Inspiring the Next Generation Of Makers through Watchmaking

My mom recently gave me the watch my grandfather wore much of his adult life. Some of my memories of him were wearing that watch and playing mahjong as I would quietly observe. Timepieces, like humans, each have their stories. In Hands of time: A watchmaker’s history, Rebecca Struthers, both a watchmaker and historian, teaches about the history of watchmaking, time, and the underappreciated craft of restoring timepieces. The book is a delightful mix of personal narrative, clear and crisp prose, and description of the intricate world of timepieces and ancient craft of working with one’s hands that seems almost forgotten in schools and society today. For example, she ends her book with an entire explanation of a brief (and personal) guide to repairing a watch. What follows is a Q&A with her.

Why did you write this book?

Rebecca Struthers: I’ve always loved writing as much as I love watchmaking. I started out as a watch restorer and research is a key part of restoration. You need to know how something was made a hundred years or more ago to know how to put it right again. Writing about that feels very natural to me. I finished my PhD in 2017 and wanted to turn my thesis into a book but I couldn’t find a publisher interested in horology (the study of time told through watch and clockmaking). I’d given up hope when a literary agent found me and helped sculpt my proposal and get it in front of the right people.

You write: “Between us we have spent nearly four decades specializing in one craft, so we’re painfully aware of what it takes to achieve mastery. We’ll never be able to engrave, enamel or cut gemstones as well as a fellow artisan who has dedicated their life to the pursuit of their craft. If you want your work to be the very finest it can be, you have to collaborate.” Can you elaborate more on both what it takes to develop expertise and why collaboration is important?

For us, expertise is something we’ll always be striving for rather than something we feel we’ve achieved. I’ve been in the trade for 20 years this year and I’m still regularly seeing things for the first time and learning new histories and skills.

As for collaboration, it’s just Craig, me and our dog Archie in the workshop. Being an artisan can become an incredibly solitary profession which is good if you’re a solitary person, as both Craig and I tend to be, but bad in terms of fostering innovation and creativity. That’s why collaboration is so important to us. For each watch we make our team of two (three if you include Archie!) expands to ten or more makers. We work independently but collectively, each contributing our ideas, materials knowledge, and experience. The result is something that would be impossible with a single maker. Our extended team often has a cumulation of a few centuries of experience between us.

What should someone growing up today interested in working with their hands pursue?

It’s really challenging as, in the UK at least, the arts and crafts have been slowly erased from school curriculums and are now being targeted at a higher education level. The ability to become a maker in whatever artistic field you’re passionate about is becoming increasingly class based. That’s fine if your family can afford the additional tuition or you have a parent or guardian at home to support you and buy the materials you need. Otherwise, it’s tough.

As I share in my book, I’m from a working-class background and none of the courses I took to get where I am today still exist. For those with internet access, there are some amazing creators and educators taking to social media to share their skills, including DIY makes from household stuff. In my very early years, I was obsessed with taking things apart to see how they worked. Old TVs, cassette players, and once, a deceased fox I found in my local park which was a bit more smelly than the tech! My parents were incredibly supportive of my quest to explore anything and everything I could get my hands on (my Dad let me clean up the fox bones in his greenhouse, that one wasn’t allowed in the house for understandable reasons!).

I advise young people to never feel pressured to go to university. It’s not right for everyone. You can have an incredibly successful career after serving an apprenticeship or studying a vocational course.

What occupation might you have pursued if you had not become a historian and watchmaker?

My one before the one career was forensic pathology. My work experience was at the Ministry of Defence, and I’d met a forensics expert who had worked with NATO in Kosovo. I found him so inspiring I was on the brink joining the army to study medicine. I was convinced not to and, by total chance, found the course that lead to me studying watchmaking instead. I was incredibly close to living a very different life and often still wonder where that would have taken me.

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