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Paul Gerber: Amateur Watchmaking with the Master

 
 By: BjoernM21 : September 20th, 2018-01:05

“Initiation Courses” have become very popular within the watch industry. Almost every manufactory visit is interrupted by a workshop to give visitors the illusion of being watchmakers. With me, this illusion vanished quickly, even when dressed in a white watchmaker’s coat, because taking apart a movement and reassembling it was only proof of my challenged fine motor skills. For my part, I thus declared these entertainments as a waste of valuable visiting time after two experiences.



Below: (LH) A “Masterclass” at Jaeger-LeCoultre as part of a watch magazine reader’s manufactory visit (Photo: Watchtime.net); (RH) these “Masterclasses” are also offered outside the manufactory, to support events of local dealers (Photo: luxify.de).



Below: When A. Lange & Söhne was sending me a form to apply for a “VIP-Akademie” course staged in Switzerland, all was forgotten and I sent off my wish to take one of the eight places. I did not qualify. But reading a report about such an event on another blog, I got the feeling not to have missed a lot. ALS offers the participants at these events (called outside Switzerland “Connoisseur’s Akademie”) the opportunity to try their own hands at decoration work on the movement (engraving a balance cock, polishing etc.), including disassembling and refitting an Unitas/ETA 6498 wheel train (with no escapement or balance wheel installed). The problem with these offers seems to be the time restraints, with two days not sufficient to do more. (Photo: A. Lange & Söhne)




Below: The time spent on the watch is even further reduced at the events promoted by the Tourism Office of Neuchâtel/Le Locle (and many others in the Jura region). Within three or four hours the participants of these “courses” assemble their own watch. Looking at the extensive choices for case, hands, straps etc., it sounds to me a bit like the experience provided by Ikea to its customers. Within this timeframe it is simply not possible to treat respectively refine movement parts.




Below: The participants are involved on a different level in the courses offered by various watchmakers in Germany since many years. I attended a two-day course with Lottermann & Söhne in Mannheim in 2008. Looking at their website, the program seems to be still the same nowadays, only the Molnija 3603 calibre we had replaced by an ETA 6498.




With quite a few theory lectures embedded in these instructions, the two days were also not sufficient to include anglage of the bridges and other detail work. Though, we polished and flame blued the screws, we ground the bridges and put the Geneva stripes on, and decorated crown and ratchet wheels. The bridges got their final galvanic gold plating applied by the participants too.




These courses are run by Tim Lottermann and master watchmaker Franz Wolff, and they are now also staged in London and Den Haag. Part of their offer are much more demanding courses, like learning to convert a movement into a regulator display, or even building a pendulum clock based on plans (running on four to six weekends for one year).




My work must have been a bit shoddy, because the watch stopped running early in its duty as a daily beater. Nevertheless, I had enjoyed the experience and wanted to repeat it. The dream was to get under the tutelage of master watchmaker Paul Gerber.

In spring 2018 I finally manged to get a place in one of the workshops offered in Zurich/Switzerland. He runs only about three of these 3-day-workshops per year for three pupils at a time. So waiting times are about equal to delivery time of a Rolex GMT Pepsi…

Tim Jackson, representing many independent master watchmakers in California, combined Baselworld 2013 with a visit to Paul Gerber’s atelier in Zurich. Tim’s introduction of him (Blog, 30 April 2013) says it all: “When one gets to visit one of the greatest unsung heroes in the Independent Watchmaking world, the humble and brilliant Paul Gerber, in his place of creativity, great things open up. I have been working with Paul 2 years now and have come to realise that his depth of horological knowledge is far and wide. What I didn’t realize was how much he has been beavering away behind the scenes as an Independent Watchmaker for the big brands, as the go to guy.”




To enthusiasts visiting his atelier, Paul Gerber introduces himself with a manually operated “Power Point” device hung to the ceiling of the former garage in the basement of his house. Due to the secrecy agreements with the industry customers, only very few of the 53 movements developed (so far) in his career can be discussed and shown. Paul Gerber has chosen a similar career path to Andreas Strehler, i.e. offering watches with his own name on the dial almost only as a side line to generating the main income with development work and production for third parties (who then highlight their in-house engineering competence based on the results…). Having reached the official retirement age, he decided to work henceforth without employees and concentrate on projects he has a personal interest in. Being together with Paul Gerber for three days, I gathered how difficult it must be to work as an un-named master for the watch industry. A “humble” demeanour does not mean the watchmaker would not appreciate to be properly recognised for his work.

Paul Gerber is a soft-spoken man, what makes it difficult to even slightly grasp his watchmaking genius as a layman. Presenting one of his technical solutions, he uses a few words in a matter of fact style, giving the impression everybody is doing it this way. Only when you start prodding it becomes obvious why many big brands consult him to overcome problems they stumbled upon in some movement development work. To better understand technical matters, I like to compare with solutions I know already. Trying to refer to other’s work leads to the introduction “One should not criticize the work of others,…”, before Paul Gerber explains his solution.

I looked very much forward to the three days in Paul Gerber’s atelier, to the work we pupils are doing and to have an opportunity to learn more about the master and his work en passant. I was not disappointed in this expectation, but in this post a few samples of his work have to do.

