Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Quality Week Pt 2: Watchmaking; Le Locle

How do you preserve a centuries old craft? You teach it to a group of young, enthusiastic students, who espouse and hold dear the history and legacy behind the craft. The future is in safe hands if these very students aspire to preserve the craft themselves, for posterity. This statement is none more truer than the tradition of watchmaking in a small town nestled in the Swiss Alps; Le Locle. A school in the town teaches the craft and students are discovering the intricacies and wonders of mechanical watchmaking.

A custodian of such a complex and intricate craft is a gentleman, who is also a teacher at the technical college in Le Locle, Yves Antoniotti. "Some of the technology has evolved, but the basic techniques remain unchanged." Techniques like hand-polishing screwheads until they gleam like mirrors, or grinding axle-ends down to a 10th of a millimetre using miniature lathes.

A four year course at the Le Locle technical college is grueling and arduous. As much as it is a test of one's patience (a cardinal virtue of a watchmaker), the process is also a test of a student's willpower, resilience and composure. In 1999 the class started with 17 students. Seven were left by 2001. The school year being a culmination of hand-tooling and assembling 92 miniscule components that make up a Zenith Marine Chronometer - a complex and intricate piece of micro-engineering. The paradox in this process is that the hand-tooling and assembling are considered obsolete, yet it is this very obsolescence that produces watches that fetch premium prices. In the words of Antoniotti, "The boom today is in complicated mechanical watches for the luxury market." 

The history and preservation of watchmaking in Le Locle can be attributed to Daniel Jeanrichard. In the early 1700s Jeanrichard opened the region's first watchmaking workshop, sharing his skills with his seven children and a handful apprentices. Jeanrichard is legendary because he was a self-taught watchmaker who invented the first specialised watchmaking machinery.

Le Locle's school of watchmaking first opened its doors in 1886 and moved to its current premises in 1995. The traditional techniques of watchmaking are still applied. At the end of the course students will have mastered the history of watchmaking from the 15th century to the present day, in both theory and practice. This is a fact many of the teachers can attest to. The practical side of the course also entails: antiques and clocks in varying states of disassembly. The idea is to restore a clock or watch to its original state, thus tackling the problem of missing components. Research into where the timepiece was made and what tools were used is also conducted. Computer-assisted design programs to reconceptualise missing parts is juxtaposed next to a separate workshop with lathes and machine tools to produce them. The reward: when they leave the college, they should be able to do anything a professional watchmaker is ever called upon to do.

One of the student's, Tobias Schenkel, concedes that there's something absurd about his chosen profession. He concludes rather poignantly that, "watchmaking is like an island in the modern era. Amid all these new technologies, it's one old technology that's exactly the same today as it was 100 years ago."

PG: Man to man, generation to generation.

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