Dwindling training institutions, monopolistic trade practices and what it means for the trade of watchmaker.
The watchmaker’s trade is endangered for two main reasons, which surprisingly have nothing to do with a lack of demand, but a shortage of supply.
Image source: WatchPaper.com
Many public buildings, train stations and household still use analogue clocks, so there is a demand for tradespersons capable of maintaining and repairing these time telling machines.
The watch industry also produces about 1,2 billion watches per year, and several dozen millions of these are mechanical watches, which is not a rinse and repeat number. Mechanical watches in particular are always designed and manufactured in a way that makes it easy to completely dismantle them, clean them up and put back together. And because of that they can enjoy a lifespan of several years, several decades or sometimes a human lifetime.
It is safe to say that there is alteady a few hundred million of mechanical watches in use, to which those few dozen million are added to every year. Those mechanical watches keep changing hands every couple of years because all it takes to trade them for cash and put them back on the market is an overhaul or a repair, carried out by a watchmaker.
So this solves the problem of demand. But when it comes to supply, there is a shortage of tradespersons, caused by two main factors: lack of convenience of training, and slow erosion of small workshops in favour of corporate workshops.
LACK OF INTEREST DESPITE OPPORTUNITIES
Not enough youth choose this career path, so there are not enough watchmakers to fill all jobs in the manufacturing and customer care industry.
First off, watchmaking studies have two stadeoffs:
- They are mostly vocational, which means that most watchmaking school are based on the students apprenticing from the age of 16, which means that they will be extremely specialized in this trade and have difficulties to reconvert to another field. In comparison, the fields of marketing, business management or accounting open up broad perspectives.
- There are not a lot of watchmaking schools. In this time and age it seems that there is barely one national watchmaking school for each post-industrial country. This means for aspiring apprentices that they might have to relocate hundreds of miles from home.
As a consequence, watchmaking as a career path is often be overlooked by those who present the skills for it.
CHALLENGING PROSPECTS FOR SMALL BUSINESS OWNERS
Franck Muller and Roger Dubuis have lent their names to high-end brands, and they are perfect examples of watchmakers who ran a small workshop for decades and learn a great deal from repairing vintage clocks and a variety of pocked and wrist watches.
In this day and age, running a small watchmaking workshop Has become a costly business. For most of the history of watchmaking, small independent workshops could contact a brand to order a part that was required to fix a customer’s watch.
About a few decades ago, a few high-end brands started to make the repair business less open and to put stringent conditions on small workshops, by requiring them to buy branded tools and machines to be certified. There have been, and there are independent repairers that have done questionable work, but it would be hasty to throw the baby with the bath water.
For a small workshop owner this is a problem, because in order to become an authorised repair center for more than one of these brands, they must often buy multiple version of the tools and machines that perform identical tasks. This is the same that happened with car mechanics. Unless a workshop can afford to buy duplicate machines from different brands, they can only pick one or choose to operate without any certification from brands.
This is a big problem because small independent workshops are part of an ecosystem: they have the advantage of proximity with the customer, and they often offer more flexible costs and shorter lead times than corporate workshops.
Watchmaking schools need to expand: from offering full time vocational training to 16 years old apprentices, to training adults on evening classes.
When it comes to small workshops, we are witnessing an asphyxiation of small neighbourhood outlets by the “supershops” of brands, supported by the undisputed monopolistic practices.
Public administrations and governments should implement free trade policies, by which if a brand seeks to trade on a territory, they have the obligation of making spare parts available to third parties at prices that are monitored by a neutral party. This is a problem that we also see in other industries such as mobile phones, so there needs to be a global initiative in the interest of consumers.
Small neighbourhood workshops are vital because they are the only place where one can have watches from extinct brands repaired. They support a sustainable model and keep the economy running, just like your local shoemaker allows you to keep using a good pair of shoes instead of wasting money on new ones every year and generating more waste and carbon footprint.
For the above reasons, watchmaking, like several other crafts, is a trade in rising demand.