reasonable ground would be thereby afforded for laying waste the rights of those persons who have not been so bountifully provided by nature; but who, under the national guarantee of the beneficial exercise of the professions to which their youth has been devoted for the public advantage, have become entitled to the protection of the State, and legal provisions for their safety.

Heretofore the leading principle of the laws of this country and the practice generally adopted by the people at large has been, to give an early direction to the youthful mind in the study of some art, profession, or trade : and accordingly we find, that all employments and professions, whether civil, naval, military, clerical, legal, or otherwise whatsoever, have their gradations of subordination, from the junior student or learner,up to the most proficient, or the highest dignitary: at which elevations none can arrive who have not duly served for the periods appointed in their respective offices or stations.
We insist on... apprenticeships, whereby a great body of the laboring classes of the people are prevented from becoming idle vagabonds and a nuisance to the rest of the community, which must have resulted from their want of any regular employment; and that the measure might have continuance to the most distant period of time, various trades and professions have been incorporated.

Many wholesome regulations have been enacted, to keep the Manufacturers of Clocks and Watches, of either avoiding altogether the placing of any name whatever upon their productions, or, which is more frequent, placing thereon the name of some other person: and thus by concealing the actual maker of the work, to prevent any recourse being had to him by the consumer, or as may with several trades, and the persons practising them, in good order; and also to protect in the exercise of their professions those persons who should duly qualify themselves. There are three inducements, that chiefly lead to such malpractice: 

The first of which may be traced to the uniform endeavors of the silversmiths and other sale-shop-keepers, to conceal from public view the Artist whose works they sell, whereby they are enabled continually to reduce the price they pay in reward for his labors, and as certainly oblige him to debase the quality of his work , which, notwithstanding its inferiority, is usually sold at such shops at prices that would have been adequate to the purchase of a good machine, from a qualified artist of the first respectability, although much above the worth of such imperfect productions ; and the profit derived thereby is wholly absorbed by the salesmen, while the workmen employed by them are pining with want and penury!

The second motive may be seen in the conduct of the Makers of Clocks and Watches, which, from original inferiority of quality, or positive fraud in the construction, they would be both afraid and ashamed to let appear before the world bearing their names as the makers ;-Because it would then naturally follow, that they would become responsible for the performance to the purchaser, who in the purchase of such articles is always deceived, and not unfrequently defrauded!

And the third motive to practice this abuse, arises from the endeavour of un-principled people to obtain a sale for their productions, of which the want of intrinsic value might probably prevent the disposal under their own name : to avoid which,they place thereon the names of artists, who, by their professional skill and probity, have deservedly acquired the confidence of the public, and for their performances, a certain demand upon the faith of a well earned reputation : which, however, by such piratical invasions, is frequently much endangered, and has in many instances been greatly impaired ; while the injured artist is without any redress, save an inadequate pecuniary writ, which can seldom be recovered, and the criminal perpetrator of the mischief is left to repeat his offence, as it were, with impunity. 

Experience has proved, that the practice of the Clock and Watch-maker engraving his name and place of abode on all the Clocks and Watches he makes, is productive of great benefit to the public,—to the several workmen employed,--to the trade generally,-and himself in particular;- inasmuch as the public obtains thereby security for the fair and honest dealing of the maker, by the means it affords for immediate recourse against him in case of misconduct ; and it has a direct tendency to the well being of the trade, agreeable to the Charter for its incorporation, and the various acts of the legislature for its protection ; because, while it insures to the workman an equitable price for kis labor, and more regular employ upon good work, it promotes a laudable emulation in the individuals employed to excel in their respective performances, which brings the art nearer to perfection. And at the same time, the maker or artist acquires a reputation commensurate with the merit of his productions,'which secures to him the enjoyment of the just reward of his ingenuity, skill, and industry.


Having thus shown the present state of the art, and the consequences attendant thereon, it remains only to impress upon the attention of all the masters and workmen, how necessary it is that every effort should be used, to obtain the passing of an Act of Parliament for the better regulation of the art and trade of Clock and Watch-making : for the protection of the public, from the deceptions which have been practised : and to remove the evils which the trade has experienced for some time past. And it is unquestionable that By SUCH AN ACT THE REAL CLOCK AND WATCH -MAKER , AND EVERY WORKMAN IN THE VARIOUS BRANCHES THÉREOF, WILL BE SECURED IN THE ENJOYMENT OF THE REWARD DUE TO THE SKILL AND THE MERIT OF THEIR PERFORMANCES, together with the assurance of participating in the advantages which should ever attend excellence:viz. PREFERENCE OF EMPLOY, AND ADEQUATE REMUNERATION ; for which they pine in vain while the present illicit and ruinous practices are allowed to continue!

The above qoute

 By: vincherico : March 9th, 2022-13:44
Who are you quoting?
Thanks for the plug for my article glad you enjoyed it.
Vin Cherico


 By: Weems@8 : March 24th, 2021-00:28
That the Swiss produce today watches is remarkable.
They haven’t to do this anymore the fact that there is a lot of other work, jobs to do for a living.
I think it is passion, making beautiful products that make them happy give a meaning to their lives.

The British watch industry was ones the leader you wrote.
They produce for the profit, to get a loaf of bread on the table for the hungry children. When better ways of getting money arrives, they change their job. As competitors in other countries arrives, they suffer.
The Swiss went on when they suffer of hard times.
Nobody out of Switzerland reach out a helping hand.
Others laugh and simply said, free trade and competition is the way to let the best win, and soon everybody wear a cheap plastic unsustainable Japanese watch.
After awhile many saw that the Rolex of mother still run after been put 20 years in a drawer, a guy found a Universal Geneva watch at a flee market and after a watch maker gave a service to the watch the peace looks and works as new.

This is the reason why for almost two centuries i know where the best time peaces comes from.