Keeping Time During COVID-19: Can A Watchmaker Work From Home?

Keeping Time During COVID-19: Can A Watchmaker Work From Home?

We speak with Ulysse Nardin’s After Sales Service Manager Kris Endress on the art of watchmaking remotely.

By Josh Shanks

Working from home has become the new normal for much of society, but there are still many professions where remote work is next to impossible. Notably, watchmaking – a centuries-old art form that isn't precisely adapted to today's always-connected digital society.

We recently profiled Ulysse Nardin’s ‘Club UN’ (read HERE). What I found most remarkable was that, despite a crisis, the brand’s collectors were more Unified than ever (pardon the pun). After speaking with the brand’s President of the Americas François-Xavier (FX) Hotier, I discovered Ulysse Nardin had taken the extraordinary step of implementing a business continuity program for their after sales. Here’s an in-depth look at how the brand’s watchmakers work from home.

To answer this question, I spoke with Kris Endress, the After Sales Service Manager for Ulysse Nardin in North America. As a brand, Ulysse Nardin is at the forefront of watchmaking innovations and somehow still manages to merge this with century’s old tradition. However, can a watchmaker safely leave the confines of their benches and work from a kitchen table or garage? As it turns out, the answer is more straightforward than I thought.

Watchmakers Working From Home

Ulysse Nardin operates an expansive after-sales department in Boca Raton, Florida. It's here that Ulysse Nardin employs five watchmakers, one polisher, and 12 support staff in the brand’s after sales operations for North America. While COVID-19 has impacted nearly every aspect of day-to-day life, Endress’ team at Ulysse Nardin took a remarkably straightforward approach to business continuity.

As Endress confessed, “We found that in order to keep our employees safe, we had to find ways to think outside the box and for our watchmakers to work without coming into the office. Some of our watchmakers are already [watchmaking] hobbyists on the side, so they have the equipment and the machinery at home. Once we identified who could work from home and who couldn't, we came up with a way of making it work so that everybody could be part of the department going forward.”

After the initial planning, Endress’ team took to executing their vision of a work-from-home situation for the brand's watchmakers. The department was split into two groups, 'dirty' and 'clean.'

First, the 'dirty' side of the department managed the teardown and disassembly of timepieces arriving for service. The watches are disassembled, cases and movements separated, numerous parts inspected and cataloged for replacement or cleaning, and cases sent for polishing. The movements are sent for disassembly and cleaning, while the cases are picked up by the brand’s polisher.

After disassembly of the movement and various intricate parts, the parts are carefully packaged and prepared for a contact-free handoff to the ‘clean’ team back at HQ who will take care of cleaning all components and handling of any polishing to cases, bezels, etc. After all of the cleaning of components is completed and the movements are serviced, a small team at Ulysse Nardin’s home base reassemble and test all watches.

While watchmaking is very much an exercise in micromechanics, the age of social distancing affects how watchmakers interact with each other. Endress confesses he's been playing the role of quarterback between his newly divided department, “I’ve become a bit of a logistical master! [laughs]”

It is important to note that while the disassembly can easily happen at a watchmaker's home, the actual process of cleaning the components and ordering parts still takes place back at Ulysse Nardin's Boca Raton office. It's here in a clean room that Endress receives and cleans all the disassembled timepieces. Additionally, each movement part is checked for wear, and additional components are ordered or allocated to the repair.

Watchmaking starts and stops at the bench, and any experienced watchmaker will tell you that there is nothing more important than a clean and well-organized workbench. As such, Endress and his team took the extra step to move a workbench to every watchmaker that didn't already have one in their home or apartments. Additionally, lamps, timing machines, and many other tools needed for the repair of watches were taken home.

Parts, Parts, Parts

Watchmakers make their living off the servicing, repairing, and maintaining of timepieces. Much of this job can’t be done without access to spare parts. Whether your watch is five years or 100 years old, you’ll always need a hearty stock of replacement parts.

When I asked Endress what his most significant challenge of this new reality was, he responded, “The biggest challenge is spare parts [laughs]. We've been making watches for almost 175 years now. We have a lot of different movements, which require a lot of different parts. And I can't allow watchmakers to take home all of the spare parts because I don't know who is going to need what at what point.”

While much of Switzerland has been closed down for the past two months, Ulysse Nardin has kept a skeleton crew in their Le Locle manufacture for such a purpose. Usually, Endress and his team order spare parts once a week, he says that now, however, orders typically arrive 3-4 weeks after placement due to the re-prioritization of the global supply chain.

What I found most ingenious about this entire process was the allocation of these coveted spare parts. Endress bemused, “Every day, each morning at 8 am, we have a text message thread back and forth, and they [the watchmakers] all tell me what part they need, how many of those parts they need. Then, I pick those parts for them, and when they pick up their work [to re-assemble and test], they can pick up the spare parts they need as well.”

Because all of Ulysse Nardin’s watchmakers have iPads at home, which contain hundreds if not thousands of technical documents covering decades of Ulysse Nardin novelties and calibres, watchmakers can give Endress the exact part numbers to avoid any confusion.

Re-Assembly and Testing

After the parts are cleaned, examined, and potentially swapped due to wear, Endress assembles a re-assembly kit of sorts for each watchmaker. Endress and his team then distribute these kits throughout the Boca Raton area to the homes (and yes, garages) of Ulysse Nardin’s watchmakers for final assembly, accuracy testing, and the always-important water resistance testing.

Endress says clients and management have been overwhelmingly positive on the brand's remote work program. The continuation of Ulysse Nardin's after-sales service has also provided some much-needed normalcy for the brand's watchmakers.

To Service or Not to Service?

While this shouldn’t entirely be a polarizing question in 2020, it’s still one of the most asked questions we get here at Watchonista. So we asked, should you service your timepieces? If so, how often?

Endress replies, “There are two answers to that question. There is a more corporate answer, which is every three to five-year time frame. And then there is the watchmaker's answer, which is whenever you're no longer happy with the timekeeping of the watch.”

As it turns out, water resistance is one of the primary motivating factors behind a service. As Endress says, “If you get water in the watch, it's going to be a super expensive repair - hands, dial, movement, even parts that aren't covered under the normal servicing. It can get costly very quickly. So, it's essential that you have the watch regularly tested for water-resistance. And then the three to five-year time frame speaks really to the longevity of the gaskets and the water-resistance of the case.”

“As far as the movement goes, the vast majority of parts inside Ulysse Nardin's movements are covered under the service. So, if you wear your watch for ten years and you never have it serviced, assuming that water never gets into the watch or anything like that, all of those parts that have become worn and damaged and what have you are all replaced as part of the service anyway, it's not going to cost you an additional amount of money because, you didn't service the watch at a regular interval.”

“You're paying for the service, and you're going to get the same, whether it's at five years or ten years, if we have to replace five pieces or 100 pieces, it's still going to be the same price. The parts - the internal components - are included in the servicing of a Ulysse Nardin timepiece. So, I try to go about [giving servicing advice] that way. I try to explain to people that the service is necessary more so for the water-resistant aspect of the case than the movement itself. “

A Return to Normalcy

The number one question on everyone's mind is, "When will things get back to normal?" The more straightforward answer is, we simply don't know. However, it's refreshing to see a brand such a Ulysse Nardin adapt to this new reality and continue to deliver a service to their owners (read HERE). As François-Xavier (FX) Hotier points out, “our club members, our customers, are king, so we just adapted our operations to continue to serve them the best we can.”

(Images provided by Ulysse Nardin)

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