The army invented the wristwatch. Well, pretty much. By the time of WWI, the military badly needed a timekeeping device that was clear, accurate and immediately accessible, while keeping both hands free. A pocket watch adapted for a wrist strap was ideal, and so the wristwatch was born. It evolved from there and continues to evolve today as a feat of technical engineering that is also a desirable accessory for both men and women. Surely, then, horology – the study of clocks and watches – is a promising field for mechanically minded ex-Service people.
Sgt Jamie McGuiness, a Weapons Technician based at RAF Wittering, certainly thinks so. ‘My interest in watchmaking started about 15 years ago when I bought some old Russian watches on eBay and did some amateur tinkering,’ he says. ‘As an engineer who has spent most of his military career working on aircraft, I’ve always been interested in the technical side of how things work, and watches were an ideal way for me to further explore this interest in all things mechanical at home. Horology is now a serious hobby of mine. I’ve set up a workshop in the spare room with all the tools and equipment I need.’
What courses are available?
‘I’ve taken two short courses with the British Horological Institute (BHI): Basic Mechanical Watch, and Service and Repair of Day Date Automatic Watches,’ continues Jamie. ‘The tutor, John Murphy FBHI, was brilliant. Being taught by an instructor who had such a genuine passion for his subject made both courses extremely interesting and enjoyable from beginning to end.’
It is worth noting that, as well as short courses such as these, which are run at the BHI’s headquarters in Upton Hall, Newark, Nottinghamshire, the Institute also runs distance learning programmes. These are completed in the student’s own time and at their own pace, with the option to take examinations for an officially accredited and globally recognised professional qualification if they so choose. Many people have found it to be a worthwhile pursuit during the pandemic restrictions.
Use your ELC
Under the ELC scheme, a wide range of learning can be taken, provided it is offered by an approved provider listed on the ELC website and is at level 3 or above. For full details of how to make the most of your ELC, refer to the in-depth features elsewhere on this website.
Why train as a horologist?
It may be a niche field, but the work is undoubtedly out there. Professional BHI members (membership is open to professionals, enthusiasts and indeed anyone who wishes to join) report months’ worth of work on their benches at any given time, and staff at BHI HQ frequently receive calls from people seeking a watch or clock repairer. One corporate BHI member saw its postal watch repair business for vintage and pocket watches increase threefold during lockdown. The luxury watch market has a very loyal and passionate customer base that loves the technology, innovation and artistry of high-end timepieces. People are also often very attached to family heirloom clocks and watches, wanting to restore them or keep them well maintained.
‘I believe horology as a career could really suit any ex-Service people who are mechanically minded,’ says Jamie. ‘You might have to get used to doing things on your own, but as in most military technical environments, many aspects of the job are heavily supervised. I have a particular interest in vintage watches made by older Russian companies such as Vostok, Poljot and Raketa, especially the military watches they produced.’
Where do horologists work?
While horology is, at its heart, a solitary pursuit, many horologists work for watchmaking houses (anything from small individual firms to Swiss giants such as Patek Philippe) or repair businesses. Many others are successfully self-employed. The BHI counts current and erstwhile Clockmakers to the Palace of Westminster among its members – someone has to look after Big Ben and the many clocks in Parliament. As well as working on privately owned clocks and watches, horologists are also employed in museums, auction houses and antiques dealers.
Turning enthusiasm into a career
‘I intend to service and repair Russian watches on a professional basis as a part-time career in the future,’ Jamie adds. ‘It’s a fast-growing sector of watch collecting. For example, I help to run a Russian watch group on Facebook, which has nearly 10,000 members.
‘I’ve always liked the aesthetics of older watches and the workings of mechanical watch movements which is shown by my extensive collection, probably numbering around 150 pieces. My favourite project so far was an old USSR-era military-issue Vostok. It was the first watch
I worked on after finishing the Basic Mechanical Watch course, and I took great satisfaction in servicing and restoring this old Vostok to its original condition. There was also some relief in seeing it all working correctly at the end!
‘When moving to civilian life,’ Jamie concludes, ‘you can’t always pursue the same career that you had while in the military, but if you’re mechanically minded and have an interest in watches, this could really suit you.’
Indeed, many horologists say they find their work highly therapeutic: there is a kind of mindfulness in the focus and precision required, not to mention the satisfaction of completing a project, whether creating or restoring a piece.
Want to know more about getting started in horology?
To find out more about training in horology, click here