The BSoW (British School of Watchmaking) – A WOSTEP Partnership School
The BSoW (British School of Watchmaking) is based on the outskirts of Manchester and is a WOSTEP Partnership School, training future generations of watchmakers. It is in the interests of all horophiles that service and repair skills are perpetuated. Angus Davies recently visited the school to learn more.
Since the so-called ‘quartz crisis’ of the 1970s and the early 1980s, the sales of mechanical watches has steadily increased. In 2000, the Swiss watch industry’s global sales totalled 10.3 billion Swiss francs. Last year, this figure had risen to 21.70 billion Swiss francs. While this presents a glowing picture, there have also been challenging times. Most notably in 2008, when sales dipped as a consequence of the global financial crisis. In addition, 2020 is likely to be another problematic year for the industry owing to the global impact of coronavirus. Nevertheless, appraising Swiss watch industry sales over the last 20 years, the public’s growing fondness for luxury watches is clear to see.
A fine mechanical watch encompasses a myriad of components. Indeed, it is not unusual for a comparatively simple movement to comprise of over 200 parts. Each part will have been made to infinitesimal tolerances and, in some cases, hand-finished to an exalted standard. When a watch leaves a production facility it will be free of blemishes and function perfectly, however, this is not the end of the story.
Beyond the acquisition of a watch, there is the important matter of servicing. Similar to a car, there are a plethora of mechanical components in motion. Lubricants of various viscosities are used to ensure smooth operation, prevent corrosion and mitigate wear. Indeed, two metal parts, devoid of lubricant and rubbing against each other will inevitably suffer distress, necessitating premature replacement. The servicing of a car is essential for reliability and preserving its residual value. Similarly, the aforementioned considerations also apply to a luxury watch. A highly prized exemplar of haute horlogerie should only be entrusted to a very capable watchmaker. Again, using cars as an automotive analogy, would you take a new Ferrari to a ‘back street garage’?
A watch service is usually recommended every 3-5 years. It is a time-consuming task necessitating disassembly, cleaning, including the removal of congealed lubricants, repair or replacement of worn parts, re-lubrication and reassembly. Once the watch has been reassembled, it is usually placed on a Witschi machine. This electronic device measures the rate accuracy, amplitude and beat error. Thereafter, if any reading is out of tolerance, the watchmaker will adjust the regulating organ accordingly.
Typically, the most complicated watches are returned to the Manufacture for expert servicing. Most UK-based watchmakers will admit they seldom service or repair minute repeaters or tourbillons. Those individuals entrusted to work on these exalted creations will attend to watches sent from each corner of the globe. In some instances, the servicing and repair of high complications is undertaken by the watchmaker who originally made the timepiece. Those watchmakers who handle haute horlogerie creations of this rarefied nature will have vast amounts of experience and are arguably the best practitioners in this field. Again, relating watches to cars, it should be remembered that it is not only the capital outlay of buying a supercar, but also the inevitable expense of requisite servicing. Put simply, a grand complication necessitates ‘deep pockets’.
When a watch requires servicing or repair, the owner will have to surrender their cherished timepiece for at least a few weeks, possibly several months. This period of absence is based on whether the watch is serviced in the UK or returned to its ancestral home. A grand complication will spend a greater period of time away from its owner; in extreme situations, this can be as much as a year. The watch industry is mindful that wearers of luxury watches do not relish the idea of being separated from their beloved timepiece for extended periods. Several brands, eager to address this problem, now have a number of authorised service centres scattered throughout the UK, delivering shorter turnaround times, high quality work and value for money. While these UK service centres ordinarily do not attend to high complications, they do fulfil the maintenance requirements of most mechanical watches.
Meeting a need
With an increasing number of luxury timepieces in circulation, there is a requirement for more watchmakers to fulfil all watch servicing needs. Moreover, some watches may require repair or basic refurbishment, again tasks requiring the deft hands of a trained watchmaker. Demand for these services is not restricted to just mechanical watches, but quartz models as well. Likewise, luxury watches are not merely the preserve of Swiss Maisons but also originate from Germany, Japan and even Blighty, again increasing the number of watches in circulation. Put simply, society needs more watchmakers and this is without due consideration to the industry’s inevitable attrition rate.
