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School works to restore missing generation of watchmakers
LITITZ, Pa. -- The daughter of an auto mechanic, Brigitte Keesey has a combination of interests that make her a good candidate for working with intricate and beautiful timepieces.
"I used to work in a woodshop, and I was in school for art," Keesey said. "If you combine the two of them, somewhere you find watch repair."
Keesey, 23, is in the first class of students at the Lititz Watch Technicum -- Swiss manufacturer Rolex's answer to the dearth of skilled watchmakers that has occurred amid the popularity of electronic quartz timepieces.
The school is run by a foundation created by Rolex and is operated under the guidance of a Swiss institution. It opened in September in this Pennsylvania Dutch region that has long ties to clock and watch craftsmanship.
The tuition-free school, which plans to take in 12 artisans a year, is a step toward filling a growing void -- only 10 watchmaking schools remain in the United States, compared to 44 in the mid-1970s, according to the American Watchmakers-Clockmakers Institute.
An overabundance of watchmakers and the growing popularity of cheaper quartz watches in the 1970s led to tough times in the business as well as a widespread belief that mechanical timepieces were on their way out. Many watchmakers left the industry and pursued work with defense contractors, where their ability to work with intricate mechanics was in demand.
But sales of mechanical watches, especially high-grade ones, have made a comeback, said Charles Berthiaume, director of the school. The improvement in business created a demand for people who know how to fix the timepieces, which tend to be more expensive and more likely to need regular servicing than their electronic counterparts.
"With the shortage of watchmakers, we're literally missing a generation," Berthiaume said. "The average age of a watchmaker in this country is in the mid-50s."
Inside one of the classrooms, students sit quietly at workbenches fashioning pieces of machinery less than an inch in length. The school starts its students with a course in micromechanics, which involves the making of tiny parts.
The learning process can be long and laborious.
Ron Landberg spent a day making a small, pinlike part only to discover he had erred by thousandths of a centimeter and had to start all over again. A hobbyist who decided to turn his avocation into a full-time craft, Landberg wrote off the experience as an exercise in patience.
The same patience is needed when a spinning lathe sends a part shooting from the grasp of tweezers and across the room, with only a tiny ping disclosing where it landed.