Minute man

Precision watch repair can be as taxing as an athletic pursuit.

From the pages of In Business magazine.

Jacob Sobell, certified watchmaker at Gruno’s Diamonds at West Towne Mall, begins each day with one very surprising ritual. He vacuums. And vacuums.

In fact, Sobell uses six different vacuum cleaners to purge his “clean room” of dust particles that might interfere with his work during the day, from a medical-grade HEPA unit down to a pencil-sized vacuum for more intricate cleaning.

Sobell enters his workspace behind the Gruno’s retail store by first tearing a sticky sheet of plastic from a box and affixing it to a floor mat where it will capture any dirt or particles that might be tracked in on the soles of shoes.

“You just can’t have dust,” he explains. “Cleanliness is crucial in watchmaking because it makes everything happen. You keep a watch running because of cleanliness or waterproof because of cleanliness. Dust will interfere with your gaskets and cause a leak, or drag oil out from where it’s supposed to be and make other parts run dry.”

The message is clear, but one can’t help but wonder if he is just as meticulous when he’s at home. “Oh, I don’t care about that!” he laughs. “It’s unimportant at home!”

Sobell hails from a family of watchmakers. His great-great-grandfather was a watchmaker for the railroads and opened a store in Michigan more than 115 years ago. His grandfather was also a watchmaker, and Sobell’s career started as an engraver at the family’s Michigan jewelry store before he decided to focus on watchmaking, otherwise known as horology, in 1998.

While thousands of people repair watches and clocks every day, Sobell’s advanced credentials make him one of only about 500 certified watchmakers in the country.

He attended the Lititz Watch Technicum (LWT) in Lititz, Penn., a school founded by Rolex in 2001 to help address a shortage of skilled repair techs. There, he earned a LWT Diploma, and a WOSTEP (Watchmakers of Switzerland Training and Education Program) 3000-hour Certificate. He also earned an AWCI-21 Certified Watchmaker certification from the American Watchmakers-Clockmakers Institute, or CW21.

He was hired at Gruno’s when the Madison store opened just over a year ago, and while Rolex accounts for about 90% of his workload, he’ll handle the gamut of repairs, from simple $14 battery changes to a complicated restoration that might cost several thousands of dollars.

Clocking in

It’s the busy season, and watches are lined up neatly in Sobell’s office, awaiting service. On his worktable, two pocket watches are in different stages of repair. “This is a collector,” he says, admiring it closely. Tiny screws resemble metallic bugs the size of pinheads. “These are large,” he laughs, “compared to some ladies’ watches.”

He takes a seat at his desk, sitting low with his chin nearly touching the tabletop and arms raised at the shoulders to do the required work.

Lighting is essential to minimize eyestrain, he says. Ironically, Sobell was not blessed with good eyesight, nor can he wear glasses when he works. To compensate, he sets up his bench the same way every day.

Four sets of tweezers lay on the right side of the table. One is titanium, another is steel, and they’re separated by a brass version, distinguishable by its color. “Without my glasses, I can only see clearly a few inches in front of my nose, so I just reach for things and they’ve always got to be in the right spot. Eventually you get the feel of what is in your hand.” He always keeps four or five tweezers at the ready, but he owns dozens more.

His is a miniscule world where oil is applied with tiny needles and the microscope is his friend.



“Watchmaking at this level is extremely demanding,” Sobell explains. “It’s almost like an athletic sport. If you have too much coffee or not enough, too much sugar or not enough, enough sleep or not, you can’t do this job. People who say they do clocks and watches physically can’t. It’s just not possible. Clock repairs use gross motor skills. Watches use fine motor skills. If that’s a business model, they can’t be done on the same day.”

In fact, Sobell has learned to work out at night to give his muscles a chance to relax before he starts each new day. “If I work out in the morning, my fine motor skills are the first things to go, so my hands are like Jell-O. Others may not notice, but when you’re holding the tweezers, you begin dropping parts or you slip with your screwdriver. It’s important to be conscious of those things to make sure your body can perform to that level.”

When a watch comes in for service, he disassembles it “down to the bones” and carefully checks every wheel, pivot, and part under the microscope to determine the repair or maintenance needed. If the customer agrees to have the work done, he begins the process. If not, it could take another two hours to reassemble it.

A Rolex watch, he says, can take as long as four to six weeks from estimate to completion, but with proper care the timepieces appreciate with age. “I had a customer come in with a watch they bought in Vietnam for a few hundred dollars. Today, it’s worth about $20,000.”

He reaches for one watch with a porcelain glass face. “This one is over 100 years old and I can manhandle it as much as I want,” he comments. “Fingerprints will come right off and won’t etch into the glass.” Another watch with a glossy, black dial is less forgiving. “A fingerprint will ruin that, so I can’t touch it. The black will show every single smudge. It’s got to be immaculate.”

When tools are not appropriate, Sobell slips on rubber finger cots that allow him to hold the dial of a watch without leaving fingerprints or to remove a timepiece movement from its holder when tweezers won’t work. Every part is pulled, cleaned, and lubricated.

Other tools of the trade allow him to measure all the sounds coming from a mechanical watch to diagnose problems or performance issues “like an EKG,” he says.

Methodical in his motions, Sobell checks each part multiple times before securing it back into the movement, or housing. Only then will he work on the next piece. “It’s like cooking,” Sobell explains. “There’s not one thing to make a recipe taste good. When you add one thing, you have to do several other things. That’s where you get precision timing.”

After repairing and oiling a watch, Sobell tests its performance in six different positions using a watch-winder to simulate all the movements a wrist might make over the course of a day. The watch-winder resembles a desktop Ferris wheel that rotates and twists the timepieces for 24 hours. “Like a wheel on a car, you have to balance the watch. In different positions it will run faster or slower and you want to adjust for all of them because each affects the other positions.” After 24-hours he checks the watch again. If it still presents some variations, he will make adjustments and run it through another 24-hour cycle.

Fundamentally, watchmaking hasn’t changed much in the past 200 years, Sobell says, but technology certainly has. These days he can view intricate repair guides online, research oiling charts that are constantly updated by manufacturers, and order parts. His favorite part of the job is being able to work with heirlooms, some dating back to the 1700s, and the people who appreciate them.

“I really enjoy working with people who care about the care and attention to detail that I can provide them in maintaining their treasured piece. Being able to bring back a watch that their grandfather once owned so that it’s ticking and ready to be handed down to the next generation is really rewarding for me.”

So, how many watches does he have at home? “None that are working,” he laughs.

Gruno’s Diamonds
7311 West Towne Way
Madison, WI 53719
608.829.1525  |  grunos.com

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