The real secret of Swiss watch craft: apprentices

    3 November 2016

    What’s the X-factor that makes Switzerland the world’s leading watchmaker? It’s a riddle that’s fascinated — and frustrated — horologists for centuries. Every time I return to Switzerland someone gives me a different answer, from the clarity of the Alpine light to the consequences of the Swiss Reformation. However, the best explanation I’ve come across is the Swiss apprentice system. And that’s why today I’ve travelled to the Vallée de Joux in the north-west corner of Switzerland to meet two young apprentices at one of Switzerland’s leading watchmakers, Jaeger-LeCoultre.

    Here in Switzerland, only the most academic teenagers go on to university. Over half of Swiss school-leavers (including many of the best and brightest) become apprentices, learning a trade which they’ll cultivate over the course of an entire career. Nowhere is this apprentice system more important than in watchmaking. This is the way its skills are handed down, from generation to generation, from the first Huguenot émigrés who came here from France 300 years ago to modern firms like Jaeger-LeCoultre today.

    The Vallée de Joux is a sleepy place, still virtually untouched by tourism. It’s a peaceful valley, a few miles from the French border, surrounded by the wild wooded hills of the Jura. Geneva is only 40 miles away, but it feels a lot further. Yet although it seems remote, this apparently obscure backwater is the Silicon Valley of Swiss watchmaking. Some of Europe’s finest watchmakers are based along the tranquil banks of Lac de Joux: as well as Jaeger-LeCoultre there are Audemars Piguet, Breguet, Blancpain, Patek Philippe, Pierre DeRoche and Vacheron Constantin. You can see why horologists call this hidden valley ‘the cradle of complications’. In watchmaking, a complication is any function beyond hours, minutes and seconds — days, months, leap years, even phases of the moon. Classic complications like the perpetual calendar were developed in the Vallée de Joux.

    Really, it’s a wonder that this watchmaking community is still here at all. The development of cheap quartz watches in the 1970s looked like a catastrophe for these master watchmakers. Undercut by new technology, the mechanical watch looked destined to go the same way as the steam engine. The number of workers in Swiss watchmaking fell from 90,000 to 30,000 in a few years. Yet for firms like Jaeger-LeCoultre, this crisis was an opportunity. Their beautiful timepieces became more sophisticated, more collectable. As quartz became ubiquitous, mechanical watchmaking moved upmarket. No longer bound by necessity, the mechanical watch became an objet d’art.

    Getting into Jaeger-LeCoultre’s factory isn’t easy. It took me a long time to make an appointment. Security is terrifically tight. You surrender your passport at the door — it’s like trying to gain entry to a private bank or a foreign embassy. Jaeger-LeCoultre feels like a bit of both. In a tidy meeting room, I meet two apprentices: Sebastian Theintz and Samuel Charpeutier.

    Sebastian is 18. He comes from Morges, a town on Lake Geneva. He’s been at Jaeger-LeCoultre since he was 16. He did placements at several companies as a prospective apprentice. This was the one he liked best. He caught the horology bug when he was 12. His grandfather had a collection of old watches, but none of them worked. Sebastian wanted to get them working again, but he didn’t know how — he does now. He lodges here in the Vallée de Joux, in a studio apartment in the quaint market town of Le Sentier. Samuel is 25. He grew up on the French Riviera. He became interested in watchmaking in his early twenties, and started at Jaeger-LeCoultre last year. He lives just across the border, in France, and travels here every day. ‘It was a big change at the beginning but I’m very happy to be here,’ he says. They both love the idea of making a machine so small and delicate by hand.

    A watchmaking apprenticeship at Jaeger-LeCoultre lasts three or four years. Samuel and Sebastian divide their time between the factory and a technical college down the road. At college, they mix with apprentices from all the local factories. They start off learning about the basic tools, which have barely changed in centuries. Within a few weeks, they’re working on actual watches, moving around all the different departments of the factory. ‘We learn all the different stages,’ says Sebastian. ‘I didn’t like school — I preferred to do something practical. I don’t need long holidays. I prefer being paid.’

    It’s tiring work, requiring pinpoint precision and intense concentration. They start at 7 a.m. and work until 5 p.m. — a long day, but they earn a salary — much better than racking up a student loan. They learn from workmates as well as lecturers. They’re learning about the world of work, not just watchmaking. There are about two dozen apprentices here, mainly men but some women. About half are Swiss. The rest are French. France is a lot like Britain — apprenticeships aren’t as common as they are in Switzerland — so, for aspiring watchmakers, Switzerland is a big draw.


    ‘At school you learn many things that you won’t use in your life,’ says Sebastian, who wants to specialise in servicing watches. ‘With an apprenticeship, you’re using your knowledge.’ Sebastian will qualify next summer. He’ll do several days of exams, theoretical and also practical: ‘We have to build a watch.’ Samuel has another year to go. He wants to start his own company. Wherever they end up, they’ll always have a specific skill to sell, unlike our legions of British arts graduates. ‘Watches will always survive — they’re part of history,’ says Samuel.

    Talking to these two apprentices, what really comes across is their studious dedication. When I was Sebastian’s age, I was still mucking around at sixth form. Throw in a gap year, a cushy arts degree, plus a few years drifting after graduation, and I didn’t knuckle down until my mid-twenties. By the time Sebastian is in his mid-twenties he’ll be an expert watchmaker, with ten years’ experience behind him. No wonder Switzerland is streets ahead when it comes to making bespoke watches. In classbound Britain ‘apprentice’ is a term still (wrongly) associated with less-qualified occupations. Apprentices like Sebastian aren’t low-skilled also rans — they’re Wunderkinder. They’re learning on the job, and getting smarter all the time.

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