Watchmaker is a general term used to describe not only those that make watches, but also those that service and repair them. While it is fair to say that most of those responsible for the repair and service of watches do not actually make watches per se, those that do make watches are acutely aware of their responsibility to keep them running for their customers. This year, Audemars Piguet has demonstrated their commitment to service in the United States by contributing generously to the Watchmaking and Microtechnology Program at Oklahoma State University Okmulgee as well as opening a North American service center in Clearwater, Florida.
The watch industry is in a crisis when it comes to finding qualified watchmakers to service the millions of luxury watches that are sold every year. This is especially true in the United States where it is estimated that there are less than 6,000 professional watchmakers, most of whom are rapidly approaching retirement. According to the American Watchmakers-Clockmakers Institute, there are currently just 10 watchmaking schools in the US, down from dozens only 30 years ago. If each of these schools graduated a dozen students a year, it would not nearly match the retirement rate for existing watchmakers and the actual number of graduates is far less than that.
The Watchmakers of Switzerland Training and Educational Program (WOSTEP) is attempting to address the shortage of trained watchmakers worldwide while continuing to ensure that graduates of their schools receive the finest education possible and that they are held to the most rigorous of standards. The WOSTEP partnership with OSU Okmulgee is a perfect fit in this regard and has been made possible largely through the financial support of the watch industry. With the commitment of $500,000 over five years, Audemars Piguet, in conjuction with Richemont and Breitling will allow OSU to offer the first and only WOSTEP certificate program in the US that is combined with an Associate degree in Applied Science.
The day that I was able to visit the new service center for Audemars Piguet North America, the head of the service center and head watchmaker, Gilles Vincent, was just stepping off a plane from Oklahoma where he was finalizing some of the arrangements and acting as emissary on behalf of Audemars Piguet. After getting up at 4:30 in the morning to make the early flight, he was willing to meet with me and grant an interview and tour of the facility, even from the very first moment he walked in the office. A truly dedicated artisan, with a thick French accent and a passion for watchmaking and Audemars Piguet that is obvious and charming, he discussed with me the purpose and direction of the new service center and the day to day workings of the watchmakers and staff.
Clearwater, Florida is a fairly glamorous location for a service center, but especially so when contrasted with service centers in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Texas. While I was initially fearful that Clearwater would exhibit the strip-mall homogeneity that I unfairly attribute to everything on the continent East of California (are my biases showing?), I was delightfully mistaken. Clearwater, located on the same peninsula with St. Petersburg, is just across the bay from Tampa and as such, offers a plethora of diversions in close proximity, not the least of which are the beautiful beaches of the Caribbean. The Gulf Coast of Florida is something like the French Riviera, only with a Southern drawl, Oakley shades and knee-length jams. The sea, while not ideal for surfing due to the protected nature of the Gulf, is the warmest, bluest water Americans are likely to enjoy domestically. While Clearwater appears at once to be a beach town of the first order (good and bad), it is close enough to St. Petersburg and Tampa to relish the vestiges of culture that the Sunshine State has to offer. And Disney World is just a couple hours away.
Why Clearwater? I was told that a friend of the company is located there, and that he helped find the facility. I suspect though that the desirability of the location and its potential to attract talented watchmakers played no small part in the decision. Indeed, three watchmakers recently joined AP Techniques from IWC, when the IWC/Richemont service facility moved to New York.
Francois Bennahmias, President of AP NA, had these comments to share, "It has actually been a greater challenge to open the service center than we first expected; it was not that easy after all to attract watchmakers, mainly due to the perception of the brand in this country. But we have already come a long way and are growing more confident that we will succeed in bringing our service center to the level that is our goal."
The white faux-stucco façade of the España Business Center gives way to an office that still has a lingering "we-just-moved-in" feel to it. Decorated throughout with framed pictures of Audemars Piguet’s most mouthwatering timepieces, it is not surprising that the most fully "lived-in" room in the facility is the large room in back where the watchmakers do their work. The service center is, after all, run by a watchmaker, and entertaining is not their highest priority. Past the reception area, a small conference room, two offices and an employee break room (really just an alcove in the hallway with a refrigerator, a drinking fountain and a microwave oven), there are five or six rooms of varying sizes dedicated to the servicing of watches.
When a watch arrives at the service center, it is first carefully catalogued in the computer and any preliminary inspections that might be necessary are carried out. When I was there, this Perpetual Calendar Repeater Tourbillon was being tested to see if it needed to go back to Le Brassus. Thus far, no fault with it had been detected. By recording all the pertinent information about the type, condition and identifying information of the timepiece and the customer, AP can keep a close record of the service or repair and monitor its progress and turn around time. At this juncture (in most cases), it can also be determined if the watch needs to return to Le Brassus. Gilles says, "(We handle) the perpetual calendar with leap year and chronograph. We stop here. After this: minute repeaters, tourbillons, Grande Complications, we send back to Switzerland. We don’t have parts here. We hope in the future to take the Metropolis and Equation of Time. We are waiting to go to Switzerland to learn these two calibres. Maybe not next year or in two years but we hope we have also these."
