‘There are not enough apprentices coming through’: the changing face of the vintage clock industry

by Chris Jackson

Patrick Crowder

Covid-19 has spelled the end for many small businesses around the world. But while the vintage watch and clock market is seeing a major rise, changing times have led to a lack of young apprentices and the death of the traditional storefront.

The statistics can sometimes seem startling. Vintage watches sold at auction have frequently fetched much higher prices than their book value in recent years. In 2018, a1970s Rolex Oysterdate sold by Hanson’s Auctioneers in Derbyshire went for £51,100 – that’s a 1100% increase from the book value of £3,000-£5,000.

Paul Kembery has worked in watch and clock sales and repair for the last 30 years. His online business, Kembery Antique Clocks, sells wristwatches, long-case clocks, barometers, and other specialty antique pieces, all meticulously restored.

“The speciality within the watch and clock industry is one that continues to thrive,” Kembery says, “There is sufficient data to show that vintage watches have gone up considerably in price.”

Along with the overall upward trend, vintage watch prices have risen steeply since the beginning of lockdown. For example, an Omega Dynamic watch was worth about £516 in March 2020. According to the watch valuation site Chrono24, that same watch is worth £725 today.

The industry is thriving, but it is also changing with the times.

“Shops are definitely on a decline,” Kembery continues, “We had a shop in Bath for many years, but the way that the internet took off there really was little need in having a retail shop.”

Now, the main face-to-face business that Kembery conducts happens at antique fairs. He believes that there is no need to “trek around the country looking in all the antique shops” when it is more efficient to “go to an antique fair and see 200 stands” all at once.

According to Kembery, a number of things can motivate someone to buy a vintage time piece: “Many people buy them for their birth year. So oftentimes people will look online for a watch that corresponds. A wife or a partner may then buy that watch as a gift.”

In addition, potential buyers also seek out antique clocks with a personal connection to their family history or hometown. “If there’s an area in Leicestershire where you live, for example, and you find out that the local clockmaker was making clocks there,” Kembery adds, “what a great talking point to have bought a clock online that is from your area 250 years ago.”

Covid-19 has led to a decrease in the number of repairs Kembery sees on a weekly basis, as people are postponing having their clocks serviced. However, Kembery envisions a major uptick in repairs after the pandemic is over:“Once everything settles back down there will be the same number of people who need their watches and clocks overhauled, and there will be a higher demand for it. It turns out that many shops already have waiting lists, and those waiting lists may continue to grow.”

As mechanical timepieces have shifted from practical pieces of equipment to optional luxury items, the profession of clock and watchmaking has fallen off the radar of young career-minded people.

“There are not enough apprentices coming through,” Kembery conceded. “Long term it may be an issue that there aren’t enough youngsters in apprenticeships, or who are interested in clock and watch repairs.”

The lack of apprentices represents an opportunity for those who are interested in breaking into the industry. The National Careers Service reports that the average wage for a watch or clockmaker ranges from £20,000 to £40,000 a year, based on experience. This varies based on the particular business one works for and may not take into account money made from sales.

There are a number of ways to enter the industry. The British Horological Institute offers courses which can be taken at home with no prior experience required. Where watch and clock shops still exist, apprenticeships can sometimes be found simply by walking in and taking an interest in the work. 

According to Kembery, the best apprentices are “mechanically minded” and also “curious about the way that engineering works.”

The rise of internet retail has caused a decline in the number of watch and clock shops across the country, and vintage timepieces are not as highly desired by young collectors. Despite this, the industry is still – if you’ll forgive the pun – alive and ticking.

Photo credit: Andrew Seaman on Unsplash

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