When Joseph Maggio peers through his loupe, the magnifying eyepiece that fits over his right eye, an entire galaxy lies before him. Brass and steel gears, springs, and coils rotate and revolve in perfect harmony, thousands upon thousands of tiny movements orchestrated with an almost unfathomable precision.
He’s examining the dial of a mechanical wristwatch, one he built by hand, and there’s a problem.
He shuffles over to a microscope to zoom in closer. The timing is off. With tweezers he adjusts the hairspring, a tiny piece of coiled steel that regulates the tick and the tock. Like a beating heart, it expands and contracts 18,000 times per hour. He moves it by the hundredth of a millimeter.
This morning he shut his apartment door at half past 7, drove 7.7 miles in 15 minutes, and reached the Richemont Technical Center, a low-slung, glass-walled building on the far northeastern edge of Fort Worth, Texas, with time to spare. He swiped his security badge to enter and hung a left through the doors labeled “North American Institute of Swiss Watchmaking.”
After donning his white lab coat, he entered the classroom and took exactly 14 steps to his seat. Class began promptly at 8 a.m.
That was three hours and six minutes ago. While Joseph fiddles with the hairspring, the instructor, Russell Peddy, reminds students that their next exam is in 23 days. “There’s a lot to do and not a lot of time. We’ve got some time, but use the time wisely, and put in the time to get as many repetitions as possible.”
Here, pupils are taught to dismember, repair, and reassemble watches that start around $5,000 but can cost much, much more (Vacheron Constantin recently debuted a 260th-anniversary limited edition that retails for $369,200). It’s one of about a dozen schools worldwide to partner with the renowned Watchmakers of Switzerland Training and Education Programme. The tuition and tools are free, subsidized by Richemont, the parent company of luxury brands like Vacheron Constantin, Cartier, and Piaget.
More than 200 applied for the six spots in Joseph’s class. In a few months they’ll take final exams, which are graded by Swiss officiates, and eventually earn six-figure salaries. The students, four men and two women, range in age from late 20s to mid-50s, and all are on their second career. One owned a retail packaging company for two decades; another was an audiologist. Unwittingly, they’ve become the focus of every social gathering they attend.
In most industries consumers pay premium prices for the latest in high tech, but timepieces are the opposite. High-end watches utilize technology that hasn’t changed in hundreds of years. There are no batteries or electronics. Nothing is automated. Assembly is a completely human process. And few owners of fine watches ever glimpse the hand-carved touches that set their pieces apart—uniquely engraved gears and individually placed pink and purple gems. The beauty is truly on the inside.
At one point this knowledge was endangered. The Swiss watch market declined drastically during the 1970s and ’80s, when the technology
emerged to mass-produce clocks that used electronic oscillators—regulated by quartz crystal—to keep more accurate time. Watchmaking schools were shuttered, and people stopped learning the craft. But higher-ups at the thriving young Swatch brand decided to use their success to revive the mechanical industry,prompting a resurgence of Swiss watches. Demand for expert watchmakers returned, and in 2008 the North American Institute of Swiss Watchmaking was born.
The market continues to prosper, now exceeding $20 billion annually and far outpacing quartz sales, according to the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry. The NAIOSW expanded their incoming class for the first time this year to help meet the demand.
For many in the industry, it boils down to simple economics. There’s a profit to be had. But for watchmakers it’s something altogether different. They become part surgeon, part sculptor, and part mechanic. And over the course of the two-year, 3,000-hour academy, they come to understand things the rest of the world doesn’t.
Joseph, now 38, was a teenager when his uncle handed him a wrench and taught him to change the spark plugs on his 1977 Monte Carlo. Ever since, he has fixated on details. He has to know how things work, how the gears of life rotate and fit together.
He signed up for the Air Force after high school because it “seemed kind of gnarly” and was deployed to Kuwait in 1997, where he manned a missile warning system, tracking Scuds in a command post. While on break one day he flipped through a magazine and was drawn to an ad for a silver Concord Chronograph watch. He did some research and learned it was a Swiss mechanical—technology he’d assumed was extinct. He was surrounded by cutting-edge military machinery and still he wondered, How did we as humans achieve this?
