Monday, April 30, 2007

Grande Complication

The Watchmaker With Two First Names

He'll answer to both, but his friends call him Frank. Frank Adam made his first appearance on alt.horology in February 1998, with a reply to a poster's question about purchasing a vintage clock with this pithy, but truthful reply:

"I wish i had a dollar for each time someone tells me that they've had a timepiece for 10+ amount of years and still runs ok. Normally my reply is 'Great when it finally stops don't bring it to me' ;-)"

Since then, Frank has not only provided advice and shared his knowledge and experience; but has provided levity when things get too heavy--to the appreciation and amusement of the newsgroups readers.

Born and raised in Budapest, Hungary, until the age of sixteen, Frank experienced a rebirth when he arrived in Australia at the age of 17. Frank studied watchmaking in Melbourne, Australia, after studying and working at different jobs in Hungary, before finding what would become his occupation, that of watchmaking.

My favorite response to these questions, was Frank's answer to the question:

"How do you feel about the ever increasingly complicated watches we're seeing these days?"

Frank's answer demonstrates the style and knowledge we've come to expect and welcome; and it will intrigue you as usual.

Curious? Then read on and enjoy.

PR: So, let's start off with the basics; how old are you and where were you born and raised?

FA: Forty five. I was born twice. Born in
Budapest, Hungary and raised there to a ripe old age of 16 and a bit then arriving in Australia where I was reborn at the age of 17 and bit as an Aussie.

PR: Where were you trained in watch repair? What was that like?

FA: I did my apprenticeship with an old watchmaker who emigrated here from Yugoslavia in the '50s. It was good, but at times testing. My old boss had a belief that we should be able to repair everything and make anything. Often when I could buy a part for 50 cents, he would make me make one. At the time I hated him for I did for making me do jewellery repairs, which did not interest me at all. Times change though and over the years I've seen his manic ways paying off on the bench. So if I was to ever teach a would be watchmaker, I will make sure he or she will hate me just as much. :-)

I did my schooling in Melbourne, Australia at the RMIT. On what is called a "block release". That meant that I've spent most of my time working with my boss at the shop and would go to school for 3, 2 and 1 weeks per quarter, in each of the 3 years. (ie: 12 weeks all up in year one, 8 weeks in year two, 4 weeks in year three.)

Since I spent one year to brush up on English before starting school, it was a bit boring at times, as far as the benchwork went, but the theory part, which my old boss could not give me at such level, was certainly worth all the time I've spent there.

PR: What was your first professional position and with whom?

FA: I worked for 10 years with my old boss and that was it. By year 10, I was doing some serious amounts of trade work for a number of shops and to be honest, that last year I only completed for the long service pay. :)

PR: How did your childhood education, or experiences effect your decision to enter watchmaking?

FA: Not at all. I was always going to be a motor mechanic, failing that, a welder, like my Dad was. It was a turn of events, with the immigration and having to find a job before arrival here, which landed me in the watch workshop and at the time I thought, "whatever". Got to like it and here we are.

PR: What did you do before becoming a watch repairer?

FA: To understand how this works, you have to understand how the Hungarian school system worked. You've had 8 years of compulsory, which covered our Primary and most of the *basics* of our Secondary schools. After that, you could go on and do 4 years more studies which would expand on those basics before allowing you to go into an academic path, or you could go into a 4 year trade school, which also covered some of that extra 4 years, so it provided a trade and a high school type certificate. Or you could just go into a 2 or 3 year trade and be a straight out trades man, with little additional education.

So, at the age of 14 I went to a 4 year motor engineering school. Done ok, but could not stand the teacher and had lots of words with each other, which one day blew over and some things were I left school near the end of the year (well, was pushed out really, but keep that between us ;-) )

Then I worked for 3-4 months (work was compulsory back there) as a medical courier for a large factory chain, before joining the same factory's 2 year welding apprenticeship course. Did one year, had great teachers and finished with top marks, only to leave the country and never go back to finish that off.

PR: Any idea what your old school friends are doing these days?

FA: My best mate in Hungary is a painter. No, not Picasso, more like cars, houses etc.. :)

From the watch school...there were 6 of us in class. :)

One of them is the local TAG agent's manager (as of last time I've seen him anyway), another has moved to Queensland and runs a successful jewellery chain of his own. Third one's husband was a jeweller and I haven't seen her since, but I'm guessing she would still be working in their shop, as she was when she came to school. Fourth one disappeared. Last time we've heard he was with the city council repairing electric parking meters, for which he got lot of friendly ribbing. Fifth, I've remained good buddies with ever since. Although he has taken a sabbatical from watches in the last two years.

