Australian organization Save the Time brings something rarely talked about to the industry’s attention. And it would behoove all of us watch lovers to stop and listen for a moment.
Courtesy of WORLDTEMPUS
We watch lovers know that when we buy a mechanical watch, we must take care of it almost the same way we would care for a well-oiled automobile. I know from personal experience that trusty auto mechanics are, however, in short supply. They take one look at me and – noting my gender – try to convince me that my car is in need of much more service than it really is. When I find a mechanic who I feel treats me fairly, services my car correctly and charges me fair rates, I stick with that mechanic basically for life.
Mechanical watches are no different. They need periodic servicing – though much less than a car. They need loving hands to treat them well, and they require further investments by their owners. I know that when I need a watch serviced, I prefer my favorite local watchmaker with whom I have a longstanding relationship over sending the watch to a foreign country via an anonymous chain store. I support my local independent watchmaker and I am certainly not alone. Mom-and-pop watchmakers with skills to run a decent business and take care of fine watches are in serious short supply. When you find one, you hang on to them with all your might.
About ten years ago, my favorite local watchmaker told me that he could no longer service new Rolex models and some other big-name brands because they won’t sell spare parts and the special tools required to install them to independent watchmaker-repairers. So, if you buy these brands, you should know in advance that they can only be serviced by the companies in question and their direct affiliates – at which point control over what is happening inside your watch is lost. In fact, a high-level collector just told me last week that when you send in a new Rolex for servicing, that company will change any number of parts out without even asking – including the dial. These days I guess it is a known quotient, and something you inherently agree to when you buy a watch from that brand.
A group of Australian watchmakers is currently becoming vocal over the issue, which seems to be becoming standard fare among group-owned luxury brands. An organization called Save the Time has sparked a rally for supply of manufacturer’s parts to independent watchmaker-repairers.
Using another off-industry analogy let me show you the problem in a different way. My first laptop was a Macintosh G4, which served me well – except for the batteries, which only had enough juice for two hours of use. No Mac battery can last the length of a transatlantic airplane ride, which is why I always traveled with at least three so I could work on airplanes. One time, I accidentally left one of my batteries in the airplane seat pocket, so I decided to contact Apple to see if I could order a new one to my hotel in time for the 13-hour plane ride home. I was informed by the salesperson that (four years after original purchase, mind you) Apple no longer made batteries for this model and I would be best served checking eBay. That exchange stopped me in my tracks and I no longer subscribe to the Macintosh philosophy. Now a solid PC user, I am aware in advance that the € 500 I invest in my computer (as opposed to triple that for a Mac) will likely only last me about three years. However, the salespeople tell you this in advance and it is a known fact.
What is not a known fact is that one can spend € 10,000 and way more for a luxury watch of the finest quality and be expected five years later to plunk down another almost € 2,000 for repairs and servicing. This is the other issue the Australian watchmakers are fighting to make public.
Australia saves the time
No watchmaker becomes a watchmaker for any other reason than that he or she simply loves watches. It is the passion for the craft that carried him or her on through endless pedagogic sessions and thousands of manual hours of training. The reward at the end is the exciting moment when life begins to beat within a piece of metal that we call the balance spring, the heart of a mechanical watch.
When a watchmaker becomes an independent watchmaker-repairer, he or she usually does that for the love of the craft, and it is in his or her interest to serve customers well. It is not a high-paying job and relationships with clients and other passionate individuals in the field are among the biggest rewards. Mark Pleszczynski of Murwillumbah, Australia, is just such a watchmaker. Pleszczynski, who also plays a large role in the Watch & Clockmakers of Australia association, an unpaid not-for-profit organization, can no longer source spare parts for watches made by many of the group brands. He told me that this has resulted in income loss of $1,000 and more for him per week. He also explained that when these watches are sent to the manufacturer for servicing or repair, it will cost the consumer triple the amount he would have charged. This is not the main reason that Pleszczynski has joined the Save the Time movement: the main reason is that he feels that the restriction is eliminating the consumer choice of going to an established and trusted repairer.
This is different than the reason that Nick Hacko began the Save the Time movement, though it is related. “There is one small problem with the monopoly,” he says. “It only works great for monopolists. Once it kills competition (independent watchmakers), monopolists start to raise repair prices way above marginal costs and lower customer service. Monopoly leaves you without a second option, a second opinion, a second quote and robs you of ability to inquire and ask questions.”
Additionally, something happened in March that made him really go through the roof. He sent a very fine watch to the Australian headquarters of a major concern for crystal replacement. He had no choice but to send it there since they would not supply him with the replacement crystal. He therefore also had no choice but to have that watch repaired under that concern’s terms and for the amount of money it found fit to charge. “And there is nothing wrong with that,” Hacko said. “Except for one detail: while I was ‘happy’ to pay $195 for a new glass, I was less than happy to pay an additional $790 for a complete overhaul. And, quite frankly, I was blue in the face when I found that this watch needed a ‘balance’ for an extra $520 and a ‘complete barrel’ for another $270.” The total (mandatory) repair cost for what was originally a replaced crystal came to $1,775.
Hacko maintains (and actually sent me photographic evidence) that the watch ran at minus 5 seconds per day and that the balance showed 278 degrees of amplitude. “This indicates to me that the watch does not need a new balance wheel.”
It became obvious to Hacko that the repair quote was based on an assumption that the watch needs a new balance and barrel. “As any car mechanic can confirm, you cannot make a quote without looking under the bonnet,” he justifiably said. “After the watch was returned, I took a photo of the case, which clearly shows that the serviceman did not even bother to take the watch out of the case and inspect the mechanism. Or he did an amazing job of ‘re-applying’ the dirt to the case.”
Hacko explained to me that proper repair procedure requires that all movement parts are disassembled, cleaned, then put back together. Only then can a repairman assess overall condition, wear and tear, and finally proceed with component replacement. “By quoting the replacement of the balance (which is the most expensive component), the concern in question has covered its back in case the watch really needed some or any parts. I find this completely unethical.”
Hacko then took the watch apart to find out for himself what was really transpiring under the hood. After the overhaul, he was able to adjust the daily rate to close to zero seconds per day deviation. “Of course, I am not going to pretend that this watch kept absolutely perfect time in each and every position. The truth is no mechanical watch can keep absolutely perfect time in every position tested. But the healthy amplitude of 283 degrees told me that I don’t need a new balance staff, balance wheel or complete balance assembly for $520!”
Hacko has since been instrumental in founding the new Professional Watchmakers of Australia, an association formed with intention to represent all independent Australian watchmakers demanding access to spare parts and fulfils the unpaid function of secretary and spokesperson.
Currently, Save the Time is looking to take this matter to the ACCC (Australian Competition & Consumer Commission), but they need 10,000 petition signatures to be able to do so. By visiting the website save-the-time.org, you can sign the petition, find out where local watchmakers are located and get a list of local suppliers. You can also read more about why the watchmakers find this so important.
If it can happen in Australia, it can happen anywhere. The subject is also currently being investigated by European Union antitrust regulators thanks to the European Confederation of Watch and Clock Repairers Associations.