The Timeless Craft Of Mending Watches

Sunday, January 4, 2009

John Alabaster sometimes loses track of time as he takes apart old pocket watches or Rolexes.

"Only when I set the watch do I look at the clock," he said.

Repairing an old watch can take a couple of hours or a couple of days, depending on what's inside and whether he needs to make a piece. He starts by taking apart the timepiece and putting its pieces in "an ultrasonic cleaning machine that shakes out the dirt and old oil." Then he inspects the pieces, looking for worn or broken ones. If everything is intact, Alabaster polishes the case, reassembles the watch, sets its time and watches it for a couple of days to see if it's accurate.

Alabaster, 71, learned about watches during a London apprenticeship 55 years ago, then went to work for Rolex, which sent him to Switzerland for more training. After working for Rolex in London, he transferred to New York in 1963 and eventually to Washington. He opened his eponymous shop in Fairfax County in 1973, and still has customers from his first year.

He wears a Rolex he received in 1971 when he left the company.

He says he likes almost everything about being a watchmaker, though he acknowledges that he isn't fond of quartz watches (although he will fix them) or of polishing watch cases (he does that, too). His least favorite part of the job is a an ungrateful or grumpy customer, despite his best efforts on an heirloom. More often, though, customers tell him the watch's history, and even hug and kiss him when it's working again.

He works 40 to 50 hours a week, a reduction from 60-plus hours a few years ago. And he's taken on an apprentice, who he hopes will have the passion and dedication to learn watch repair. "It's sort of an art form. . . . It takes a lot of time," he said.

-- Vickie Elmer

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