PR: Are you a watch repairer, or a watch maker? Do you see a difference in these two terms, or occupations?

FA: I was a watch maker, but I'm not sure anymore. :)

Being a tradey, I see mostly quartz and simple mechanicals across the bench and as much as I'd like to say otherwise, I can't see the skills not fading away to an extent. There was a time when sitting down to make a balance staff would've been a non event every day thing, but nowadays it's almost a chore, since I only do that once a month or two. If that. This year, I'm yet to make or even alter one.

So yes, the traditional watchmaker is becoming a thing of the past. Some by lack of education, some by lack of doing. Even when I did my schooling, one of the teachers used to tell us that we are not watchmakers, only "watch assemblers". At that time I was forced to make 10 cent stems, clock wheels and such back in the shop, so I wasn't too delighted with his comment. I think after a few years of experience, we all know, or at least have a clue on how to do everything, it's just that we don't do it enough anymore.

PR: What was the first watch you owned? Do you still have it?

FA: It was an East German watch, when I was 12. Can't remember the brand and don't have it anymore.

PR: What was the first watch you ever repaired, either professionally, or before?

FA: BFG 866. I think it was the standard first watch for all apprentices back then. :)

At school, we started with a Unitas pocket watch.

PR: I've noticed on alt.horology, that you really appreciate clocks and you're usually the first to jump in with a response to a clock question. What is it about clocks that you like?

FA: I can still see them. ;-)

Clocks bring back the watch(clock) making element into repairs. The average watch tends to come through the bench looking like new, with little, if any, wear. So it's a generally mundane job, that gives you no challenge at all. Clocks on the other hand, tend to wear quite a bit, by the time we get them. You clean it manually, spin the arbors around in the lathe, replace bushings, make a few bits, bushings etc. So you feel like you have actually repaired it. It is rare that a watch gives you that same satisfaction.

PR: I've also noticed that you don't seem to like "high end" watches that use inexpensive quartz modules; Why is that?

FA: It is not that simple as that. I'm sure other people in other trades would feel likewise if some big name company released a second rate product and still charge as much as if it was the top of the heap. I am in a lucky position to be able to see what is inside a watch and my opinion is based on that. If Brand X made terrific watches for years at three times the price of Brand Y, who didn't have quality stuff then that is fine. But that should not mean that when brand X starts to use cheaper or in many cases the exact same movement as Brand Y, placed in a similar case, they should still charge three times more for basically the same watch. Keeping in mind that all too often, Brand X will also be 2-3 times the price of the service costs every 5 years or so, this is not right on any grounds. In short, I don't believe in buying "names", when I can't be sure about the quality. If im stupid about it and do, like electronic equipment, then it's ok. What I don't know, won't bother me.

PR: Do you prefer mechanical movements over quartz?

FA: For my own use, quartz, because I'm lazy. :-)

Otherwise I don't care. I will wear a watch because of it's looks, not because I need the time.

PR: Any opinion on the decline that mechanical watches and Switzerland in particular, saw during the sixties and seventies?

FA: It was before my time, but I guess the Swiss was simply caught flat footed and remained somewhat anal about their marketing strategy, perhaps thinking that the Japanese push was just a flash in the pan. As we know now, it was a tad more than that. But it's all in hindsight, so I'm not about to blame the Swiss for this.

PR: Was it the fault of the Swiss makers, or the cheap, accurate imports that entered the market? Who is to blame for that downturn?

FA: As above, about the placement of blame. In addition, the cheap imports made a markable difference at first, but in my opinion, a lot of the people who would have bought those cheap watches, would not have paid the high Swiss prices or the service costs anyway.

PR: What do you think fostered the upswing in the eighties?

FA: Possibly the cheap watches. No really. :)

It is not inconceivable that a lot of kids grew up with watches on their arms. Something that would not have happened if the cheap watches did not exist. Once these kids with their 5 dollar Service Station watches entered the workforce and started to make money, they would have looked for more "meaningful" time pieces. If you look at mobile phones at the moment, it is a similar trend. 10 years ago, kids would be lucky to inherit Dad's mobile, without a simm card and a battery. Now, we can afford to buy 12 year olds 0$ phones and by the time they are 14-16, they are looking at the latest in technology as a "must have" and as soon as they are able to, they will buy them.

PR: How did the downturn and upswing affect your business?

