The art of keeping time

A steady hand and a sharp eye for detail are the skills honed in Paris Junior College’s watchmaking program. (Photos: PJC)

It’s a program that has withstood the test of time.

Paris Junior College in Texas offers courses in horology that in the 1940s mainly trained returning World War II veterans to help them find jobs making and repairing watches. Today, the program is part of the Texas Institute of Jewelry Technology at PJC.

Despite iPhones, iWatches and cheap, mass-produced wristwatches, there’s still a demand for people with watchmaking skills, says instructor Stan McMahan.

“For the most part, the profession of watchmaking is centered around the luxury watch market,” and that “demands the highest level of craftsmanship,” McMahan says.

About 95% of his students are hired immediately, often by such companies as Rolex, Richemont, Swatch, TAG Heuer and Patek Phillippe. Graduates of the program work all over the world, including Switzerland, Australia, Tokyo and Hong Kong.

Most of the jobs are at factory service centers, luxury jewelry stores and independent service centers, McMahan says. Starting salaries vary by region but average about $50,000 in the U.S., although jobs in New York City pay more.

A lot to learn

PJC offers a certificate and associate of applied science degree in horology, a certificate of fine mechanical watch repair, and a degree in jewelry technology, as well as several related certificates. The watchmaking courses cover astronomy (because some watches have astronomical computations), chemistry, physics, metallurgy, math, computer skills (for recordkeeping) and tribology (the study of friction).

Most students are recent high school graduates, although sometimes older career changers enroll. Currently, eight students are in the program, McMahan says, down from the average of 14, which he attributes to the pandemic.

Students in PJC’s watchmaking program wait for instructor Stan McMahan (left) to inspect their work and give critiques.

Watchmaking is one of the hands-on programs that is challenging to do remotely, McMahan says, although there were some Zoom sessions this spring on watchmaking theory. In-person sessions started in the summer with social distancing.

“Masks are no problem. That helps us work a little bit cleaner,” McMahan says.

A long history

The watchmaking program at PJC started in 1942 as a vocational rehabilitation center for people with disabilities. It was the college’s first workforce program. By 1946, the department’s chief function was training World War II veterans under the GI Bill.

The department received a large grant from the Texas Education Agency leading to the gemology program in the 1970s. A precious metals program was launched in the 1980s, offering students an opportunity to work with gold and platinum.

In 2005, under the leadership of PJC President Pam Anglin, the department created a new computer-aided jewelry design program, with instructor training, new software, and precursors to 3D-printing machines.

Industry partnerships

The horological program has benefited from McMahan’s connections with the industry. He trained in Switzerland, has been a watchmaker since 1983, an instructor since 1992 and has served at PJC for the past two years.

Since early 2018, Richemont has donated encasing equipment and a large variety of hand tools used in the modern factory service center workshop. Last year, the Horological Society of New York (HSNY) and the American Watchmakers-Clockmakers Institute (AWCI) together donated $20,000 to PJC for horological education.

In addition to the cash contributions, AWCI and Eckcells, a materials supplier that supports independent watchmakers, presented the college with a Wellner cleaning machine valued at $14,000. In January, AWCI sent its Archie Perkins Mobile Horology Classroom to PJC, allowing students to gain expertise in pressure and vacuum testing methods.

The American Watchmakers-Clockmakers Institute brought its mobile horology classroom to PJC in January, allowing students to train using pressure and vacuum testing methods to ensure a watch is waterproof.

Earlier this year, HSNY established the Howard Robbins Award as a grant for watchmaking schools in the U.S. As one of two recipients of the inaugural award, PJC’s Texas Institute of Jewelry Technology received $10,000.

“More exciting upgrades are expected for the program in the next couple of years,” says PJC spokesperson Margaret Ruff.

Eclectic skills

“You have to be logical; you have to be able to solve problems” to succeed in the watchmaking profession, McMahan says.

Watchmaking requires cognitive skills, hand skills for working with tiny parts, and soft skills, as customer service is a key part of the job, he says, adding: “Ultimately, everything we do is for the luxury watch client.”

“This profession demands an obsession with developing skills,” McMahan continues. “It’s not just about repairing watches. The industry demands more and more of watchmakers, and the program has to evolve to meet that need.”

“The industry is evolving faster than ever,” he says. “The skills taught now have to be taught to a much higher level.”

About the Author

Ellie Ashford
is associate editor of Community College Daily.