Times Change, But Watchmaker’s Still Ticking
Time surrounds and defines Jim Casey, but while the 50-year watchmaker maintains a time-honored vocation, he also reflects changes that make him a rare breed.
Pieces of watches he repairs sit on a century-old wooden workbench in his store, Casey Jewelers in downtown Columbus. Watch parts — some so small they seem the size of a flea — fill dozens of trays. Wrist and pocket watches hang from hooks on the wall, waiting for his attention.
Tweezers, pliers and tiny screwdrivers — some of the tools of his trade — are found on his workbenches or in drawers in his workshop in the back room.
A fixture downtown himself, Casey has seen the area built, torn down and rebuilt during his career of selling and fixing timepieces and jewelry.
Times change. Casey knows.
He is part of the declining trend of small-business owners who actually fix the timepieces they sell.
“It’s a dying breed. I think about it quite a bit. It’s been good to me … but nothing is like it used to be,” said Casey, 73.
Jewelry repair has remained steady, he said, because rings always need to be resized or rebuilt. Watch repair is a different matter.
Nowadays, many people throw away watches that stop working, or stores send the timepieces to specialty repair businesses or manufacturers to be fixed, he said. Others don’t wear watches and turn to their smartphones to check the time.
The trend of fewer small-business watchmakers can be traced to the decline of the U.S. watch and clock manufacturing industry, which started tailing off in the 1960s, said Jordan Ficklin, executive director of the American Watchmakers-Clockmakers Institute based in Harrison, Ohio.
Fewer and fewer were made in the U.S., and more were imported from Switzerland, Ficklin said. Consequently, fewer people saw watchmaking as a viable career in the United States, he said.
With fewer people entering the profession, the need for teaching the necessary skills also declined.
The U.S. used to have about 40 schools, including state universities, that offered degrees or certifications in watchmaking. Now there are eight, down from more than a dozen in the 1980s, Ficklin said.
Ironically, the demand for watchmakers now outpaces the supply. It’s on the rise because of a renaissance of high-end mechanical watches that require the talents of watchmakers for maintenance and repair, Ficklin said.
Manufacturers are willing to help support people who want to become watchmakers. Of the eight schools now operating, five receive support from companies within the industry, and three schools will pay the cost of schooling for those who are accepted into their selective, intense programs.
Watchmakers can make good money, Ficklin said. Those right out of school with certifications can make $40,000 to $50,000 per year, while watchmakers with five years of experience can make $65,000 to $80,000, he said.
Those who earn certifications in watchmaking have three main avenues to use the skills:
•Work for a major service center, likely for a major watch brand.
•Work in a retail setting, hired by a jewelry store.
•Own a repair shop.
“Very rarely is it as an owner/operator of a jewelry store,” Ficklin said.
What now is rare used to be common, and Casey didn’t have to look far to see that. His father, Jim Casey Sr., owned jewelry store H.L. Rost & Son starting in 1946.
Casey learned watchmaking skills from being at the store but also by taking classes from an instructor in Seymour, Indiana, at a time when watchmakers had to earn a license from the state.
Ficklin said Indiana was the last state in the country to eliminate the licensing requirement for watchmakers, in the late 1980s or early 1990s, he said. However, watch companies require watchmakers to have certifications in order to get their parts, he said.
Watchmaking is something Casey likes because tinkering is part of his nature. In his spare time he repairs old cars.
“I like the mechanical part (of watches). The reason I like it especially is because you feel like you accomplished something when you get done,” Casey said.