Faced with a shortage of skilled watchmakers in the United States, Rolex built a school in 2001 to train a new generation of young specialists to service high-quality mechanical wristwatches.
With its gentle rolling hills, farms, small clumps of forest and tranquil atmosphere, the countryside around Lititz, Pennsylvania, bears an uncanny resemblance to parts of the Jura mountains, the heart of Swiss watchmaking. And the parallels with Switzerland run more than surface deep. This is Amish country, a fervently traditionalist and devout community of settlers that originated in Switzerland. Furthermore, nearby Lancaster, the county capital, has been a watchmaking hub in the United States since the 19th century.
The slatted whiteboard houses and farmsteads of rural “Dutch Pennsylvania” – as well as the shopping malls – hint at another, American, flavour. The 4,274 square metre (46,000 square foot) stone building that houses the Lititz Watch Technicum, designed by award-winning architect Michael Graves, manages to bridge both worlds. Seen from each end, it adopts the traditional pointed arch of local barns and blends into its rural surroundings. On the sides, tall windows allow natural light to flood the interior, mirroring those of Swiss watch manufactures and fitting the modern purpose, as a seat of learning for young watchmakers and home for an expanded Rolex Service Center.
Rolex entirely finances and equips the Lititz Watch Technicum, and underwrites the tuition fees at the school. Students buy their own watchmaking tools – a substantial financial investment at their age, but one that stays with them for a career.
The Technicum opened in 2001, in response to an industry-wide scarcity of skilled watchmakers qualified to service luxury mechanical watches, a shortage brought about in the 1980s by the emergence of quartz watches with largely unserviceable electronic movements. This trend devalued the watchmaker’s craft and prompted the closure of watchmaking schools. Between 1973 and 2000, the number of watchmakers in the United States fell from about 32,000 to 6,500. The decline not only stifled the supply of qualified, skilled after-sales service specialists as elderly watchmakers retired; it also threatened the transmission of mechanical watchmaking knowledge from generation to generation. By the 1990s, sales of high-quality mechanical watches recovered and boomed, heralding a growing need for routine servicing and repairs.
Since it opened, the school at Lititz has helped restore watchmaking culture in the United States, turning out about 115 qualified after-sales watchmakers. More than half of these graduates work for US Official Rolex Retailers or Rolex itself, while the rest have followed other avenues, including independent retailers or other high-end watchmaking firms. The success of the Technicum is such that retailers in the United States are even setting up new workshops for after-sales service. Of about 100 open retail servicing posts registered on the school’s database, about 30 are newly created. Furthermore, Rolex supports two other courses, at North Seattle College and Oklahoma State University, which are adopting the unique Lititz curriculum. Nowadays, graduates from all these courses can be found across the United States, as far afield as the Pacific island territory of Guam, and some have progressed to management positions.
Tellingly, the Lititz Watch Technicum maintains a website but it no longer actively advertises for students. Seventy to 100 applications are deemed worthy of consideration each year; about 40 of those candidates are invited to the rigorous eight-hour test and interview process. Only 14 will don the blue lab coats of first-year students, ready for what amounts to a two-year apprenticeship.
“We need to get across that this is not a job but a lifestyle,” explains Herman Mayer, Principal of the Lititz Watch Technicum. “They need to have a crisp idea of what we are and what happens over the two years.”
Since it opened 14 years ago, the Technicum has managed to harness a generation that grew up with video games rather than Lego and Meccano. Students are drawn to rural Pennsylvania from as far afield as urban California. Many are high-school leavers in their late teens, but others may have college degrees, even in mechanical engineering, and a few might be in their thirties, ready to switch profession. The day-long selection process is rigorous, testing problem-solving ability that indicates an aptitude for mechanics rather than seeking proven mechanical skills. During the combination of tests and interviews, Mayer and his three instructors are more interested in consistent signs of reasoning ability, a “frustration-proof” disposition, passion and dedication.
In the classroom, ideas flow, and you want to spend as much time as possible working on them, even micro-mechanics and studying at home. But it’s rewarding, absolutely.
Within certain bounds, dexterity, Mayer insists, is not essential and can be acquired with good training. The outcome is clear. Late evening, multiple small patches of light break the darkness in the Technicum as students work away on their school watch project, well past teaching hours and with the prospect of a 7.30 a.m. start the next day. Lititz is creating a vocation. Although the combination of commitment and enthusiasm needed to achieve it is understated, it is palpable for any visitor. “In the classroom, ideas flow, and you want to spend as much time as possible working on them, even micro-mechanics and studying at home. It has been very consuming. But it’s rewarding, absolutely,” says Alexa Tumas, a second-year student.
Graduates lauded the sense of discipline and depth of know-how they acquired. “The exam always seemed to throw you something different. It set a high standard,” according to William Harbison, who now works for a retailer near Philadelphia. It is a transformative experience. Students start crafting a fully functioning wristwatch movement barely a few months after they were handed a toothpick during a selection test to assist their hesitant explanation of the workings of a simple pump engine.
Each student makes his or her own components and assembles this school watch, an individual first-year project, based on an existing movement. This ability to swiftly give form to basic training for skills such as sawing, cutting and turning, and create functional hand-finished components, encourages individuality and fosters a sense of pride and accomplishment, according to the school. Some white-coated, second-year students even add complications or decorative features to their wristwatch.
We need to get across that this is not a job but a lifestyle.
One second-year student, Ben Kuriloff, describes the school watch as the apogee of his first year: “The instructor was there if we needed help or had questions, but it was guided by us, we had to work it out. When it’s completed and successfully running for the first time, meeting all the requirements, there’s real satisfaction in knowing that your physical skills brought it to completion,” he adds. The results of these projects, completed at the end of the year, are astonishingly accomplished and many are worn proudly on the wrist. One student came up with a movement of such technical flair and exquisite aesthetic finishing that it was exhibited by the Swiss watchmaking federation at the world’s biggest annual watch fair, Baselworld. A school clock is also among the projects. “We don’t grade them on the watch, we grade them on the journey,” says Gary Biscelli, one of the instructors.
Lititz offers all the advantages of a traditional, high-quality, Swiss watchmaking school, but in recent years it has added a crucial distinguishing feature. The Swiss American Watchmakers Training Alliance (SAWTA) curriculum, developed by Lititz, is adapted to work in a retail setting, notably by adding customer service skills and parts management to watchmaking craft. The American Watchmakers-Clockmakers Institute (AWCI) provides independent verification of the course. Although Rolex retailers are by far the favoured destination, the primary aim is to create a solid foundation for a career in high-end, after-sales watchmaking. Upstairs at the Technicum, the vast, bright floor devoted to the Rolex Service Center deals with thousands of timepieces a year, ranging from post-war models with a history to newer, highly engineered wristwatches. Despite the proximity, it is an entirely separate operation. But it stands as an example of the range and flawless quality the school’s graduates will uphold when they service their customers’ watches.
The Lititz Watch Technicum has taken on board the same compelling standards as Rolex and combined them with the evolving conditions in the United States. Herman Mayer is in no doubt that the Technicum and its students will continue to thrive. “The beauty of this profession is that it never ends,” he says, smiling.