כתבה מתוך הג'רוסלם פוסט
IT'S ABOUT TIME
BY JACK TONHABEN
APRIL 26, 2011 16:55
In a small Jerusalem store, Nathan Serfaty carries the torch of a dying craft - watchmaking.
a violinmaker’s anecdote: “A client came to me with a cello that his daughter accidentally cracked along the front. I explained to him that I needed to unstring the instrument and apply glue along the crack. A simple job, really. When I told him the price, he was taken aback. ‘Why so much, if it’s so simple?’ he asked. ‘Well,’ I answered, ‘because we use primitive technology.’”
It is perhaps lucky, therefore, that wristwatches are more ubiquitous than violins, allowing watchmakers to charge lower prices for their work. But like instrument building, handling and fixing watches is “primitive technology” for the most part. Of course, computers are used in designing watches and there are even specialized computers for the analysis of malfunctioning watches, but in essence, watchmaking is a craft where many skills have remained unchanged for hundreds of years.
Be the first to know - Join our Facebook page.
Today, watches do much more than just tell time: there are digital watches which can also gauge altitude, temperature and humidity, or heart rate, and here too, craftsmen must keep abreast of developments to be able to fix things. But in mechanical watches, which in recent years are curiously coming back into fashion, very few things have changed since – well – the pocket watch was invented sometime in the early 1700s.
In the Jerusalem pedestrian mall, Nathan Serfaty’s Big Ben store looks not much different from other watch shops. In fact, when walking from his place of business at Rehov Ben-Hillel 3, one passes three other watch stores before reaching No. 7, and there is also one shop across from his. On King George Avenue and Rehov Agrippas, less than five minutes’ walking distance, there are more stores still.
But there is something special about Big Ben. Serfaty is not just a merchant of time-telling pieces of jewelry. He is a craftsman.
Those not in the know may walk into any of the stores and not notice the difference, but those who look for an expert, be they knowledgeable collectors or veteran Jerusalemites who trust Serfaty and have been loyal to him for years, come to Big Ben.
A little desk at the far end of the store serves as a makeshift workshop for making small fixes or changing batteries. But just a few meters away, Serfaty keeps a workshop in a rented room. That’s where the magic happens – where old mantel clocks are brought back to life or wristwatches demanding special attention and the use of special instruments are mended.
A mature technology
Watchmaking is considered a mature technology; that is, the basic concept of the workings of a clock hasn’t really changed since the 1500s. The invention of the balance wheel as a timekeeping element instead of a pendulum has allowed for the miniaturization of clocks into watches, but even that breakthrough dates to the mid-17th century.
It really is all about harnessing the energy of a wound spring in a controlled manner. This is done by converting circular motion into linear motion. Whereas in clocks, the rightleft movement of a pendulum constitutes the harnessing element, in small watches a balance wheel achieves this quality by turning to-and-fro by means of a spiral spring which expands and contracts. The balance wheel would grind to a halt were it not for the constant pulling force of the main spring, always “wishing” to unwind, and alternately, the balance wheel keeps the release of energy in check, so that the other wheels move at a controlled rate and the hands attached to them can display time in human-readable form.
Perhaps in contradiction to his skills in routine watchmaking, where for most jobs several screwdrivers, a few pairs of tweezers and a jeweler’s loupe are enough, Serfaty is a sucker for gadgets. He travels once a year to the international watchmaking exhibition held at Basel (called Baselworld) and often buys the latest equipment while there. Big Ben is thus equipped with the latest in horological technology.
And yet, after more than 30 years in the business, Serfaty still maintains a fascination for the simple mechanism sufficient for the smooth operation of a watch.
“Think mechanics,” he says. “There is no machine like a watch. You service it [take everything apart, clean, reassemble and oil the parts] and it springs to life. Now it needs to keep on working nonstop for at least five years – that’s 60 full months – in all temperatures, any humidity, any position, suffering the shocks a person’s wrist would put it through by what is considered normal use, and still do its function – tell time.”
Indeed, when viewing a working movement of a mechanical watch and the minute size of the parts moving in perfect harmony, one can easily be amazed that watches keep on ticking, considering the shocks they receive when the wearer performs an action as delicate as typing on a computer keyboard.
Some parts are so small that even insects could easily carry them away. The smallest screw in a watch movement is about the size of the head of an ant, and the name of the spiral spring attached to the balance wheel – hairspring – is apt, as the coiled strip of fragile metal is literally almost hairthin.
