Watchmaking is a dying art, but more people than ever want a wildly expensive and complicated watch. With a new Manhattan school, Patek Philippe is trying to bridge that divide.
Inside the Manhattan workshop where the most complicated, expensive, and shouted-out-in-rap-songs watches in the world are serviced, everyone is wearing white Crocs. 31 pairs of the sanitary ur-ugly shoe are tucked away underneath desks where Patek Philippe’s platoon of watchmakers are hunched over, toiling away on one of the 10,000 pieces that pass through the workshop annually—either for routine servicing or because it was taken to another repair shop that used a paper clip in place of an actual part. Through a door in the back is a smaller room with a projector at the front of it and six sweet-faced, enthusiastic men mostly in their early 20s. They comprise the entire current class of Patek Philippe’s watchmaking program, which the brand built and offers to students for free. It hardly had a choice: the customer base for extremely fancy watches is growing, but the number of people who can actually make them is cratering. So the brand is running something close to an endangered species program for watchmakers.
“I wish in high school they told me I could be a watchmaker,” Mark says. “It was a dying industry in America.”
“I thought it was all in Switzerland,” Erik, another student, pipes up.
“I was someone who wanted to do it in high school and I would tell guidance counselors about it and they would say it wasn’t a possibility,” Alex adds.
A couple decades ago, there would have been more options for watch-obsessed high schoolers like Mark, Erik, and Alex. But the number of watch schools in the U.S. is dwindling. Over the past decade, programs at Oklahoma State, which ran for 72 years, and Saint Paul College in Minnesota closed down. There were 44 watchmaking schools in North America in 1975, according to the Herald Tribune. There are nine now, including Patek Philippe’s.
Larry Pettinelli, Patek Philippe’s U.S. CEO, explains that the 1970s were a turning point for the watchmaking industry. At the start of that decade, the quartz (digital) watch was invented in Japan, and cheap easy-to-make watches flooded the market. “Everyone thought the mechanical watch industry was going to die out,” he says. “So students went into different industries.” Without new enrollment, schools closed down.
This is a problem for Patek Philippe, which makes some of the most extravagantly complicated watches in the world. A top-tier Patek—the kind Future dedicates songs to—is known as a “Grand Complication.” (A “complication” is any feature on a watch beyond the time.) A Patek can tell you what the month is, what day you’re at in that month, the particular day of the week, and, just to show off, what phase of the moon cycle you’re currently in. Patek’s whole thing is famously complicated watches. The most expensive timepiece ever sold at auction is a Patek Philippe pocket watch with 24 complications, including a map of New York City’s stars, indicators for sunrise and sunset, and an alarm that replicates the chimes from Big Ben. It sold for $24 million.
Further complicating Patek’s business is that it wants to make more of its stupidly complicated watches. The $67.9 million global watch market is growing—particularly the hunger for incredibly expensive watches—and Patek wants to match as much of the new demand as it can. The brand recently upped its production to 60,000 watches a year, from a number closer to 50,000. (The pieces start at just above 10 grand and go all the way up to $110,000, or, scarier: “price upon request”). Patek will have to service every single one of these pieces at one point—it’s staked its entire brand on doing just that. Every watch comes with the guarantee Patek will make it new again. Ad campaigns promise, “You never actually own a Patek Philippe. You merely look after it for the next generation.” But in order to keep that vow, Patek needs to train the next generation of watchmakers. “Eventually, [customers will] say I’m not paying $30,000, $40,000, $50,000 for a timepiece when it takes two years to get it serviced,” Pettinelli says.
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So, in 2015, Patek launched its watchmaking program. Roughly 380 people applied, and now six of them work full-time in the workshop. For its second run, Patek hired a headhunter to filter through all the applications. There were so many qualified candidates who’d heard about the program that the executives at Patek still ended up with a stack of 420 resumes to go through. A lack of enrollment killed a majority of the watch schools in the U.S., but interest in Patek’s program is growing—a potential sign that the current explosion in the watch market is trickling down to the younger generation, too.
Walking through the door into Patek Philippe’s workshop makes you feel a little like Alice stepping into Wonderland. Everything is shrunken down, including tiny, adorable versions of screwdrivers, hammers, and screws so small and delicate they bend at small amounts of pressure. The screws are so microscopic you might mistake them for flecks of dust. I watch Laurent Junod, who’s been with Patek for over 30 years and heads the school, use a pair of tweezers to pluck a screw off the table like he’s using chopsticks to grab a bulging California roll. (“And that was a big screw,” he brags later.)