 

 

Constructor of the World’s Most Complicated Wristwatch

Paul Gerber is perhaps best known on this forum for one watch he is involved with intensively since 1992: The “Most Complicated Wristwatch of the World”. Originally it was the project of forum member “Lord Arran”. He sold it soon after gaining the sought-after accolades (presentation show at the MIH in 2003; Guinness Book of World Records entry in 2005). The new owner Ralph Graf had it only now finished and properly detailed, as well as giving it a name (“Superbia Humanitatis”) and other symbols of appreciation, including its own book written by Magnus Bosse. As long time chronicler of this watch, Magnus has presented its history on another blog ( https://bit.ly/2OlwRNw ), and corrected who had actually done the work to create the status of the watch, despite another name on the dial.

Intensively creating a watch with a private customer brings an “attachment” of the master to the watch with it when he gave his all to realise what the customer presented as his dream. To experience how the customer cherishes and enjoys the finished watch for years means a lot to Paul Gerber and brings satisfaction to him, making all the efforts worthwhile. To learn this from someone with a very “matter-of-fact”-communication style like Paul Gerber, opened a bit my eyes: Having commissioned a watch, we should perhaps really show from time to time how we enjoy it and not having degraded it to a “safe queen”.




The Love for Wood

Another surprise was to learn wood to be a favoured material of Paul Gerber. Not only was our attention drawn to the window boards in the atelier he had made himself from plum wood, but I got also the impression he is most proud about his wood turning skills. When we discussed this wood work in a coffee break, he went away to come back with a superbly formed cowboy hat entirely made from one piece of wood. His turning skills must indeed be on the highest level, because the wood of the hat was so thin the light showed through bright and even. We course participants could experience this hobby with tools (particularly files) fitted with wooden grips turned by the master himself.




Paul Gerber started his career as watch constructor with a particular interest in the miniaturisation of mechanics in wood. While running a watch retail and restoration business for a living, the spare time was spent building wall clocks in the size of a matchbox entirely from boxwood, the style inspired by the Black Forest clocks. No screws were used, only wooden pegs. He not only gained 1989 an entry in the Guinness book of records for the smallest functioning wooden-wheeled clock, but even found buyers for them at the annual watch show in Vincenza/Italy. While the retail dealers ordering at this show in the late 1980s had no interest, their female companions were early “influencers” and wanted to have one of these oh-so-cute clocks. When Paul Gerber started to add complications (moon phase, equation of time etc.), he realised quickly that the typical buyer did not understand these additions, and “cuteness” as the only appreciated USP was no basis to get a decent remuneration for the time invested. At least these miniature clocks worked as his calling card to be invited to join the AHCI.




In-House Movements

Paul Gerber, who constructed the movements from the beginning in CAD, was soon discovered by the watch industry. Only very few allowed him to make his involvement public, for example, Fortis hired him in 1996 to integrate an alarm mechanism into a Valjoux 7750 movement to help with the revival of the brand as a competent player for interesting mechanical watches.

His own wristwatch model range was started in 1997 with retrograde displays on the basis of a Peseux 7001 movement (“Retro Twin” and “Retrograd”).




Above: I am particularly attracted to the entirely in-house made form movement calibre 33 presented by Paul Gerber in 2005. The movement is offered in different versions with a tonneau-shaped case.

Below: Paul Gerber was the first to integrate a 3D-moon phase display into a wristwatch (a 6 mm diameter sphere). Reference 33 got also his own escapement, avoiding compressing forces in action (Patent EP1517197).




Below: Paul Gerber, he likes the Reference 41 (also with an in-house calibre) more. Asked why, I learnt that the Reference 33 made in precious metals degenerates too easily into a safe queen with its owners. This saddens him, because he wants his customers to enjoy the watches in daily life. The sporty Reference 41 is usually enjoyed this way, though, technical specialities are also found here: manufacture automatic movement (100 hours power reserve), three gold rotors (Patent EP1136891), large quick-set date, and seconds being shown continuously or jumping (Patent EP2098921).




Below: Paul Gerber constructed and built the one-minute flying tourbillon table clocks for Audemars Piguet. The version bearing his own name is still available. Earlier he used a full dial (LH); later he preferred the skeletonized version (RH) showing more of the movement construction.




Below: The concept Ludwig Oechslin developed for the MIH watch was converted to reality by Paul Gerber (he built the prototypes as well as the series watches). And the final configuration is the result of diplomatic “guiding” by Paul Gerber: Ludwig Oechslin’s concept based on the ETA 2892, which Paul Gerber deemed not strong enough for the calendar functions; the proposed powerful Valjoux 7750 was first refused by Ludwig Oechslin because he did not want a “sports” watch. When it became obvious that Ludwig Oechslin defines “sports” by two or more pushers, Paul Gerber proposed converting the 7750 to one pusher! With a viewing hole integrated into the back and a minute scale printed on a gear wheel, the owners have now the calendar as well as a chronograph watch without looking like one. And Ludwig Oechslin was happy as well. (Photo RH below: Cazalea)




In 2007 Paul Geber was honoured with the Gaïa Prize in the craftsman-designer category. The laudatory presentation was given by Magnus Bosse.

On this forum Magnus has regularly reported about specific models, and two reports by AndrewD are also worth (re-)reading:




Atelier Visit in 2013 by AndrewD, with excellent photos:

www.watchprosite.com





Review of 10th Anniversary PuristS Wristwatch (Model 42) by AndrewD:


 

www.watchprosite.com



That a master of this standing takes it on him to instruct amateurs just confirms what an easy-going, down-to-earth person Paul Gerber has stayed. There is real love for watchmaking, which he enjoys to share with all enthusiasts.

