In Watch of the Week, we invite HODINKEE staffers and friends to tell us a personal story they have about a watch. The author of today’s feature is Charles Emslie, a HODINKEE watchmaker based in Atlanta. He’s telling us the story of his school watch.
I started watchmaking school shortly after I turned 21. I was halfway across the United States from my home in Colorado, and in an entirely unfamiliar world. I went from working as an apprentice jeweler under my brother to staking out my own path on a road that was a complete surprise to my family. The only watch I had ever owned before going to watchmaking school was a random Skagen I received in a trade during high school.
I attended the Lititz Watch Technicum in Pennsylvania, one of the most intensive and difficult watchmaking schools I could have chosen. Early mornings and late nights defined my life for two whole years; each new day represented a new lesson that built on the skills born from the previous day’s work. I graduated from the school in August of 2009. I felt like I knew everything but also not nearly enough.
One of the major projects we undertook during the two-year course was the construction of our own watch, the so-called “School Watch.” My class had the choice of working on one of two movements, either the large and venerable Unitas 6497, or the smaller-yet-not-to-be-underestimated Peseux 7001. I opted for the 6497; its larger size seemed the more straightforward of the options to tackle.
The base movement, given to us in its ébauche form, was gilt, using three bridges. One bridge for the barrel and center wheel, another for the third, fourth, and escape wheels, and the last for the balance. Our task was presented to us as a year-long objective. We were to design an entirely new bridge layout (approved by the instructor), and then fabricate it using the tools and equipment at hand, manufacturing a new stem in the process. That was the minimum. Additional design and construction could be done, if it was felt that the student was capable of such work.
After some study and thought, I committed myself to a simple design: using a three-quarter plate layout, with the entire going train placed underneath one bridge and a separate bridge for the balance. The ratchet click would be changed from the instantly recognizable 6497 base format to one inspired by a 1920s-era E. Howard & Co. pocket watch that had belonged to my namesake, my great-great-grandfather.
We had a year, and I took all the time we had. I had to rebuild the click several times, either due to breakage from the heat-treatment process or the geometry not cooperating with the ratchet wheel. The bridges took more finishing passes than I would like to admit due to vibration issues. The stem had to be remade due to a bend that developed during the hardening process. The flat polishing of the screws was finger-numbing and extremely time-intensive. Each mistake – made and then corrected – added to the watch’s story.
The micro-mechanic portion of my education was one of the most challenging and enjoyable parts of my watchmaking education. We used no computers beyond a very basic CAD system for laying out the final design of our movement bridges. All of the work was done with manual lathes, files, gravers, and the enjoyable-to-describe “wobble stick” centering method.
Once the watch was completed, it was evaluated. I was graded on the workmanship and the timekeeping of the final product.
The watch is far from perfect, there’s no doubt about that. There is a nick on an underside of a lug that came from a mistake I made while fitting the movement to the case. Light scuffs that are visible on the surface finish of the bridges came from my less-than-perfect tweezer handling. The flat polish of the screws did not quite reach the desired level of “black polish.” The graining of the ratchet and crown wheel showed slight variation in the hue of the metal. The perlage of the mainplate, while consistent, does not exhibit perfect spacing. The click was a little off from my measurements. And there is still a little wobble in the stem. The timekeeping, although not perfect, remained in the prescribed range of deviation.
Thankfully, despite these mistakes and shortfalls, my watch and I passed.
My class was presented with the chance to get our School Watches plated in our second year, an opportunity I jumped at. I opted to go with gold plating on the mainplate and pallet bridge, and dark ruthenium for the rest. The contrast works wonderfully with the open spacing of the balance and three-quarter bridges. I will admit that my opinion might be biased.
As the years have gone by and my career has continued, I’ve had plenty of opportunities to resolve the mistakes I made during school. I’ve chosen not to. I keep the watch similar to the condition it was in when I graduated. Sure, I’ve performed a service on it every once in a while (an overhaul done as a student is not typically as good as one done with a few years of professional work under the belt). Other than that, and a few light scuffs and scratches here and there, it remains much as it was.
I’ve only worn it a handful of times since graduation, either when the rare mood catches me, or if I ever feel like showing it to people. You can usually find me with a Breitling Aerospace or Chrono Callisto, but I always get asked about my school watch in the office.
This watch is meaningful not just for what it is, but also for what it took for me to get it there. Each part has a story behind it, some of them will remain known only to me, as some lessons from experience hold meaning only to the person who had to go through it. The amount of effort that went into making each part of the watch as perfect as I could make them really helped me understand, and respect, the difficulty that goes into watchmaking.
I plan to continue wearing and sharing my school watch with others. It remains a very tangible reminder of my education and experience, from knowing nearly nothing all the way to knowing just a little bit.
It’s nice to look back at where we started to see how far we’ve come.