The day I visit, the students are working on a generic movement from “a little ladies watch,” Junod says. There will be a test on it the next day. A large portion of the class is comprised of Junod messing the watch up in some way—by breaking a part, cutting the gear out of the movement, or removing screws. Then the students go through a list of defects until they find out what’s wrong with the piece. Junod repeats this process 20 to 30 times.
The class is almost a year in, but the students still haven’t touched a Patek watch. They’ve barely started working with timepiece movements at all. The students were told in the interview process that they wouldn’t even get to touch a watch—any watch—for seven months. “The way he phrased it was like a punishment,” Alex says.
Why? Because, before you can repair a watch, you need the right tools. Patek’s master craftsmen make their own tools, so that’s what the students have been doing. Every handle, hammer head, and screwdriver was painstakingly handmade. Someone takes a thick bronze tube out of the drawer to show what, for example, the handle for one of the hammer looks like before they spend countless hours hand-sawing it down to exactly four millimeters on each side.
“You cannot mess it up or else you’ll have to start all over again after a week of work,” Ricardo, another one of the students, says. “It’s just to break your spirit a little bit.”
The work is deadening by design. The first quarter of coursework was centered around these excruciating exercises in patience that trained the students to focus. Patience is so essential to a watchmaker’s success that Junod and Pettinelli test for it throughout the interview process. There are impossible math problems put in a three-hour written test just to see whether or not someone will break a pencil in half out of frustration. “How are they responding when they can’t answer the question?” Pettinelli says about what he’s looking for.
For all the spirit-breaking done in this little classroom, the students are still as excited as kids on Christmas morning. They’re flashing their tools in my direction—explaining how it required four hours of polishing alone on the lever used to remove a dial’s hands, or how the curve of a hammer took them six hours to get just right.
“I truly believe, and I think everyone here shares the same sentiment, that anything worth doing is worth doing right and that’s really what Patek is about,” Mark says.
Junod smiles. “You see all the brainwashing we did?”
But the truth is that all these students came in with a full cup of Kool-Aid. The easiest way to explain away why no one is enrolling in watch school is that this generation just isn’t hardwired for a job that requires people to sit and polish something for half a workday. It’s easy to assume that an entire age group blanketed as the ADHD generation wouldn’t be interested in this sort of craft.
There’s a moment when it becomes clear to me just how different these six students are, though. “The show How It’s Made was my favorite show as a child,” Alex says. Everyone else nods vigorously in agreement. It’s a show I’ve never even heard of—it airs on the Science Channel; the last couple episodes focused on basketballs, shoelaces, and berets (Is it complicated to make a beret?)—but these six act like it’s Seinfeld. Another adds that he’s spent hours on YouTube just watching how tissues are produced. Watchmakers, I’m learning, are deeply curious about how things are made.
And they’re particularly obsessive when it comes to their craft. One student shows me the hand exercises he does—pushing his fingers together like a slow-motion high five, or rotating his wrists—and says he’s sworn off alcohol, “at least for a long time,” because it might make his hand tremor. He doesn’t drink coffee, either, for the same reason. He carries around eye drops and eats foods that are good for his sight, like blueberries and carrots. “When it comes to watchmaking,” he says, “I want to perform my best.” They’re the sort of freakish tendencies shared with athletes or Daniel Day-Lewis that land people on an episode of True Life if it’s not part of why they cash a check.
There are several different tiers of Patek Philippe watchmakers. When this group graduates next year they’ll be at level two, meaning they can repair quartz, manually wound, or self-winding watches, like the company’s Calatrava model. There are only four people in the whole 31-employee New York workshop who can handle the more complicated level-three watches, which are defined as any piece that goes beyond just telling time and date. After level three is advanced, the highest category, where people are actually making watches from scratch or repairing “grand complications.” (Then there are lettered tiers within the advanced level. “Like stripes on a black belt,” Mark explains.) Only a small handful of people in the world can make a watch from start to finish at the level Patek needs them to, and every student in this class says they want to get there. The most talented, motivated, and prodigal watchmakers can get to level advanced after six years, although many won’t even get beyond the second tier. Because of the PhD-grade commitment it takes to climb the ladder, people spend whole careers at Patek. One employee in the workshop tells me he hasn’t been there long: just eight years.
“Watchmakers are rockstars in our world,“ Pettinelli says. “[The students] don’t understand yet how much time and effort and determination that’s going to take.” But they certainly seem to have the patience. Patek is counting on it.