More than four centuries earlier, a 19-year-old student named Galileo Galilei attended prayers one afternoon at the Pisa Cathedral. In the midst of the service, he became entranced by the regular swaying motion of an altar lamp. He noticed that it took the same amount of time to seesaw from side to side no matter how large its arc. As the lamp slowed, the size of its arc decreased, and vice versa. Later, he confirmed this using the best timing system he could find—his own heartbeat. Decades passed, but Galileo eventually combined his vast knowledge of physics, astronomy, and maritime navigation to develop the most accurate timing system the world had ever known: the pendulum clock.
At its core, the watch Joseph discovered in the glossy magazine used the same basic technology. It became his life’s goal to own one. He saved for years—that particular watch retailed for around $10,000—and then found a deal on a used one in 2002. When it arrived in the mail, he cradled it in his palm and was amazed at its weight. He held it to his ear and was fascinated by the sound. He longed to know the mysteries beneath its surface.
“It was a weird moment for me,” he says. “I looked at it as this tiny miracle.”
Years later, he was providing tech support for military operations in the Horn of Africa when that moment’s true significance revealed itself. He still enjoyed the challenge of troubleshooting and debugging IT issues, but he’d begun to spend too much time on the phone debating budget numbers with Pentagon officials. He resolved to leave and study the thing he’d yearned to do all along. “This is my destiny,” he says. “This is what I was meant for.”
What is time? The question seems most appropriate for slackers with disheveled hair and intellectual savants with, well, disheveled hair.
Aristotle struggled to define it, and Isaac Newton had it all wrong. In a research paper, the renowned physicist John Archibald Wheeler offered up a line he read on the bathroom wall of the Pecan Street Cafe in Austin, Texas: “Time is nature’s way to keep everything from happening all at once.”
Bound up in this question is an investigation that gets to the core of our humanity: Where did we come from? Where are we going? And really: Who are we?
At the turn of the 20th century Einstein upended our understanding of time. He argued that our conception is subject to experiences with recurring, rhythmic phenomena: swinging pendulums, ticking clocks, orbits and revolutions of planets and moons. It’s relative to the observer, so it’s subjective, and keeping time is really a matter of simultaneity. “If, for instance, I say, ‘That train arrives here at seven o’clock,’ I mean something like this: ‘The pointing of the small hand of my watch to seven and the arrival of the train are simultaneous events,’” Einstein wrote.
Among physicists and philosophers the debate rages on, but NAIOSW watch instructor Stanley McMahan makes nearly the same claim: “Watches don’t tell the time. They synchronize with the time standard. That used to be the sun, and now it’s the atomic clock.”
Stanley, who is famous for his attention to detail, teaches first-year students. One, a retired podiatrist, once told him, “Every surgeon ought to be a watchmaker for a little while so they can know what precision is.”
Students arrive with neither the hand-skills nor mental acuity required for watchmaking. One of their first tasks is a test of patience as much as dexterity: Take a cylindrical steel rod and file it down to a perfect 15-millimeter cube. By hand. It takes about a week. And they’re also judged on the cube’s beveled edges and overall finish.
Perhaps the real miracle within these walls is that students aren’t constantly smashing little pieces of metal out of frustration. “It’s tempting,” one quips. “Especially when the instructors aren’t looking.”
Yet they find that their minds evolve in ways they could never have imagined. They analyze the world around them more closely. They become obsessive about cleanliness and organization. (One student remounted the uneven pictures on the wall at her sister’s house.)
“It changes you,” Joseph says. “When you’re doing this stuff, time flies. We’re in there for nine hours, and it feels like 30 minutes. It’s almost like a dream state. Your senses become heightened so that you can feel those microchanges.”
As the world spins around them, becoming ever more complex and hectic, the students labor monk-like, in silence, using wood-tipped tweezers to handle sensitive materials, striving for perfection. It’s a meditative, Zen-like pursuit.