After washing all the parts in benzine and checking with a loupe that no parts are bent or rusted and no teeth on any of the wheels are worn out, a watchmaker must be able to put everything back together without actually touching any of the parts with his hands. Even the residual oil left from fingerprints can be detrimental to the smooth functioning of a movement. He then uses several different kinds of oil to lubricate the parts, as each part performs a different function and needs an oil with different characteristics.
It is also crucial that the work be performed in a clean environment, because even a tiny speck of dust can make a delicate watch slow down or stop working completely.
Around the time Mozart wrote his operas, Abraham Louis Breguet was inventing and manufacturing marvels of timekeeping sought after by Europe’s nobility. Breguet’s genius was such that many of his inventions have become standardized and some – like the angled “Breguet teeth” on the winding wheels of watches – are named after him. A collection of Breguet’s priceless creations is permanently housed at the Museum of Islamic Art in Jerusalem. Today, the brand that carries his name is one of the world’s most prestigious.
It was then, in the late 1700s, that watchmaking had its heyday, when the term “hi-tech” had not yet been invented. Able watchmakers were respected and courted by royalty. Incidentally, Pierre Beaumarchais, the man who penned the plays upon which Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro and Rossini’s The Barber of Seville were based, was by training a watchmaker. That he was the first to invent a watch movement small enough to fit in a ring brought him no less celebrity during his lifetime than his plays and essays.
There is irony, therefore, to the fact that nowadays, when hi-tech is all about crunching numbers in front of a screen or writing lines of code on a keyboard, watchmaking is considered an antiquated craft.
This is what makes Serfaty special – he makes a living out of a profession on the verge of extinction.
Until the 1970s, there was room in the market for many watchmakers. Every mechanical watch needs service from time to time and a watch-wearer would only need to choose where to get his watch fixed.
Then the age of quartz arrived. Watches run by quartz rely on a regular frequency generated when an electric current from a battery is run through a quartz crystal. The frequency, which remains very stable across a wide range of environmental conditions, drives a minuscule motor that runs the watch’s hands. This effectively means that quartz watches are far more accurate, have fewer moving parts and require far less maintenance. And all this translates into a faster process of manufacture and a lower cost, but also to a more standardized – and unimaginative – watch movement design.
As the Swiss watch industry suffered a huge recession (known as “The Quartz Crisis”; about two thirds of Swiss manufacturers went bankrupt during that time), so did the number of watchmakers go down throughout the world. Many businesses closed down, and among those that remained, many watchmakers neglected their skills in favor of the simple monotonous job of replacing batteries.
There is another reason why watchmaking is dying out: There are fewer watch wearers. More and more people rely on their cellular phones or laptops to tell the time. What once was a necessity of any adult has become a non-essential piece of jewelry and many people today wear watches more for their beauty than for the purpose of timekeeping.
All this makes Serfaty, who learned what is necessary for fixing watches using quartz technology but never neglected his classical watchmaking skills, something of a rare bird. At 63, Serfaty is not only one of perhaps three or at most four expert watchmakers in Jerusalem, but also probably the youngest.
For years of good service
A watch used to be an asset. In the US or the Soviet Union, people used to get a gold watch upon retirement as a token of their bosses’ appreciation. Timepieces were cherished and looked after for years. It is not uncommon to find on eBay watches from the 1930s or ’40s engraved on their backs with dedications to an employee who retired after decades of service. These machines serve as a reminder of a finer time for the craft and for the amount of skill that used to go into designing a watch movement.
The sentiment is evident when standing in Serfaty’s store for more than 10 minutes. Unlike the “Swatch generation,” where a watch is bought for a few hundred shekels and is thrown away when broken or when fashion dictates a change, many of Serfaty’s clients are sentimental about their timepieces. They are often also acquaintances that go years back, and the visit to the watchmaker is not just any other stop on a shopping tour. It is a chance to mutually inquire about general health, how many grandchildren you have now or how was the kid’s wedding.
There are of course those chance customers who only want whatever is wrong with their watch fixed, but at least half of the visitors to Serfaty’s store are also friends. The trip to the watchmaker is business only in part; the rest is paying a visit to an old friend. Among the more famous clients, Benzion Netanyahu (father of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu) is a loyal customer for many years.
Journeyman to master
Serfaty learned the skill from Claude Raphael, a Swiss immigrant who studied in his home country, the mecca of watchmakers. Raphael has been a watchmaker since 1967 and Serfaty joined him in 1971. In 1978 the two opened Big Ben at the Ben- Hillel address where the store is still located today.
