A watch repairer in Cambridge, Wisconsin has been fixing watches from mechanical to digital for decades. Despite the advancing market and less demand for watch repair, that doesn’t stop Phillip Smith, owner of Watch & Jewelry Repair store in downtown Cambridge.
Smith says the idea to fix watches came from a divine thought from God while on a trip to South America.
“After I graduated from high school, I was trying to decide what I wanted to do. I took a long trip and I wanted to pray about it. I got to Peru hitch-hiking and I got very sick with dysentery and I got into a place where they could help me. I decided this would be a good time to pray. And a thought came into mind to fix watches. So that’s how it began,” says Smith.
“I ended up in this Catholic mission. I knew I was good with my hands and good with fixing things. It was like a thought from God. At least that’s the way I interpreted it,” says Smith.
He went to the Joseph Bulova School of Watchmaking in New York City for 18 months before apprenticing for a year. He settled at the Cambridge Jewelry store in 1985 and has now been there for almost four decades. After Smith got the jewelry store, he included his watch repair service.
“It’s a pretty simple thing: there’s the mainspring, and then you’ve got your center wheel and third and fourth wheel. And then you got the escapement and the balance, yep. And then of course, if you got a day, date and you got a chronograph, you got quite a few more parts and springs,” says Smith.
Smith also repairs and dabbles in making his own jewelry. He does not do it a lot but it is something he enjoys.
“I never was real comfortable with clocks. You only have so much time and jewelry repair pays a lot better than watch repair, and watch repair pays a lot better than clock repair. So I do some clock repair-the simple ones-and the more difficult ones, I’ve got a guy that does them for me,” says Smith.
The repair process for mechanical watches takes a while given his other priorities like repairing jewelry.
He likes giving himself about three months on watch repairs. If everything goes well, the process takes from about a week to a week and a half.
Smith works on one of the more interesting watches he has.
“The main problem is cleaning it. You got to take them apart and put them in a cleaning machine. I’ve got an ultrasonic cleaning machine. A lot of times you take the whole thing apart and then you peg the jewels, and then you clean the watch, and then put it together, and then oil it. Then a lot of times there’s problems with the hairspring, or changing the mainspring out because it’s not strong enough or one of the gears isn’t meshing right. Then there’s the timing machine, so you put that in your timing machine and that tells you if it’s in beat or if there’s a positional problem,” says Smith.
Repairing a watch is no easy feat. Smith works with many tiny and delicate pieces that become frustrating to keep track of. But there are other struggles he faces as well.
“I wonder if loneliness is the biggest problem and it’s nice to have help. It’s surely nice to have help. Yeah, because, you know, I’m working on delicate things and it’s always frustrating,” says Smith.
He saw what looked like a sign at another jewelry establishment that said, “Beware of watchmaker.”
“Watchmakers have a tendency-they’re well known for being agitated because they are working on and can be very frustrated working on watches,” says Smith.
The repairing business is slowly diminishing because of technology advancement and less demand in an actual watch. When he started his career, he and others would repair about 20 watches a day. But as his career progressed that number dwindled down to less than five a week.
“So, as time went by, there’s been less demand-been kind of fluctuating though. Sometimes there’s less demand but then a lot of watchmakers aren’t as available as they used to be, so I’ve gotten more work. And then after this Coronavirus thing, I haven’t been here much so I haven’t been getting a lot of repairs since, which is kind of a nice break I guess,” says Smith.
The evolution of watches and their mechanisms have changed throughout the centuries.
“I think it was around-the Civil War, before the Civil War, watches were almost all key-wind. You had a little key, and you opened up the first cover and you wound the watch with the key. Then they had transition watches where you could do both the key- and stem-wind. There’s a lot more going on to set a watch, you know?”
Photo, audio and story courtesy Danielle Kronau/WORT News.