 

 

Building your own watch with the Master

Paul and Ruth Gerber expect on the other hand commitment brought to the course by the participants. To avoid an idle start of the three-day-course, the meet-and-greet with Champagne and Canapés was staged on the evening before the first working day.

Entering the atelier the next morning, I was right away greeted with a sample of Paul Gerber’s love to give utilitarian parts a touch of discreet decoration and style, like the custom made sewer cover in the machining room.




We three participants sat at the benches used before by the employees of Paul Gerber (two to three usually). He has converted the complete basement of his private house into a workshop and atelier. CNC mill, lathes and the blasting cabinet are installed in the former garage. The toilet is also cleaning and galvanising department. The rest of the floor is an open plan space with construction office, administration office (Ruth Gerber’s job) and the watchmaker’s benches (with smaller machines and work benches placed in between).




Paul Gerber uses the Unitas/ETA 6498 manual wind movement for the course. Its generous size with big screws and the simple but classical construction give amateurs a chance to actually do work on it, and the beefy parts survive clumsy handling better (including the balance wheel). When professor at the Watchmaker’s School in Solothurn, he had also introduced this movement (respectively the 6497 version) for the school watch when the formerly used IWC 97 pocket watch calibre had become too expensive for the pupils.




Sitting down at my bench and looking at the movement with the nice Geneva striping, I wondered a bit how we can improve its look with our work. Before we started with dismantling, the movement was timed on the Witschi. Perhaps Paul Gerber wanted to get facts to know where to point the finger afterwards if the final watch was running substandard…




The goodies tray on the bench provided all the parts Paul Gerber had produced to replace the ETA’s, plus the stainless steel case manufactured by Fricker of Pforzheim/Germany. It is a standard size from the industry catalogue, modified to accommodate the 0.5 mm thick dial Paul Gerber uses.

The custom-made brass three-quarter bridge and balance cock serve several purposes: First, they disguise the ETA movement a bit; second, we got with them just the right amount of edges to work on, without running out of time or getting bored by repetitive work; and finally, all the parts later visible through the display back of the watch have also been worked on by us pupils. These considerations reaffirm how Paul Gerber is not shying a lot of additional work for the good of the course participants, even when we would possibly not have realised how such improvements are possible and would have been happy to work on the original ETA parts. Furthermore, he is even constantly improving these in-house made parts from course to course when a good idea comes up. “It will do” is just no argument for these independent masters used to work on the top level!




Above: Also in the tray is a prepared plaque with the participant’s name to be screwed on the movement, plus a gold châton and a new click with its elegant spring, two further modification of the ETA movement by Paul Gerber.

Below: In another tray the spring bars for the straps and tools made in-house to ease working on the parts are provided.




I very much liked the teaching method of Paul Geber: There is not a lot of theory I would likely not have understood without the part in question being elaborated at the same time; he rather builds a movement in parallel with the pupils, so we could see the actual work being done for each tiny step, and then immediately go to our bench and try it ourselves before most advice is forgotten.




One instruction was to carefully unwind the yoke spring (to avoid damage to it) in tiny steps by holding the click with a wooden peg. I was glad that at this stage there was still enough back ground noise with everybody settling down to disguise how I already failed in this first task!




With all the movement parts separated, the real work of three days could start. The three days were broken up with a free Sunday for the participants. But work went on in the atelier, Paul Gerber preparing parts on the Sunday he deemed amateurs could only ruin trying to do the work themselves (like fixing the clicks absolutely even on the tool for polishing, fitting the ruby bearing/shock protection system for the balance wheel etc.).




The custom made click with its spring is not only there for the show. Paul Gerber took the inspiration for the elegant custom made spring from the construction principle used in Glashütte for quality watches (ETA uses a round click with the spring fitted right underneath). Against the practice in Swiss watch building, the click is screwed on from underneath for aesthetical reasons, not to show a big screw head in plain view. The click is made moveable in a slot to ensure a precise and smooth meshing with the teeth of the ratchet wheel (not the least because the winding of the watch is not a continuous move, which leads to a slight turning back of the ratchet wheel when the fingers have to re-grip the crown). To avoid side loads on the screw, the recess in the bridge has to be milled very precisely to ensure a perfect guiding and bracing of the click.

Learning about all these details made even an ETA movement interesting. I also wondered once more, if the “In-house”-discussion is not overrated, considering what a master watchmaker could all do with these reliable and proven industry calibres (as also shown with the MIH watch).




The first task towards creating our own watch was grinding the surfaces of bridge and cock on gradually finer emery paper; later the name plaque was also very lightly satinated or polished (depending on preference of the participant). Paul Gerber used to schedule this job after bevelling the edges. Unfortunately, too often nicely prepared anglage was damaged by clumsily handling the pieces in their further treatment (like using too much pressure when grinding). It seems also better to “warm up” the participants with such a straightforward job.




Beautifying plate and cock were by far the most time consuming jobs on hand. There were no inward angles to work on, but I could now understand how expensive hours are just rushing by when a plethora of tiny parts must be made perfect by hand work. The importance of the correct technique was highlighted too, i.e. we had to guide the file in flowing strokes and not scrape backwards and forwards on a tiny area at a time. With the cut-outs in the circumference of the bridge the prescribed method had its pitfalls, like the emery paper being torn when it caught on sharp edges.




Paul Gerber explained how the typical anglage of 45° when machining parts does not work when it has to be visible from different angles in an encased watch movement. The angle has to be about 30° to reflect the light when looking straight on through the sapphire back. Ideally the anglage should even be slightly rounded, not only to differentiate it from machine made versions, but to make the viewing angle less critical to catch light reflections.