The BSoW (British School of Watchmaking) was founded in 2004 and two years later, in 2006, BSoW received its first intake of students, six candidates, each hoping to successfully complete the WOSTEP 3000 Hour Course. The school is an affiliate of the Watchmakers of Switzerland Training and Educational Program (WOSTEP), ‘providers of the only internationally recognised Swiss Watchmaking courses within the industry’.
Since the BSoW premises were inaugurated, close to the northern city of Manchester, the school has steadily grown in size. Today, the intake has grown to eight students per annum. The BSoW receives no government funding and is a private school. Students either self-finance their studies or receive sponsorship from one of the school’s supporters. This list of supporters includes some impressive watch brands as well as some of the UK’s leading watch retailers. In addition, the George Daniels’ Educational Trust has also provided financial support to several students. Some students are employed as trainees by supporting companies while studying at the BSoW, mitigating the financial burden of student life.
In 2018, the BSoW introduced a new, shorter programme, the WOSTEP 1800-hour course. This abbreviated programme takes one year to complete, unlike the WOSTEP 3000-hour course which normally requires two years to complete. The shorter course is less in-depth in some areas, but in most instances proves adequate for the requirements of most employers. A clear benefit of a shorter course is that it is less costly, potentially making the study of watchmaking more accessible.
WOSTEP 1800 Hour Course
Those students who complete the 1800-hour programme will have the necessary skills to service standard, contemporary mechanical and electronic watches. In addition, they will have some experience in identifying and exchanging defective parts. Usually, course graduates subsequently undertake brand specific training and gain brand accreditation. The BSoW cannot train students in servicing and repairing every watch, hence brand accreditation is of vital importance. Nevertheless, course graduates will leave the school with a thorough understanding of servicing and watch repair.
In the first instance, students who attend the WOSTEP 1800-hour course learn basic hand skills and are tasked with making an examination piece. The syllabus provides the necessary skills to shorten a winding stem and understand friction fitting typically found with a pendant tube or chronograph pushers.
As the course progresses, the student learns how to encase a movement and perform a movement exchange. The watchmaking student has to service a large pocket watch movement and exchange a quartz calibre within a wristwatch, undertaking both tasks within a combined 8-hour timeframe.
Thereafter, the student services an automatic movement as well as the quartz movement they previously exchanged beforehand in the earlier module.
The final examination requires the student to service an automatic watch, a quartz watch and an automatic chronograph with a moon-phase indication (ETA 7751). All three movements are encased with dials and hands and have to be waterproof tested.
The course fees are £9,000 (at the time of writing) and students are also required to purchase a complete tool kit priced at £2,110.
WOSTEP 3000-hour course
Those students craving a greater understanding of watchmaking can undertake the 3000-hour programme, spread over two academic years. It encompasses those topics covered on the WOSTEP 1800-hour course, but also includes additional elements.
Instruction encompasses bench tasks such as filing, turning, sawing, thread cutting, drilling, hardening and tempering, as well as a variety of polished and grinding techniques. Students are taught ‘advanced adjustment and regulation’, micromechanics and repairing movements. While graduates typically work on modern-day movements containing readily available parts, students also fault-find contemporary and vintage calibres where replacement parts are limited, sometimes necessitating an ingenious remedy.
Students spend a vast amount of time making tools which will prove useful for the remainder of their watchmaking career. For example, one lecturer showed me a ‘barrel closer’ made by one of the students. Although it appeared simple, this tool will save both valuable time and mitigate the risk of scarring a pristine barrel cover.
While attending the BSoW, students also have the opportunity to create two school watches, one containing the WOSTEP base calibre W-01 and a second endowed with an ETA 6498. It was fascinating to view some of the school watches produced by students and witness their incredible creativity first-hand.
The course fees are £9,000 per annum (at the time of writing) and students are also required to purchase a complete tool kit priced at £2,110.
A bright future
While many university students pursue qualifications and amass significant debt in the process, their employment prospects can sometimes be bleak. Thankfully, the BSoW is refreshingly different. To date, 100% of its graduates are engaged in full-time employment, doing what they trained for. This demonstrates both the quality of the BSoW graduates and the huge demand there is for their skills.
Some graduates will achieve brand accreditation and enjoy a rewarding and well-paid career servicing an array of watches. Other graduates may, with further instruction, choose to carry out restoration work. With servicing and repair skills much in demand, some students have even assumed positions overseas.
By training more watchmakers, horophiles can be rest assured their timepieces will be competently serviced and repaired in a timely fashion. Indeed, the outlook for the BSoW and its students, past and present has never looked brighter.