After the watch is initially inspected and catalogued, it is then placed in a room-sized vault for safekeeping until a watchmaker is available to work on it. Of course, certain instances require immediate attention (particularly for small jobs on newer pieces) so the center must carefully prioritize the work. When the watch is ready to be serviced, it is first diagnosed by Gilles or one of the other more experienced watchmakers to determine what kind of work it will need and who should work on it.
This diagnoses is sometimes carried out in Gilles office, a room with more traditional desks, two watchmaking benches and a window that overlooks the room with the other watchmakers. Typically though, Gilles likes to work in the main room with the other watchmakers. He insists that it is because the desks are more comfortable (the ones in his office lack armrests), but I suspect he enjoys being with the other watchmakers. The camaraderie and respect they share is readily apparent and they frequently socialize together, going on picnics and short trips.
The main room has ten benches arranged in islands in the center and currently houses seven watchmakers. Each bench features a state of the art Witschi timing machine, an articulated fluorescent lamp, a vacuum cleaning tube and nozzle and various, individualized watchmaking tools. The back wall has a full-length window which provides some natural light and each side of the room has a counter running its length, decorated with case presses, automatic winding and testing machines, water proof testers and various other specialized devices. One corner of the room has a second full sized vault for all of the projects in progress so that maximum security is maintained at all times.
The room on the other side of Gilles office is for case refinishing and other "dirty" work. While it houses a traditional buffing machine, the specialized Royal Oak refinishing machine remains in New York where it is operated by a jeweller. There it is used not only for refinishing Royal Oak cases that come in for service, but also for touching up new stock that might be blemished by regular showroom handling. At some point, Gilles hopes to have dedicated jewellers on staff in Clearwater but until then, the Royal Oak cases are sent back to New York for refinishing. This "dirty" room also has a watchmaker’s lathe for minor manufacturing or refinishing jobs.
Two smaller rooms off the main room and hallway are dedicated to cleaning machines. Ultrasonic tanks for the cases and redundant ultrasonic/agitation machines for the disassembled movements ensure that the work is spotlessly clean before being reassembled, lubricated, checked and adjusted. "Ultrasonic is better. It cleans better. You use one first to take off maximum oil and then use the other for a clean finishing. You clean two times the movement in the same day, one after the other and then you have the best afterward to re-oil everything."
With turn around times for service and repairs a constant issue for watch companies, it is crucial that the watchmakers’ workspace is well-organized, well stocked and easy to use. In this way, the work can progress rapidly from one stage to the next without frequent interruptions. Audemars Piguet’s facility is well laid out, clean and well tooled considering its newness. For now, the greatest delays come from waiting for certain parts, a virtually endless number being necessary to properly service all the watches Audemars Piguet has made in the last few decades alone. It is certainly frustrating when the whole watch is done but it must sit for some time waiting for a specific gasket that must be special ordered from elsewhere or gets lost in the mail.
Still, Audemars Piguet’s turnaround times are quite respectable in the context of the high-end watch industry. With wait times of 12-14 weeks quoted at the outset by some companies, never mind what the actual time turns out to be, AP’s average of 6-8 weeks does not sound so excessive. The service center in Clearwater is a dedicated effort to further shorten this average and, if Gilles wish to add several more watchmakers in the next few years comes true, there is no reason why they shouldn’t be successful. The biggest challenge that he faces though? According to Gilles, "To find good watchmakers. I seem to be very lucky. Maybe I have a star with me because all the guys I have are great. The young student just finished his school in USA, he works great and he wants to learn and learn. He is giving a good, good job. The three new watchmakers (recently from IWC) who come with us are great too."
Ultimately though, Gilles would like to expand the facility to take over all the Audemars Piguet service/repair work for the Americas. He’ll need to more than double his staff of watchmakers as well as take on two full time jewellers if they are to handle all the extra work though. With his passion and dedication, I’m sure he’ll succeed. The sunny beaches of Clearwater might help him to attract a few watchmakers also.
In fact, according to Mr. Bennahmias, "We are receiving more and more inquiries from highly qualified watchmakers who want to come and work at the new facility, as the word spreads, and we hope to be able to double its surface in a few years time.
We are definitely on the right track, and we can already see the results as we are
shortening the delays for service (we have gained three to four weeks on the average time since the
opening) which is our main goal of course.
Gilles' and his entire team's passion for watchmaking in general, and Audemars Piguet in particular, is obvious and genuine. It is reassuring to know that your Audemars Piguet will be cared for by someone who enjoys and respects his work, and that the same commitment to customer service and satisfaction extends all the way up to the executive suites.