Joseph has yet to solve the timing discrepancy with his watch, so he continues seeking out the root of the problem. He’s discussed it with both instructors, who then discussed it for an hour over lunch. They’re still unsure what’s going on. Could be something they’ve never encountered before, which is telling considering their 60 years of combined experience. “That’d be awesome if that was the case,” Stanley says.
There’s a joke in Karin Dickinson’s family
that she was born with a screwdriver in one hand and a pair of pliers in the other. She’s the middle child between two boys, and she was the only one of the three that really lit up when her dad, an engraver, introduced them to the tools in his workshop.
He always took the time to teach her new things. She relished the time spent with him this way, and she shared his patient disposition. She would sit on the garage floor for hours and sand wooden bowls, cups, and toy mice with big leather ears.
After high school she landed a job at one of San Francisco’s oldest jewelry stores, Shreve & Co. Jewelers. Her dad’s engraving business was housed in the building’s basement, and she got to eat lunch with him every day. She was promoted quickly because she had a knack for repairing things, and one day the shop sent her to a watchmaking seminar so she could explain to customers the inner workings of their finest timepieces.
There, she was taught how to reassemble a mechanical watch. While those around her lost parts and complained it was an impossible task, Karin calmly pieced things together. She felt like she was back in her dad’s shop.
Afterward, one of the trainers approached her. “You have watchmaker’s hands,” she told her. “You should come to my school.”
Six months later she was in Fort Worth at the NAIOSW. “It kind of all fell together in this magical, this-cannot-be-a-coincidence kind of way,” Karin says.
Now 27, sitting in the classroom, her pink hair a stark contrast to the white lab coats and austere environment surrounding her, she often pauses to reflect on her good fortune. “Every day I come here, it feels like I’m walking into a dream. But it’s real, and it’s amazing.”
In the wake of Galileo’s pendulum epiphany, the production of watches created a talent pool for manufacturing that would prove vital when the Industrial Revolution arrived. In How We Got to Now, historian Steven Johnson argues that watchmakers were the pioneers of industrial engineering.
Galileo’s invention also enabled the emergence of the new working day. Industrial factories demanded a strictly regimented, predictable workforce. This fundamentally altered the human conception of time. Natural rhythms were replaced with an artificial grid. For many factory laborers, like those famously described by Charles Dickens, the forceful application of this grid had a dark side. But for everyone involved it was a dramatic shift. It’s one thing to be born into a world regulated by clocks; it’s quite another to experience the clockwork day as a revolution.
The world began to speed up. The Industrial Revolution eventually led to the invention of the quartz clock, whose remarkable accuracy gave rise to modern computing. “Computer chips are masters of time discipline,” Johnson writes, and thus required the precision of quartz to function.
With quartz, however, came the realization that the length of a day wasn’t as constant as previously assumed. Thus a new rhythmic phenomena was needed, and scientists turned to the electrons oscillating around the smallest chemical unit known to man: the atom. Atomic clocks arrived in the 1950s, capable of measuring time to the nanosecond—the same standard you use each time you check your smartphone.
“You don’t need to know any of these things to tell the time now,” Johnson writes, “but that’s the way progress works: the more we build up these vast repositories of scientific and technological understanding, the more we conceal them.”
But “progress” can be a misnomer. Does the digital age bring with it time for more, or time for less? We are shielded from boredom, from the changing of the seasons, from the sound of our beating hearts, from the ticking of the clock. But if we never observe the rotating gears and the swinging pendulum, how much life will pass us by before we pause to wonder: Where has all the time gone?
“It’s incredible to think about the fact that these are skills most people in the world today have forgotten, or have never learned, and only their ancestors knew how to do,” Karin says. “And yet we get to learn that right here and now.”
For Karin, there’s a particular moment that makes her fall in love with the craft all over again: when she replaces the final piece on a repaired watch and what was lifeless is reborn. “When the watch springs back to life—when its heart starts beating again—my heart races,” she says. “It never stops being exciting.”
Originally published March 2015
JK Nickell is the associate editor of Southwest: The Magazine.
Photography by Trevor Paulhus