Business

Columbia watchmaker an increasingly rare breed

Dan Silvey fixes a pocket watch at Wristwatch Doc in Cayce on Friday. The store specializes in fixing watches of all kinds.
Dan Silvey fixes a pocket watch at Wristwatch Doc in Cayce on Friday. The store specializes in fixing watches of all kinds. mwalsh@thestate.com

John Gawronski spends much of his day crouched over a watchmaker’s bench with an optic visor strapped to his head, sorting through the hidden, intricate mechanisms of some of the world’s finest time pieces.

At his retail and repair shop in Cayce, the WristWatchDoc, Gawronski and his four-to-five member crew fix about 5,000 watches a year, carrying out every conceivable function from full restorations and crystal replacements to merely putting in new batteries and wristbands.

“We’re probably one of about 47 independent watch repair shops (left) in the United States,” said Gawronski, a Staten Island, N.Y., native, “and I would say there’s less than 300 active watchmakers (left) in the country.”

Watchmaker is a catch-all phrase that refers to both people who only repair watches and those who make watches.

Though he is not an authorized Rolex repairman, Gawronski, who has been in the business 20 years, describes himself as a general watchmaker who just happens to be a Rolex specialist. He repairs more than 400 Rolex watches each year at his Knox Abbott Drive business, and says he can repair such time pieces better and less expensively than the manufacturer.

The repair shop takes in an average of three to five Rolexes for service each week from the Columbia area alone, the watchmaker said.

The WristWatch Doc opened its first shop in Columbia 10 years ago on Fort Jackson Boulevard, across from the current Whole Foods store. The shop later moved to Forest Drive for four years, but available parking could not match the business’ retail growth. So the WristWatchDoc moved to the current Cayce location at 534 Knox Abbott Drive 2 1/2 years ago.

Gawronski’s years of being crouched over the innards of watches of all makes and models, Swiss, American, German or other – he said he has worked on 7,000 Rolexes over his career – and all the years of tedious labor he has put in, have led not only to a stable, properous business that can pay the watchmaker six figures annually, he said, but also to other ventures.

Last month, Gawronski launched Vintage Watch Art at www.wristwatchdoc.com, where the website currently features 107 watch art selections with plans to add 200 more.

He uses materials from original watch advertising campaigns, adheres them to two-and-a-half-inch foam backing and turns them into wall art that can be mounted and framed for display in the home, office, business or elsewhere. The materials include a 1944 Rolex ad that circulated overseas, a 1948 Mickey Mouse ad for Ingersoll’s wrist and pocketwatch advertising campaign, and the extremely rare 1930s-era black and white Omega ad.

“Watch art truly transcends everything,” Gawronski said. “You don’t find this stuff. We’re building a library of vintage ads, original art or what some call source documents, and we actually are buying each one of these.” The WristWatchDoc has several thousand dollars tied up in original watch art, some of it on display at the Cayce store, so the store can make the reproductions that appeal to people.

Gawronski is also opening his own watch line. If you are thinking of the Shinola watch line that has made such a splash in Detroit, you would be right.

Using his years of experience, Gawronski plans to take each of the best features from all the best watches and incorporate them into his own watch. One of those will be a $2,500 design that Gawronski says will compare to any $15,000 to $20,000 watch on the market. It will use the same movement and will stand up favorably to comparison, obviously for a fraction of the price.

“In our case, every single part of that watch – and I mean every single part – from the band, to the crystal to the movement – every part of that watch is not only assembled here in the USA, it’s all made in Switzerland,” he said, referring to the individual parts.

“They’re going to really be something to behold,” Gawronski predicted.

He expects to launch the line after the first of the year.

Watches, of course, are very personal pieces of apparel, often carrying deep meaning to their wearers. Often passed down from generation to generation, fine watches often hold great sentimental value. For men, especially, an elegant time piece can be an expression of character, experts say.

Good examples would be somebody who has their grandmother’s wrist watch or their grandfather’s pocket watch, or maybe their great grandfather’s watch from World War I. “People want that stuff working,” Gawronski said.

About a quarter of Gawronski’s customers want the dial faces of their vintage time pieces redone. But, about 75 percent of his customers want their vintage time pieces preserved as the artistic treasures they are – that is, to have the watch working and polished nicely, but also with the original petina on the dial face – functioning as the precision-made instruments they were made to be.

“They want it to look good, but they want it to be known it’s an old watch, working as properly as it can,” Gawronski said.

Watchmaking, though, is becoming a lost art.

“There’s still a high-end market – people look at their watches as jewelry, and there’s still a high-end market for watches,” said Jay Friedman, third-generation proprietor of Bonded Loan Office, a pawn shop on Assembly Street that opened in 1941. Friedman, who buys and sells watches, said he met Gawronski 10 years ago after being approached by him about repairing watches.

While there have always been watchmakers in Columbia to do repairs or replacements, only a few remain in town now, Friedman noted, and that landscape is changing. “A lot of the young people today are using their cell phones. Their watches aren’t as important. They have clocks all around them. They have a clock with them on their cell phones. So, a lot of the young people don’t feel it as much of a necessity as we did when we were growing up.”

As young people become professionals, however – successful professionals at that – Friedman predicts the watch will still be honored as a timeless piece of jewelry. “So, there’s still gonna be a market, however, it’s smaller.”

The pool of good watchmakers is also shrinking, experts agree.

There are eight certified watchmakers in South Carolina, four in the Columbia area, according to the American Watchmakers-Clockmakers Institute in Ohio, the leading U.S. trade organization supporting the horology industry and watchmaking and clockmaking schools in the country.

About 75 students graduate each year from one of the nine schools that teach watchmaking in the United States. Ninety-eight percent of those graduates had jobs before leaving school, said Jordan P. Ficklin, executive director of the American Watchmakers-Clockmakers Institute, or AWCI.

“It’s an extremely high placement rate,” he said. “There are many more people who want to hire (than there are graduates to hire),” Ficklin said.

The schools maintain a low student-to-teacher ratio — about 14-to-1, though some schools have a 6-to-1 ratio. Seven of the nine schools are certified by the AWCI, he said.

A fresh graduate watchmaker can earn $45,000 to $55,000-a-year, Ficklin said, and a watchmaker with five years experience can earn $75,000 to $80,000 per year. But, of the 4,000 to 5,000 watchmakers currently in the U.S., Ficklin said 300 to 400 retire each year. Only four new watchmakers opened for business in the past 15 years, he said.

Watch production, however, is making a comeback in the U.S., Ficklin said. Right now, 25 companies do some level of watch production in the United States and that is going to increase, putting more pressure on the industry, he said. “It will make the demand for repairers even stronger,” Ficklin said.

Roddie Burris: 803-771-8398

Want to learn?

Watchmakers of Switzerland Training and Educational Program schools in the U.S.

North American Institute of Swiss Watchmaking, Fort Worth, Texas

N.G. Hayek Watchmaking School, Miami, Fla.

The Research and Education Council of AWCI schools

Bishop State Community College, Mobile, Ala.

Gem City College, Quincy, Ill.

Lititz Watch Technicum, Lititz, Pa.

North American Institute of Swiss Watchmaking, Fort Worth, Texas

North Seattle Community College, Seattle, Wash.

OSU Institute of Technology, Okmulgee, Okla.

Texas Institute of Jewelry Technology, Paris, Texas

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