Germany - My friend Otto

February 2003

My friend Otto is a watchmaker and he is in his early forties. When he was a young man, he wasn't sure which profession to enter, so he decided to learn the watchmaking trade in a workshop specializing in ancient clocks and watches. Otto wasn't happy, so he went to university and soon discovered that the academic life wasn't for him either.

So he returned to watches, working part time for a wholesaler of horological equipment and parts and part time as a watch and clock repairer in a workshop. After a few years, as both of these jobs were poorly paid and Otto didn't like either of his employers, he thought about alternatives. Finally, in the mid-nineties he decided to become self-employed and established his own workshop for repairing old timepieces. To eke out a living, however, he also had to do repair work on watches sold by jewellery stores. However, Otto was haunted by the fact that the retailers asked twice the price from their customers that he charged.

Soon he had all the private orders he could manage, but his turnover remained far below his expectations because he didn't charge enough. Consequently, in order to increase his income Otto started buying and selling old clocks, but because of the poor location of his small shop his success was limited.

This is typical of the situation of German watchmakers today and one of the many reasons why only very few young people are willing to start an apprenticeship as one. It seems that learning about watchmaking only makes sense if you're born into a very good jewellery business. So if any youngster out there is thinking about going into this old profession – forget it! Bury your illusions of earning money by bringing old timepieces back to life or even making watches or clocks.

There are exceptions of course. Take Erwin Sattler, he founded Erwin Sattler München. Now retired, Sattler started as a watchmaker then established his own business some thirty years ago by modifying and selling clocks that he bought from factories in the Black Forest. Within less than 20 years his company had become world famous for their high-class, expensive clocks.

Another example is Gerd-Rüdiger Lang, an out and out watchmaker and chronograph specialist. He worked for Heuer for many years before the company became TAG Heuer. Lang refused to end up changing batteries for quartz watches and was determined to stay with mechanical watches whatever the future. He sold his first Chronoswiss watch 20 years ago and by the nineties his company was being mentioned in the same breath as established world famous Swiss watch brands

But to get back to my friend Otto. Three years ago, he decided to try another route and rented a shop together with a goldsmith and moved in with his business. He invested a lot of money in the renovation of the store, purchased equipment, became an agent of a few mid-priced watch brands and tried his hand at selling. But in his heart, he remained a watchmaker. “I miss the quietness I had when I was working alone,” he sometimes complained, “and I lose too much time talking to customers for too long who only want a battery or a watch strap.” The store didn't do much business and Otto was soon fed up.

So, after a little more than two years as shopkeeper, last year Otto moved yet again. He assigned his contract to his goldsmith colleague and bought an apartment in a quiet street in another part of town where he re-installed his beloved watch workshop and began enjoying his work again.

Today, Otto seems quite satisfied. He is through with his 'salesman adventures' and he now has more customers for watch and clock repairs than ever before. He is also charging more for his work and now makes a living from his profession.

Many watchmakers will look at Otto's career, shake their head and feel sorry for him. But I am sure that many of them will also envy him.