In addition to the emery paper mounted on boards and the zinc plate with diamond polishing powder (to treat the flat surfaces), four tools were available to us for the detailing of parts (from the top):

A triangular wooden piece (a mini sanding block called “Holzschleiflatte” in watchmaker’s speak) covered with fine abrasive paper was used to smoothen the lateral surfaces of bridge and cock. The chamfers on the parts’ edges (the anglage) was prepared with a crossing file (“Vogelzungenfeile”) and then refined with a fine grinding file (“Schleiffeile”). Again, it was important to work in fluid, long strokes, what is quite tricky when the angle the tool is set onto the parts should also remain constant.

The carbide tip (“Hartmetallspitze”) was only used for the detailing after the bead blasting of the parts.




All this abrasive work had to be done freehand. An engraver’s ball with the cock mounted on the supplied tool helped a bit. Without practice with this kind of work, it was also rather awkward for me to always work “from below”, i.e. never attack the edges for the anglage from above the piece. This constantly repeated advice of Paul Gerber should avoid scratches created by a slipped tool. Scratches on work pieces are the absolute nightmare scenario, because too much material would have to be removed from a piece to let such marks disappear.




The hockey pucks in the background were provided as ideal working surfaces, being hard without scratching the parts. The puck stack brought the parts to a height avoiding the grip of the tool banging on the table when we had to work on the anglage with moves exclusively from below the part. With practical thinking, you don’t need to buy expensive tools and fixtures for every task!




Not having seen the “famous” gentian wood sticks used everywhere in the Vallée de Joux’s fine watchmaking ateliers, I teased Paul Gerber, asking if he is not using them for the final detailing. Well, the joke was on me, because he not only fetched a whole bunch of these sticks (supplied by none other than Philippe Dufour) from a cupboard, but also presented the other use of this tool providing plant: Schnapps made from Gentiane! Sniffing at the latter, we agreed the first impression could be of a cleaning fluid…




Paul Gerber explained that the tools we use for the anglage would in any case not be approved by these masters of the Vallée de Joux. Though, their tools (also used by him) require the proper technique as well as a lot of practise for the sought after results. For example, the real masters are not preparing the anglage with a file as we used, rather a tool (looks like a scraper to laymen) to actually cut material from the edges of the parts to create bevels. They also do not use fine emery paper stuck on a triangular wood piece for a file as we did. Our tools are more forgiving. On the other hand, they would not allow creating an inward angle, for which really hard tools are necessary (Degussit files, or ordinary nails together with abrasive paste etc.).

For Paul Gerber it is important every course participant manages to create a nice anglage with a bit of care, and not that pure luck decides about the results if more aggressive tools would be used without years of experience.

To help towards a good result, he checks then every step of our work before we could move to the next job on hand. When he looked at my anglage, I saw the wrinkles on his forehead deepening. He promptly told me off to have avoided by a hair’s breadth ruining the bridge with my anglage. When I worked on the part, I had the broad chamfers of Philippe Dufour and Akrivia in mind, so I also tried to extend the anglage a bit more into the flat of the bridge. Paul Gerber is foremost an engineer and is not keen on such show decorations; for him a discreet bevel has just to bring a bit of visual “life” into the part with a sparkling effect. Though, after the bead blasting and further treatment of the bridge it all worked quite well and I believe he also enjoyed the more easily visible polishing in the end.




After all these abrasive work on the parts, they were cleaned in an ultrasonic bath. Because any grease or other soiling would show permanently after the following processes, we could not even use the compressed air for drying (for fear of tiny residues of oil in the air), but only a small hand-operated air pump. From now on the fingers had also to be protected all the time by the rubber fingerstalls provided.




With no Geneva stripes on bridge and cock planned, a discreet “frosting” had to provide an interesting surface structure. Instead of using sand or glass shreds (both abrasive treatments) for this blasting, Paul Gerber has the machine filled with small glass balls. These create only delicate dimples on the surface, which stays smooth enough to still allow some mechanical cleaning (with a cloth etc.).




The glass bead blasting brings only a very fine structure to the surface of the bridge and cock. This is already sufficient for the parts to look “dead” after this treatment.




To bring back some sparkle, the anglage has to be worked over with a carbide tip (spike). With this treatment the sheen of the chamfers comes back and the material at the edges is at the same time compacted.




The holes for the ruby bearings and screws in bridge and cock were bevelled with wheel countersinks (“Rollensenker”), first fitted with a metal disk for an abrasive effect (and compacting), and finally with a sapphire disk for the polishing.




The sapphire disk is used to brighten up the screw and ruby bearing holes. Paul Gerber advised to lightly run these disks first along the side of our nose because this provides just the right amount of grease for the operation.




Then it was Paul Geber’s turn again, to mill his name and place individually into the bridges. This milling is only done at this stage to retain sharp edges and the brightness of the milled recesses. Doing this operation before the glass bead blasting, the crispness of the signature is completely lost (as can be seen with the “+/-“ regulator indices on the balance cock). Not to do this milling as part of the preparation of the new parts has the additional advantage of providing an interesting break, so we could witness some milling being done on parts of our own watches.




