How to Find Peace Through Watchmaking
The key lesson of Horology 101, a two-hour course in movement mechanics at the Horological Society of New York, is that to tinker with a watch is to sink into delight. The process is so hypnotic that the jargon and shoptalk chimes like music as you prod the beak of the click free from the ratchet teeth. When my classmates and I began our exercise with that action—allowing our ratchet wheels to rotate the wrong way and thereby release the power in our mainsprings—we were, literately and figuratively, learning how to unwind.
Founded in 1866, the HSNY bills itself as “America’s first watchmaking guild” and counts luxury merchants, local craftsmen, esteemed appraisers, veteran clock restorers, and the guys from Hodinkee among its leadership. It introduced Horology 101 as a monthly offering, open to the public, in February 2015, encountering such great demand that it immediately increased the frequency to weekly. The nonprofit’s educational program now includes Horology 102 (about the gear train), Horology 103 (winding and setting works), and Horology 104 (escapement), plus a road show that condenses all the above classes into a four-hour course. It will travel in February to Chicago, Philadelphia, and Seattle.
Lacking a clubhouse, the HSNY has led a peripatetic lifestyle over the decades. This time last year, it held meetings and courses at 180 West 76th Street—the Riverside Memorial Chapel, a venue that, though lovely, does not exactly telegraph youth and vitality. The society has since settled at the General Society Library on West 44th Street, where, last Tuesday night, I hung my jacket in a closet stuffed with watchmaker lab coats and bellied up to a table-top work bench.
There were five additional students: three random, well-groomed, middle-aged dudes, plus two close friends of mine—a married couple whose curiosity was piqued by my anticipatory chatter. (The lady likes to daydream about moon-phase watches in general; her husband actively covets a black Patek Philippe Aquanaut.) Our lead instructor, Stephen Eagle, fired up a PowerPoint presentation while his co-instructor, Karen Ripley, looked on. An early slide took pains to make clear that Eagle and Ripley were not appearing in connection with their day jobs at Rolex and Patek Phillippe, respectively. My male friend nonetheless began batting his eyelashes at Ripley.
On each bench, mounted in a movement holder, ticked an ETA 6497. Eagle explained that this movement (the little engine of timekeeping that goes into a case) originated as a pocket-watch design and now serves, highly modified, as the base movement for certain oversized wristwatches from Longines and Panerai, among others. Because of its generous size, the ETA 6497 is a popular educational tool. It is to watchmaking schools as the bullfrog is to seventh-grade life science—with the key difference that we novice horologists were tasked also with bringing our symbolic frogs back to life so they'd go "ribbit" at regular intervals.
Fitting a Bausch & Lomb loupe over one wary eye, I set out to disassemble my movement with tools, including two jeweler’s screwdrivers, a pair of tweezers, and a plastic stylus to be wielded, Eagle said, “any time you have the urge to use your fingers.” (“The acid in the oils can get permanently seared into the metal.”) To further avoid fouling the movements, we rolled tiny latex sheaths over fingers on our non-dominant hands; to avoid fouling the mood as juveniles would, we stifled any and all condom jokes and got down to business.
The instructors set a cozy tone—earnest but chill, studious but not nerdy. The friendly vibe helped me to recover swiftly from an early accident: shooting the ratchet screw halfway across the table. It surprised me to discover I had a knack for this kind of thing, and we students were all patient with one another’s relative displays of fine-motor skills. “It takes a very steady hand,” one guy said, quoting the old Operation commercial to a smattering of chuckles.
It should be obvious that a horology class is an ideal way for a casual fan of fine timepieces (or a would-be connoisseur) to appreciate these objects of desire more profoundly. To be frank, I’ve been walking around for a while talking about rubies—the 17 synthetic rubies of the ETA 6497, say—as if I knew what I was saying; it was not until this course that I began to understand the jewels’ exact purpose as pivots. The architecture of the bridges, the oscillation of the balance wheel, the elegance of the escapement—the mechanical beauty of all came into focus under the loupe. It’s not difficult to imagine a certain kind of watch merchant (slightly cranky, highly exacting) requiring buyers to take such classes as a prerequisite for purchase—and feeling well-justified in doing so.
Nor is it too hard to imagine a near future in which attending watchmaking classes catches on as a recreational activity, especially in our world of mindfulness seminars for executives, yoga classes for kindergartners, and pop-psych primers on flow. It is, perhaps paradoxically, soothing to concentrate on putting a tiny and delicate pallet fork in its proper place, and there must be a life lesson in developing the right tweezer grip (firm but gentle, deliberate but relaxed) to consistently do it well. What I learned in Horology 101 was Zen and the art of watchmaking: It was as if I’d spent a long moment in a world apart. What better pursuit could there be, in these over-scheduled days of stress, than to lose all track of time?