Time is on their hands
Long Reads 07.01.2018
Working with incredible accuracy, cocooned from the outside world, knowing that they have all the time they need to get things exactly right: meet the best watchmakers in the world…
‘I actually hold my breath sometimes…’
Luc Hiegel is the head of laboratory and product homologation for Hermès Watches…
How were you introduced to watchmaking?
‘When I was 12 my grandmother gave me a box of tools to play with. They were on such a small scale they seemed strange and intriguing to me. She explained what they were and that they’d been my uncle’s tools. From then on I planned to train as a watchmaker. Getting to do so then wasn’t so easy; I actually trained in micro-mechanics first – developing the very small components for use in the construction and car industries. But I spent my summer holidays training in watchmaking – I knew that’s what I wanted to do.’
Are you glad you kept at it?
‘It can be a stressful job. Every watchmaker has to find their own tricks. But ultimately it’s about being really relaxed – loving the job is a big part of that. For me, managing your breathing is really important. I actually hold my breath sometimes – when placing the particularly difficult components, for example. But it’s generally about having no time pressures, which is an unusual thing in most industries. You can’t hurry watchmaking. Some watchmakers are faster and others slower, some are more and some are less precise. It’s important that the head of a watch department knows each watchmaker’s capacity and can adjust expectations accordingly. A successful watchmaking operation is as much about managing people as anything else.’
Is there much in common between the worlds of watchmaking and micro-mechanics?
‘These days you see much more of an exchange of ideas between watchmaking and micro-mechanics, between that heritage-led, handcrafted world and the world of modern technology – for example, in the use of materials like silesium or ceramics. It’s like the industry being more prepared to use machinery in its manufacturing too. If a machine can do something more precisely than a person can, it makes sense to use the machine too.’
‘A watch isn’t just about the function of time – there are watches without hands…’
Werner Weiss is a watchmaker who has worked at Oris for 45 years
What made you become a watchmaker?
‘Craftsmanship and working with my hands has always interested me; I considered car and bike mechanics before I eventually became a watchmaker. I wanted to be indoors sheltered from the rain – one reason not to choose an outdoors career!’
What are the frustrations and pleasures of the job?
‘The industry has changed dramatically over time and has evolved into more of a consumer-focused job. I really enjoy creating a product for Oris that is of an incredibly high quality, but at an affordable price in comparison with other brands. The culture that comes from working for one brand provides you with incredible focus and knowledge, but on the other hand, it can be quite limiting. In my spare time, as a hobby, I also work on other brands’ timepieces – it gives me a wider spectrum and increases my knowledge.’
What tricks of the trade have you learnt during your career?
‘There are no special tricks but routine is key… and makes a huge difference. You need to understand and comprehend the construction inside out to solve the many challenges that you come across in watchmaking.’
How do you see the future of your craft?
‘It’s a craft that will always survive – it has done since the 15th century, even through tough times when many thought it wouldn’t. Being a watchmaker is a real privilege: every other profession has been automated. This is what I love about the industry – the fact that it hasn’t lost its charm. A watch isn’t just about the function of time – there are watches without hands – it’s about the love of the object we create.’
‘You can go a bit crazy if you spend too much time out of other people’s company…’
Ludovic Ballouard is an independent watchmaker, best known for his award-winning Upside Down watch
What do you like about being an independent maker?
‘I’d always wanted to be an independent maker – it leaves you the space to push ideas that bit further than you can at a big-production company. Certain things happening in my life confirmed that you should just do what you love doing. Life is for living. It does mean that a good part of my day is spent alone, at the workbench; you need the quiet and introspection to create. You can go a bit crazy if you spend too much time out of other people’s company, though, as many craftspeople do. You have to
get out and see someone.’
What constitutes a successful watch design for you?
‘I think a watch should be about more than telling the time. It should have a story. With my Upside Down watch, for example, the only numeral ever facing the right way up is the one that the hour hand is on. It’