Paul Gerber has chosen a three-axis CNC mill, mentioning a five-axis one would not have cost significantly more, though, would only be needed to manufacture the cases. He belongs to the group of master watchmakers able to also build the cases in-house (and he does build the prototypes, replacing the missing fixtures on the CNC mill with handwork), but he decided specialists doing nothing else are just a tick better. To really deliver perfect results, the manufacturing operations and techniques must be mastered in your sleep; if you have to think first how to do something (because you only do it from time to time), it shows plain lack of experience and cannot lead to the best results wanted, according to him.




The bathes for degreasing (at 6 volts) and the galvanic bath to plate (at around 2 volts) bridge and cock are installed in the toilet when required. I left these critical treatments to Sean Fuchs, a former employee of Paul Gerber, who supported him from the second day onwards with the more tricky jobs we amateurs could not do confidently on our own.

Since I associate yellow or red gold plating with German watches, I am glad Paul Gerber had chosen a rhodium plating for our watches.




In addition to threading small parts with a hand tool, we could machine the dial feet on a small lathe (the watchmaker’s “classic” tool, a Schaublin 70, of course), instructed and supervised by Ruth Gerber.




The lathe was already set up for us, but reading the nonius to translate the dimensions in the plan to the workpiece was difficult enough. Ruth Gerber had to keep a very sharp eye on the scale when I turned the handle to advance the milling tip.




A slight bevelling of the feet was created by holding a file gently on at a (preferably...) 45° angle while the piece was still turning in the lathe. Deburring was done by swapping the file for a bunch of steel wool.

To cut the feet off from the rod at the correct length, a hand saw blade was held on the turning piece, with a finger underneath to catch it. For this operation the lathe had to turn backwards (to get the sawing action from the stationary blade). Due to a slip of attention on my part, I forgot once to change back the direction of rotation again after this operation. When no cutting action happened trying to turn the next feet, even a layman realised something was amiss and I stopped work. This wrong handling was already enough to require resetting the lathe to keep all the tolerances. This just showed how quickly a loss of concentration can ruin parts in watchmaking and waste a lot of time.

That the dial sits properly and is not distorted by inserting manoeuvres of amateurs, Paul Gerber took it on him to fit the feet we had produced later on.




Next part to get treatment was the ratchet wheel click. The method Paul Gerber uses to harden this part is a combination of simple tools and suitable materials to keep the labour invested as low as possible without skimping on quality. The click had first to be wrapped tightly with ordinary tie wire. This helps to distribute the heat evenly on the part when “glowing” it with a blowtorch. On the other hand, the click spring is too delicate for this method (it distorts and has to be trued afterwards), which is why we got this part already in finished condition.




To avoid the part getting black in this hardening process, we had to dip it regularly into boric acid powder, thoroughly covering it. The part was then quenched in a water bath. When asked, Paul Gerber stated, using oil is not necessary in this process and would only blacken the part, thus requiring additional cleaning work. Tempering the part (below RH) removed the surface tension after the hardening process.




The click had to be polished with diamond powder on a zinc plate after the hardening processes. While the master has no problem to keep the small part under his finger absolutely level, there was an acute likelihood it would not work like this under our fingers. The small tool provided by Paul Gerber allows fixing four clicks on with screws and shellac, making it impossible to create a skew on the part by incompetent polishing.




After polishing, the clicks were removed from the tool with a heating plate and spirit. They were now ready to be fitted onto the movement.




A similar tool is supplied to hold the screws for their treatment. With an old gramophone needle (!) we sled quickly through the screw slot with some pressure to put a slight anglage on. Paul Gerber had prepared the needle’s shape and size to no reach down to the bottom of the slot, to avoid scratching the nickel coating there.




We resurfaced and polished the screws with the same method as the click in preparation of their blueing. Paul Gerber uses in the course a chemical treatment instead of flame blueing. An annealing salt (“Bläusalz”) is dissolved by heat and the screws hung into this bath until they turn the desired blue colour.




Cooled and washed in warm water, the screws are a nice even blue, but the slots stay “white”. To keep this “white” uniform, it was important not to reach down into the slot with the gramophone needle. The undisturbed nickel plating prevented the blueing of the slots. For a “full-on blue”, the bottom of the screw slot would have to be ground and polished, removing all nickel coating. This operation by the hands of laymen is too risky for Paul Gerber; ruined slots/screws would be the result with almost certainty. The flame blueing method would not change anything in this dilemma, because the nickel plating would still have to be entirely removed.

The gold châton brings no technical advantage; it is integrated to further pep-up the visuals of the movement.




We could fit the jewel bearing ourselves with the help of a small hand tool. Fitting the balance jewel and shock absorber was deemed to critical and was done by Paul Gerber.




All the pupils opted to work with ordinary glasses creating a magnifying effect. I was unable to do anything with a watchmaker’s loupe covering just one eye, because all perspective viewing got lost. This was particularly acute when I had to oil shafts, requiring a tiny drop of oil placed exactly at the right position to avoid soiling and clogging-up part of the movement. This “operation” was impossible without the use of a loupe. Not being able to place the oil spending needle accurately, I had to delegate this job to Sean Fuchs.




There were also some tiny screws (e.g. for the click spring or the name plaque) with only about one turn on the thread to fix them. The risk to destroy these screws was so high Paul Gerber discouraged us actively to try this installation work ourselves.




Testing my finished watch on the Witschi timing machine, the accuracy was even a touch better than with the original ETA movement. So, my hopes are intact that this time the self-assembled watch is not again stopping to work after a relatively short time. While Paul Gerber would certainly appreciate if I would use it as a daily beater, I don’t want to risk it this way, and so it will get the same treatment as the other pieces with “collection” status.