Initially, Big Ben was exclusively a watch fixing workshop, Raphael and Serfaty wearing white robes as is the custom in Switzerland. Concurrently, they established a high-school program for teaching watchmaking and taught students from the ninth through the 12th grade. In 1983, the Education Ministry decided to close down the course, with Serfaty remaining alone to bring existing students to matriculation in 1984.
It was only a few years afterwards that the two branched out to selling watches. As a store, Big Ben sells watches ranging from inexpensive to medium priced, with a focus on reliability. The store has the run-of-themill selection of Casios but one can also find quality Swiss timepieces, with the most expensive selling for around NIS 30,000.
“We don’t have enough space to display the really exclusive brands,” Serfaty says, but adds that if a customer asks for one of the top makes, like IWC or Patek Philippe, “we can almost always get the watch they desire.”
In the mid 1980s, Raphael retired and Serfaty started running the business on his own.
Work was not hard to come by in the early days. “When the store opened, most watches were mechanical. Despite the quartz crisis being already almost a decade old, in Israel most people wore mechanicals,” Serfaty says.
“It was in the early 1980s that quartz started becoming popular, with many watches being smuggled from Lebanon during the First Lebanon War.”
Leaving his mark
Apart from his work for personal customers, Serfaty also brought back to life several prominent public clocks.
He fixed the double-faced clock at the main office of the Israel Postal Service, across from Kikar Safra on Jaffa Road. The clock hangs about five meters high. Its dial is almost a meter across, made from bronze, and fixing it took Serfaty three whole months.
A special job he recounts with pride is overhauling three clocks in the Austrian Hospice in the Old City.
One, about 1.80 meters high, was given to the hospice as a present by Emperor Franz Joseph I. After many years of being silent the clock now works, “and has been telling time accurately for the past four years,” Serfaty says.
Another is a mantel clock which needs to be wound once a month and also tells the day and date. It also chimes on the hour and every 15 minutes. Clocks with a day, date and quarter-hour chime were quite popular in the second half of the 20th century, but “this one, when it was made in 1869, was considered an unusually complex mechanism,” Serfaty explains.
The crown jewel, though, is a twoand- a-half-meter-high wooden clock run by weights. The clock has two bells, one of them gong-shaped, and is also a quarter-hour repeater.
“There is nothing that cannot be fixed,” is Serfaty’s motto, and the huge clock in the Austrian Hospice was a case in point. “If a replacement part doesn’t exist, you make it.” And in the big clock in the hospice some parts were not just broken, they were simply missing; Serfaty had to measure the spaces where the parts used to be and then literally re-invent several wheels and levers.
“I will never know how the original parts looked compared to those that I made,” he says, but adds with pride – as this is the ultimate test of a job well done – “the clock now works.” The clock sports a huge gong on its top. Guests at the Austrian Hospice, which is no longer a hospice and now houses a hotel, complained that the clock’s gong disturbed their sleep.
Ironically, when the clock finally began ticking and chiming again after years of silence, Serfaty was called to tweak it so that it chimes only on the hour and not every 15 minutes.
Hardships in Jerusalem
Apart from the challenges watchmakers suffer worldwide at the hands of mass-produced disposable watches and in recent years the advent of cellular phones, Big Ben also had to deal with the hardships of running a business in central Jerusalem.
“In the past, downtown was the business center of the city. But following neglect by the municipality for more than 20 years, simply surviving as a business has become very difficult,” Serfaty says. “In 2001 terror attacks caused an additional slowing down, and at the same time the first round of work for the light rail – moving infrastructure – began.
“After three years Jaffa Road returned to normal, but then in 2008 the street was dug up again, this time to lay down the tracks for the light rail.
“I have seen many businesses close down because of the light rail works, including veteran businesses. Turnover in the city center is as fast as mushrooms growing after rain. It’s painful to see so many hopeful entrepreneurs’ dreams fall apart.”
“I hope,” Serafty says, “that now, after 10 hard years, when the light rail finally starts moving, downtown will again become a vibrant, young center.”
Serfaty admits that his training was perhaps what saved Big Ben during those trying times. “Until today, the main business remains fixing watches. I am lucky the store survived, since many people who wanted their watches serviced or fixed professionally simply had no choice but to come to my shop; they needed my expertise.”
Is he just as optimistic about the future of the craft in general? It seems so.
“More and more people want mechanicals. An electronic watch can never compare to a mechanical. A mechanical watch is perhaps marginally less accurate, but it has something an electronic will never have – it has a soul – and that’s what people find fascinating.”