FA: It is now getting worse than it was in the late '70s and early '80s. We were still busy back then, but the gap closed between service prices and the cost of reasonable quality watches to such extent that it is now a decision for the customer whether to keep the good old workhorse, or just by a new watch for almost the same money. And we all like to buy new things, don't we? :)

PR: How do you feel about the ever increasingly complicated watches we're seeing these days?

FA: Mostly they are only electronically complicated. It is beyond our capability to repair internal electronic faults, so all in all, it doesn't matter to me. Circuit faulty? New circuit. The few new complicated mechanicals are simple mechanics. If a watchmaker can't figure them out, perhaps he is in the wrong trade or shouldn't touch them. :)

PR: Do you feel these will be a boon to new watchmakers, or a hindrance with their highly technical nature?

FA: It is a bit of a chore to set some of them up after a service, but I don't think it's a problem. It certainly won't be a boom though.

PR: Where do you see the watch repair business heading?

FA: Downwards.

PR: Will you be going along for the ride, or will you go on to other things?

FA: I think my generation will be ok. Maybe the one behind me too, but it will not get easier to survive, apart perhaps at a 9-5 job in a service center.

PR: Are you where you pictured yourself as a young man, work wise?

FA: Not quite. Made mistakes along the way, mainly on a personal level, but overall it's all ok.

PR: Where do you see yourself in ten years?

FA: On alt.horology arguing over nothing. ;-)

Probably where I am. Working away as a tradey.

PR: When not at the bench, how do you spend your time?

FA: Fighting with my Shepherd, Duke. Programming, watching sports, Aussie Rules, motor racing and documentaries, and I guess, as my wife says "on the damn newsgroups !" ;-)

PR: What was your most difficult project, either difficult because it was complicated work, or just plain hard and nasty?

FA: Can't think of one that I could single out. There are always the occasional ones that'll give you a headache, but once fixed, they are out of my hair and mind.

PR: What was your easiest project?

FA: Fitting a battery to a wall clock. :)

PR: Are you a "strap and battery" repairer, or do you turn your nose up at that sort of watch repair work?

FA: I was never one as such, but if it has to be done, as it is part of the job. A person who fits nothing but batteries and straps will probably get it done much quicker than me, so to turn up my nose at that would be somewhat silly. When and if they start talking as if they were watchmakers and trying to teach the trade to me, that will get my back up, but I've only ever met one person like that and we parted company pretty quickly. :)

PR: What is the silliest question a customer ever asked you?

FA: That's a hard one. All of them are right up there. :-)

PR: Are watch repairers a cloistered lot? Are "outsiders" welcomed?

FA: We are a bit like a clique. Being a somewhat obscure profession, there are not too many people who can hold a proper conversation about the job with us. Outsiders are always welcomed by me and I don't mind explaining the ins and outs to anyone who shows a genuine interest, but I know some people in the trade who would not be that way, rather the contrary. In fact, those people can be rather coarse even to those in the trade, while others will be happily sharing their knowledge with each other. I guess, like with every group, you have good ones and bad ones.

PR: What advice do you have for people like me, who wish to make this a new career, or a hobby?

FA: Seek psychiatric treatment? Nah, the customers will make sure you will need that anyway. ;-)

My advice is, to make sure you go at your own speed. If you don't know, or not sure about something, then ask someone before breaking or damaging a part you may not be able to obtain. School is all well to teach the basics, but it's the years of experience that makes us better and just like in any job, we're learning to the end.

PR: What are you working on today?

FA: You mean apart from motivation ? :)

Um...let's see. I've got a grandfather movement on the clock bench to bush and reassemble, a verge pocket watch on the watch bench to fix two pivots on and assemble. That's the easy work, but I also have to fit a Miyota 2035 and a PC21 movement, quote on a Certina quartz. :-)

And whatever else fits into the day after that. Actually I am fairly busy at the moment.

PR: What is your best kept secret, or tip for repair work?

FA: I have too many to mention or maybe don't have any. Not sure Hey ! it's a secret !! :-)

PR: And lastly, when you hit the beach are you wearing swimming trunks, speedos?

FA: Trunks. My speedo days are over and the old boys deserve some freedom down there. :)

Regards, Frank Adam
Melbourne, Australia

Thanks to Frank for participating and sharing not only his opinions, but his ideas and experiences. There is no substitute for experience, save knowledge and hands on work. But none are independent of the others--and Frank exemplifies all three.

For those looking for watchmaking services, please feel free to visit Frank at his website:

Or contact him through his email at:


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