Not much help respectively advice was received to choose dial and hands from the assortment presented to us. I made my choice very quickly nevertheless, because in my mind I had already decided before the course started how a “typical” Gerber watch has to look. Loving blue, the colour of indices and numerals on the dial was a given. For a sporting look I wanted also the blue rubber strap on offer.




Paul Gerber manufactures the engraved dials as well as the milled numerals and indices himself. It makes such a difference to have the third dimension on these parts instead of just having to look at thinly printed, flat ones so common even with higher priced watches.




The hands are milled in house, including all further work like blueing, rhodium plating or polishing. This in-house production ensures also hands with the correct length for the dial design.




Which hands had to be used to make my watch a “real Gerber”, I had decided long in advance. The choice was confirmed when hearing the story behind this particular shape I wanted: Paul Gerber had years ago an enquiry of a public transport company of Zurich to create an anniversary watch for them (which never materialised); he had then the idea to create hands picking up the graphics of a tram track plan (the ones at the bottom of the photo below).




A close look at rhodium plated hands shows the huge difference to the stamped ware you can buy from the industry catalogues. Hand and shaft/tube of the seconds hand are milled as one part, providing a much sturdier solution than riveted-on thin tubes. The heads are also milled slightly thicker to avoid distortions when gripping them with the hand setting tool for removal.




The dial engraving developed for the PuristS anniversary watch is an intertwined repetition of the word “PuristS”, creating an Art Deco touch. The same design principle is available with the script “Uhrenkurs” or “WatchWorkshop”. I found the structure respectively pattern created by the script in German more pleasing than the one in English, likely because it appears denser and thus more uniform.




This dial engraving had an attractive sparkle when looking at it in the artificial light of the atelier, but turned out to reflect too much light in the blazing sun. For me, this “cheapens” the appearance of the watch a bit, so some additional work might be necessary here with hindsight.

By the way, the dial is not fixed with screws because Paul Gerber hates the sore sight they usually create. Dial and case are constructed to locate the dial firmly without the addition of screws.




I am very pleased with the back view of the finished watch too. With the rhodium plating of parts, the similarly coloured slots of the blued screws do not look that much out of place as when judging them before their mounting. The name plaque (on the photo for privacy a bit Photoshopped) is offered in a variety of styles by Paul Gerber. I opted for the polished version with a “filled” name engraving. When I asked what material has been used for the black “filling” (knowing how easily this usually falls out of engravings), Paul Gerber surprised again with his practical thinking: He mixes black laser printer powder with coloured Araldite for a very durable paint; the plaque has only to be lightly polished over and you get a crisp lettering filled to the brim of the engraving.




Paul Gerber’s own “Uhrenkurs”-watch has the CNC-engraved small waves, a pattern he uses particularly on his dress watches (Ref. 33). His watch is an older version of the course watch. He is constantly improving details we also benefitted from.




My colleagues had chosen completely different dial and hand combinations. With these features the watches look nice and elegant. It just shows how biased I had become knowing the Purists’ edition, because this bold design was for me representing THE Gerber style and I never considered anything else.




All three of us were keen to add the strap fitted moon phase module of Paul Gerber. This standalone moon phase had its debut at Baselworld 2018. A customer with a MIH watch triggered the development in 2016: He wanted a moon phase added to his watch, but the construction of this watch (with calendar disks covering the whole under dial area to the case edge) made it impossible to fit a traditional design. Thoughts about showing the moon phases on the side (through the case) or on the back smelled like too many compromises Paul Geber did not want to entertain. Living up to his reputation as a master of the miniaturisation, he started the development of his 52th calibre. The moon phase display is purely mechanical. It needed a separate time source respectively movement. Since a mechanical solution with spring-house and escapement had simply not enough space (the height was critical if you want to fit this micro module into the strap in a non-protruding manner), an electromagnetic drive with a modified Quartz movement and a Renata micro battery (running around three years) had to be created. All of it (54 parts excluding electronic parts) is in a waterproof Titanium case (of seven machined parts made by Andreas Strehler’s Uhrteil AG). Eventual corrections of the moon phase display have to be done by the watchmaker when changing the battery; there is a calculated one-day variation of the moon phase over a three-year period).




The photo below was made for the press. I was grateful Paul Gerber was able to “retrieve” the already allocated number 21 for me. To have “my” number on the watch was just the icing of a fantastic experience with a watch that covers all my design tastes, what is also not a given when working with parts supplied in a course.




Concluding Remarks

I enjoy having finally a Gerber watch in my collection (but still hope to get one day my dream watch built by Paul Gerber as an addition). Perhaps the dial has to be reworked slightly with a careful glass bead blasting to reduce glare in bright sunlight. The bright “groves” of the dial’s engravings reflect the light extremely well, crying for toning down the busy decor a little bit.

With a case diameter of 42 mm (the movement filling it to the edge) and a length (lug-to-lug) of 52 mm, the watch sits perfectly on my 19 cm circumference wrist. The watch is amazingly light, but still providing a quality feel. The crown is of a size I like, just big enough to grab it easily to wind or set the movement. In a way I am also surprised by the quality feel when winding the watch. Paul Gerber’s modifications might help. Nevertheless, I had many expensive watches in my hands that came not near this haptic pleasure.

Though, the watch as the material memento of three days in Paul Gerber’s atelier is in any case just one part of the story.




