Columbus area watch repair shop thrives

Columbus area watch repair shop thrives

Watch repair experts

Two watch repair professionals brought their skills from the Old World to the Midwest, keeping alive a time-honored trade.

by Robin L. Flanigan

When Genna Shishlo was in the fifth grade, he tried to take apart his father's watch and put it back together again. He succeeded at the first part. "That was the beginning," Shishlo says of his career as a watchmaker, a highly skilled profession that feeds a strong demand but is becoming a lost art.

These days, the owner of highly rated Watch & Clock Service in Hilliard, Ohio, repairs timepieces that some other shops won't even attempt to fix. "We had everybody give up on repairing my son's watch," Powell resident Sharon Pohlmann says, relating her 21-year-old's trip to three shops before discovering that Shishlo would replace a cracked crystal that was no longer being produced. Shishlo did some research and found an alternative crystal that would fit. "Needless to say, we would've had to pitch the watch otherwise," Pohlmann adds.

After Shishlo graduated from technical school as a teenager in his native Belarus, in the former Soviet Union, he worked for a government organization for 11 years before immigrating to the United States. "For the same reason everybody comes here, for a better life," he says.

The church that sponsored Shishlo found him a job at a family-owned jewelry store in Dublin, Ohio, where he learned that there were thousands of models and brands in the worldwide watch industry. In Belarus he was familiar with only about 10 brands, all made in that country. Although watches have the same general parts, he had to learn the names of those parts in English — a language he was just learning — and translate them into Russian as he worked.

As the years passed, he began accumulating repair business from other local shops. After spending eight hours at his day job, he would go home, eat dinner, then retreat to his basement for long hours to fill those orders. "Until my wife called me," he recalls, laughing.

About four years ago, Shishlo looked around his basement at the watch parts and tools he had accumulated and decided to open Watch & Clock Service. He expresses gratitude at maintaining a friendship with his former employer, who often sends work his way. Two years ago, he became a certified watchmaker, which means he has the knowledge and skills to work on high-quality, modern watches.

Shishlo is a very busy man. In Belarus he was one of five full-time watchmakers servicing a population of approximately 50,000. Here, he estimates he is one of a handful of watchmakers — he personally knows of only three — servicing a metropolitan area of roughly 2 million residents.

For a variety of reasons, the pool of qualified servicers has plummeted over the last few decades. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of watch repairers has shrunk from tens of thousands in the 1960s to just over 3,000 in 2006.

"Watch repair is a beautiful art form, and a lot of the people who work in it are dying," says James Lubic, executive director of the American Watchmakers-Clockmakers Institute, a trade group based outside Cincinnati. He puts the median age of the group's members at 62. "But you talk to the old guys, and they'll tell you these are the good days. There's more work and money to be made than in years back. And there's no sign of it ending anytime soon."

Watchmaking goes back centuries, although the human need to divide the day into segments goes back much farther, with obelisks helping Egyptians separate morning from afternoon as early as 3,500 B.C. The first pocket watch, which had only an hour hand, was invented in 1524. In 1656, Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens made the first pendulum clock and roughly 19 years later developed the balance wheel and spring assembly — two parts still found in some wristwatches today.

Although the invention of the wristwatch dates back to a piece of lady's jewelry in the late 19th century, French watchmaker Louis Cartier created the first practical model by request from a famous aviator friend in March of 1904. The watch, made for Alberto Santos-Dumont, had a leather band and a small buckle and allowed the aviator to check the time while keeping both hands on the controls.

Wristwatches began gaining favor over pocket watches during World War I, as officers found them critical in formulating time-sensitive attacks in battle. Military pilots saw the same benefit, and as a result the Army contracted with watch manufacturers to make wristwatches for all its men. The A-11, a simple watch with white numbers on a black face, was popular among American airmen during World War II.

The watchmaking profession has gone through many technological changes over the past 70 years, including the introduction of the self-winding watch in the '40s, the electric watch in the '50s, the electronic watch in the '60s and, perhaps most significantly, the quartz watch in the '70s.

The quartz watch brought the most upheaval. Many watch repairers, fearing that people would simply replace their inexpensive quartz watches when they broke, left their jobs for another line of work. Enrollment in watch schools steeply declined.

But the flush '90s ushered in a newfound interest in modern mechanical watches and a flourishing secondary market for vintage timepieces, which translated into a growing need for repairers with the skills to work on both.

That need shows no sign of slowing. In response, several watchmaking companies are subsidizing training schools in an attempt to grow their own service industries for the products they sell. Rolex USA is taking the lead. In 2001, it founded the Lititz Watch Technicum, a two-year program in the heart of Pennsylvania Amish country. The luxury brand also sponsors programs at colleges in Seattle, Minnesota and Oklahoma.

"Our mission is to foster a new generation of watchmakers in the U.S.," explains Charles Berthiaume, a senior vice president for technical operations at Rolex and president of Technicum, which enrolls only 12 students each year because training is so intensive. The school has turned out 62 graduates so far. "Many young people aren't even aware that watchmaking is a viable career option. It's not even on their radar. But there's plenty of work and job security in the future for them."

In November, Rolex formed the Swiss American Watchmakers Training Alliance to design a new certification curriculum for its educational programs, which validates that graduates from the watch programs are trained in modern repair methods. The alliance includes representatives from the Watchmakers of Switzerland Training and Educational Program, the AWCI and the four Rolex-sponsored schools.

"People say we're a dying breed," Shishlo notes. "It's tough to learn to be a good watchmaker. You have to be determined and love what you're doing. You have to be able to work with mechanics and work with people, which is not an easy task sometimes. And you need lots of practice."

Jen Loos is in the process of learning just how much practice is required. A second-year student at the Lititz Watch Technicum, Loos grew up in Elmira, N.Y., taking apart old clock movements for her watchmaker father, who told her she should consider a career in the family business. With a mother who was a jeweler and a father and maternal grandfather who were watchmakers, Loos resisted the idea for years. But after graduating from college with a sociology degree, she thought, "Why on earth did I do this? This is not what I'm best at."

A friend who works as a career counselor suggested she take a skills assessment test, which showed a strong aptitude for math and engineering. The results, along with her father's continued encouragement, persuaded Loos to enroll in watchmaking school.

"I run into so many people who, once they find out what I'm doing, are like, 'Really? People still do that?'" says the 24-year-old, who hopes to advance to working on clocks. "It's challenging and demanding, but to me it's a blast."

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