Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Taking apart a watch is easy; putting it back together, however . . .

Eric Buth, a radiation oncologist from Grand Rapids, Michigan, disassembling a mechanical watch movement at a class recently in Chicago. The Horological Society of New York has been holding watchmaking classes in major cities to give collectors a better understanding of how watches work.

     Taking apart a watch is not difficult. You need the right tools: a magnifying eyepiece and pointed tweezers, to see and handle screws the size of mustard seeds and springs as big as eyelashes. To turn those tiny screws, three jeweler's screwdrivers. Plus a pointer to nudge parts into place, and an elevated tabletop, to lean your elbows on, to get your face close to your work. Don't forget to slip on pink rubber finger cots, to keep the oils from your fingertips from corroding delicate parts.
     There is one more tool whose purpose doesn't immediately reveal itself: a round metal tray with ten compartments. 
     To understand the role of the tray, you need to know what you are doing or, barring that, have the guidance of someone who does, such as Steve Eagle, director of education at the Horological Society of New York. A few Sundays back, Eagle led seven novices through the removal and return of most of the 78 gears, wheels and springs of a Unitas ETA 6497 watch movement.
     "Welcome to Horology 101 to 103," said Eagle. "You're in for an intense four hours of watchmaking."
     The survival of the mechanical watch half a century into the era of quartz watches — the 50th anniversary of Seiko introducing the Astron is this Christmas — is a miracle of savvy marketing.
     "We've seen this resurgence in the last 15 years where people are circling back and starting to appreciate the longevity of mechanical watches," said Eagle. "The artistry behind them, the history, these little miracles that will work under their own power. Such an analog product in such a digital world."

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Steve Eagle


  1. Bulova's electronic Accutron watches have been around 58 years, which is longer than Seiko's quartz watches.

  2. In addition to vintage photos, I have a few antique watches. I wouldn't dream of trying a repair, so they get dropped off at Chris Watch Repair in the Mahler Building. A favorite is an old Helbros Invincible wristwatch with glow in the dark dials and numbers. It's very convenient, and nice to know the Radium Girls did not die in vain.

  3. Great column. Lot of fun to read looked like a lot of fun to write.

  4. Another wonderful column, Neil.

    Last night, as is my habit, I looked up today's column on the Sun-Times app. When I saw that the subject was analog watch repair, I quickly stopped reading. I thought "this should be read the old-school way, with the newspaper spread on the table and a cup of coffee within reach, not gazing into the future with my smartphone."

    This column serves as a reminder to slow down and attend to the details in front of us. What's the rush? Life isn't a race. Take the time to get it right.

  5. "...the removal and return of most of the 78 gears,... In my case, it would be the "return of some of the 78 gears, etc."


  6. The watchmaker, as metaphor, often served to evoke their God by Deists, some of them our most prominent Founding Fathers. They conceded the existence of a Deity, but not one who bothered to intervene in human affairs. He was the divine watchmaker, who set his marvelously intricate universe working according to the mechanical principles inherent. Then went off about more important business.


  7. I like this...if you ask Mr. S for the time, he tells you how to fix your watch!

    I acquired two vintage watches from my father when he died...a square Omega and a round Lucien Piccard. They are a lot more classy than the Timex calendar watch, with oversized numbers, that I wear every day. Why? Because...I'm used to a battery-powered watch that doesn't need winding. The "Indiglo" night-light no longer works, but that watch still runs, even after a couple of decades.

    Did the class also include instruction in repairing the little number plates that comprise the calendar feature? Mine is a royal pain, because it either advances too fast or...and I've never heard of this before...runs BACKWARDS. My Timex is the last calendar watch I will ever own. With today's technology, there are too many other sources available for the date..and they don't run in reverse.


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