Since quite a few years many authors preach about the changes affecting the luxury industry, particularly a claimed reluctance of the younger generations to spend money on „things“ and their desire to rather invest in „experiences“. In a recent discussion (Dubai Watch Week London), a panel guest defined “How can I get a unique experience?” as THE question today’s watch buyer wants to have answered by the seller. Heeding such advice, a diversity of offers has been created especially in the watch industry to get closer to the end consumer as a brand and hopefully build up some loyalty for further sales. Looking at these events, I get the impression most of the time good intentions quickly degenerate into strictly organized mass offers. These are no “experiences” for me; they simply provide another or additional form of banal consumption, because a deep emotional component can hardly be part of the deal, if there is not also a particular personal effort required from my side. Like getting integrated into an organization or into tasks I am normally not involved with, but now being asked to perform in this new environment nevertheless.




The participants of Paul Gerber’s watch course are not clothed in the stereotypical white watchmaker’s coat, but we had to report to work precisely at 08.30 h, and in the evening we could not leave the workplace until the day’s planned jobs had been done. The coffee breaks in the morning and the afternoon were short, with Ruth Gerber sending us back to the benches when it would have been convenient to listen a bit longer to all the exciting experiences Paul Gerber told us about.

To be treated like employees (with a lot of leniency regarding expected work skills and speed…), working together and walking to a local restaurant for a communal one hour lunch break, it felt quickly like to be with good work colleagues. The discussions with Paul Gerber as “boss” were for me as watch enthusiast also on a completely different quality and interest level to what could be provided by professionally courteous marketing/sales people.

On the other hand, I am a firm believer of the proverb/advice “cobbler, stick to your last”. I would never enjoy the result of my work, knowing that a specialist could have done better. Because I wanted to take a nice Gerber-watch home with me after three days, I asked for help or “subcontracted” the job on hand to the boss whenever I judged it too risky to mess up in the last second (like fitting the hands or even fitting a particularly tiny screw). I saw no point in building bragging rights to have all done myself, and having to look at scratches when showing off the watch. But I will also not frame the diploma to hang it on the wall of the office…




So, this course was for me truly a genuine experience, with a corresponding value added to the watch. While work done with my own hands was very educating and satisfying, it is not a prerequisite for an emotional binding with the watch for me. Being intensively involved in the creation and decision processes intellectually can be good enough. And for this reason I enjoy working together with master watchmakers on commission pieces so much. I believe that buying from an independent without savouring the possibilities to bring you into the project to the fullest is giving away a superb experience, providing life-long beautiful memories.

 

Björn

(Photos: Paul und Ruth Gerber, Jürg Meier)

This message has been edited by KMII on 2018-09-20 02:41:47

Thank you

 
 By: ant : September 20th, 2018-01:28
for a wonderful and illuminating posting. It inspired me to try to go on one of these courses. I enjoyed reading the whole post (rare for me).
Your depth of knowledge and modesty are an example to us all.
The pics were excellent.
All-in-all it ranks as one of the best postings I have read.
Thank you for all of it.
Kind regards,
Antony

Thank you

 
 By: info146 : September 20th, 2018-01:55
I love posts like these! Thank you for taking the time to share this.

Thank you

 
 By: Alt-Chrono : September 20th, 2018-01:58
Thanks for the great write up! Aleays great to see finishing skills by the masters of horology

Excellent post

 
 By: nwk00 : September 20th, 2018-02:40
This is probably the most in depth course I have seen so far, short of a full degree course. Thanks for sharing.
BTW the course what language was the course conducted in?

Paul Gerber instructs in German

 
 By: BjoernM21 : September 20th, 2018-02:46
because he feels not at ease doing it in English. But there are courses with English speaking participants, with at least one "mixed-in" who can do all the translations. Thanks also for your kind comment.

Dear Bjoern,

 
 By: skyeriding : September 20th, 2018-02:44
Your writing has always been a pleasure to read - this one however I find is especially exceptional. I think only a handful of people can truly claim to have a personal watchmaking session with an experienced master to this level of depth. The insights presented are not something you normally hear about, and are very new and a refreshing read to me!

I like the fact mentioned about anglage not being 45 degrees; as often you would be viewing the caseback straight on, thus it seems logical to want broader, less angled anglage to face the viewer. However I guess the challenge there is with such shallow angles it's more challenging to keep the edges uniform (especially with curved bridge edges where you can't easily use a flat file, and of course with curved anglage where you need to rotate the file/part).

I'm curious as to why chemical bluing of the screws was opted for instead of the flame blueing, as there's the unavoidable general perception that flame blued screws are more "pure" and preferred. Is it because they are easier to work with?

The whole experience seems very honest and transparent - working "under" Mr. Gerber directly without any additional distraction or sugarcoat from fancier displays of large luxury brands (which honestly, I feel is not a bad thing, but for a more general target audience). This course seems appealing for the enthusiast who wants a more real and connected experience with the actual watchmakers and what they do on a daily basis.

Again, much appreciated for your wonderful horological articles and contributions for us to read and enjoy - I will always look forward to the next one!

Regards,
skyeriding

My 'educated' guess is that Paul uses Borax powder which creates exactly the same chemical layer on the metal as heat flames...

 
 By: Ornatus-Mundi : September 20th, 2018-04:21
but is just easier to achieve an even surface colour than pure heat (hence the methog of choice for a workshop like this).
Best,
Magnus

Interesting info, thanks Magnus

 
 By: skyeriding : September 21st, 2018-05:40
Is Borax typically how chemically blued screws are done in watchmaking?
Regards,
skyeriding

CORRECTION: Using the world "chemical" in the description of the bluing method Paul Gerber uses in the course is wrong.

