What is a watchmaker?

Last updated on January 8, 2021

When I first started collecting antique watches, I thought I understood what the term watchmaker referred to, but nothing could be further from the truth. It is a much-abused word, it has several definitions that apply depending on where we are in history. This is a brief post about the different types of “watchmakers” you may come across when collecting antique pocket watches.

Definition

By definition, a watchmaker is a craftsman who manufactures and repairs watches. Modern watchmakers typically only repair watches because the majority of watches are now factory-made. However, originally watchmakers were master craftsmen who built watches, including all their components, by hand. This was a time consuming and expensive process. The watchmaker could only produce a low volume of watches because everything was crafted by a single artisan.

Antique pocket watch made by the Lancashire Watch Company, but retailed by J.G. Graves.

The earliest watches appeared in the 16th century. These watches would have been completely manufactured by a single watchmaker. In the 18th and 19th centuries, this began to change. A division of labour had occurred so that there were dozens of specialists involved in the making of a watch. The person who managed the process of the assembling the watch components was called the watchmaker. This was despite not having made a single component themselves.

The specialists would all focus on a single component. One man, in his own workshop, would craft mainsprings and nothing else. Another man, again in his own workshop, would fit the hairspring to the balance and nothing else. Neither of these men would be capable of doing the other’s work. In Switzerland, this division of labour was known as the établissage system. A watchmaker who works according to this system is known as an établisseur.

Mechanised manufacturing

In the mid-19th century, American manufacturers entered the watchmaking industry. They introduced a mechanised system of manufacture. This allowed high volumes of components to be produced with consistent quality. The result was reliable, accurate timepieces available in large numbers and at affordable prices. The Swiss manufacturers were quick to follow suit, with the English watchmakers lagging behind. The mechanised system allowed manufacturers to produce blank frames, or ébauches, as they were known in Switzerland. Ébauche movements are essentially unbranded movements that are sold on to watchmakers. The watchmakers would then embellish the movement by polishing or branding and assemble the components. They would then fit them into a pocket watch case and sell them to the unsuspecting public, who thought they were buying directly from the watchmaker.

Antique pocket watch with a Longines movement, but retailed by Camerer Kuss.

Retailers

The term watchmaker becomes even murkier when we start considering the high street retailers. The shops that sold watches to the public often used the terms “watchmaker” to impress their customers. The vast majority of these establishments never actually made watches, or if they did it was a long time in the past. The terms are still used today by high street retailers as a marketing ploy. The retailers ordered their watches from the watchmaker with the retailer’s brand printed on the dial and sometimes engraved on the movement.

The perfect example of such a retailer is Fattorini & Sons from a post I have written recently. Sometimes it is possible to discover who made the ébauche by looking for markings on the pillar plate. The pillar plate sits underneath the dial and cannot be seen without dismantling the watch. This is unlikely to be done by anyone without specialist skills and tools.

We end up with three definitions of a watchmaker. Each term becomes more tenuous as it moves further from the original. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the term referred to a craftsman that created an entire watch by hand. It changes as we move into the 18th and 19th centuries. The term now refers to the person who collects the watch components from dozens of specialist craftsman and oversees the assembly. Finally, we have the high street retailers who merely marketed themselves as watchmakers.

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