 
 By: BjoernM21 : September 21st, 2018-11:47
The bluing of the screws is also the result of heat. The disolved "bluing salt" (an oxidizing mixture of potassium nitrite and sodium nitrate with traces of sodium chloride, potassium chloride and sodium bromide) can be heated to 300° C without the fluid evaporating or blackening the parts (like oil would do). Paul Gerber heats up the screws to 290° to 300° for the desired blue colour in this fluid to ensure the exact same colour of all four visible screws of different sizes (treated in one go). This colour control is exceedingly difficult by flame bluing, usually on a bed of brass shavings, because the way the screws are lying in these shavings has a direct influence on the heat transfer. The method used in the course gives the pupils a small time window to judge themselves visually what exact colour they want, and then stop the process by removing the screws from the fluid. It just shows again how keen Paul Gerber is to give his pupils the means to be actively involved in the creation of details of their watches.
Many thanks to you, skyeriding, for giving me a hint and an opportunity for corrections (I must have been asleep when Paul Gerber explained it all in the course, so I have now asked him for a private lesson...). And your kind comments are also much appreciated.
Björn

Bjoern, you must have done a much better work than me... your watch ran better after then before...

 
 By: Ornatus-Mundi : September 20th, 2018-04:09
thanks for bringing this excellent article on an experience I made as well (as you know), so here is my piece to greet yours:



Note that I 'developed' my 'own' style of finishing...



I cannot add anything to the epxeriences you so generously shared. It was a blast, a challenge and above all a deeply satisfying and rewarding experience to work with Paul - in contrast ot you it means a lot for me to have actually laid my hands on this piece.



Cheers and see you soon,
Magnus

Magnus, your watch looks really "puristic" and elegant

 
 By: BjoernM21 : September 21st, 2018-12:04
Thanks for sharing your version of the workshop watch. Actually, I am now a bit in doubt if "pepping-up" the visuals with the gold/brass details is such a good idea...
Björn

Shall I remove the images ;-)? [nt]

 
 By: Ornatus-Mundi : September 24th, 2018-03:47
No message body

Thanks for this great post and congratulations on your very handsome watch. [nt]

 
 By: Ron_W : September 20th, 2018-08:22
No message body

Superb post. Thanks for sharing, I've enjoyed it a lot.

 
 By: VMM : September 20th, 2018-10:55
Congratulations on your beautiful and special watch. 


Vte 

A wonderful, detailed post about a great guy and a nice watch

 
 By: cazalea : September 20th, 2018-11:00
As owner of several Gerber watches, and having met the watchmaker and his wife a few times, I am envious and admire the work you have done.
And truly appreciate the work and time it takes to report so convincingly to the rest of us.

Cheers,

Cazalea

The first image from an article where I learned of Paul - 2004



A P10 Purist's watch with salmon skin strap (no salmon was provided with the watch, just the skin/strap)



Paul and Ruth in Las Vegas IGOTT meeting 2011 with Michel Schmutz of IntroSwiss







Many thanks, Cazalea, for sharing your experiences with Paul Gerber and adding the informative photos.

 
 By: BjoernM21 : September 21st, 2018-12:10
Nowadays, Paul Gerber is hardly ever displaying his watches at shows (not even at Baselworld, where he only attends as visitor). But when time is running away to fulfill all the commissions of collectors that have found him anyway, it is possibly not worth the bother. Good that he is so approachable for enthusiasts, then you don't have to rely on an appointment at a show.
Björn

Thanks for this superb review / article, Bjorn! That was a great moment to read it. As for the most complicated wrist watch with its 1116 parts, it is part of the past...

 
 By: amanico : September 20th, 2018-11:27
I think JLC broke this record with the Duometre à Grande Sonnerie, with more than 1400 parts, and more than 20 complications...
But back to Mr Gerber's work, I had the pleasure to admire the P 10 piece, and was positively impressed by the quality of his work.
Thank you so much, I am learning a lot from you!
Nicolas

Fantastic article!!

 
 By: mdg : September 20th, 2018-14:42
...Thank you.

A wonderful post Bjorn...

 
 By: jporos : September 20th, 2018-15:32
and an experience of a lifetime. Paul Gerber is certainly an unsung hero in the horology world and to get to work along side of him must have been inspiring. A really nice watch you came out with too!

Your commitment to appreciate fine watchmaking has been rewarded

 
 By: kykw : September 20th, 2018-16:19
Thank you for this fantastic report, Bjorn. I can only imagine what a genuine experience it must have been. Well done on building a nice watch.

Ken

Thank you and contratulations!

 
 By: heartbreaker : September 21st, 2018-15:00
Dear Bjoern,

your post is nothing less than extraordinary.
I was particularly impressed by one point: the infinite care Mr. Gerber puts in every single aspect. This is definitely the proof of the uniqueness of the Man and the Master.
Three years ago I've visited Mr. Gerber's workshop and, among other stunning things, we discussed about the Uhrenkurs, so I can imagine how exciting and unforgettable these three days were.
Again, thank you and congratulations.
Ciao,


Elio

Fabulous post!

 
 By: Bounce781 : September 24th, 2018-04:18
PG - one of my favourite watchmakers

(I have just re-read your post again)




What can I say, Björn...

 
 By: KMII : September 25th, 2018-09:49
Time for a book for sure and I’d love a copy of the first edition! Another truly astounding article and looking forward to reading more soon...