In the tick of time

Mechanical watches maintain timeless appeal for many

Published on February 9, 2010


The Digby Courier

Digby watchmaker Danny Amero is explaining the enduring value of mechanical watches - those wind-up and self-winding, or automatic - wrist watches largely replaced by quartz watches in the mid-1970s. “If you’re going to have something from your grandmother to pass onto your grandchildren, the best thing you can do is have a wind-up watch. They’re going to be more valuable. They’re not going to die like the quartz watch will.”

Amero is speaking in his basement workroom, packed with the bits, pieces and paraphernalia of a four-decade career repairing watches.

Sometimes, the timing is simply right

A customer arrives with a quartz watch in need of a battery replacement. With that job done, the man pulls out a pocket watch, a keepsake given to him recently by his grandmother. The watch isn’t running, but it was once his grandfather’s.

Amero hauls out a reference book of vintage watches and quickly dates the American-made Elgin pocket watch to 1874. It can be restored to working order - with a year’s warranty - for $100, he says.

The quartz watch gets a five-dollar battery, but it is apparent from the customer’s pleased expression it’s the pocket watch that has immeasurable value.

Amero does fix quartz watches, and has even taken courses from Seiko to be a certified repairman, but he holds them in no great regard - except for their one main advantage. “You wouldn’t believe the accuracy of that stuff,” he says. “But, a quartz watch today will never be a collector’s piece because of the fact that batteries will (become) obsolete, and it doesn’t matter whether it will run or not. “

Many early electrical watches used mercury batteries that are no longer available, leaving the watch valueless - except perhaps for the metal in the case. “The old windups and automatics are collectors’ pieces and are, well, interesting.”

A lot of those old watches are still around - and sometimes valuable. “People have things in drawers that they don’t know the name of. I recommend anybody who has something in a drawer, bring it in and have it appraised by somebody who knows what they’re talking about,” he says. “You could have - by serial number, not by name - something that can crawl from a few dollars to thousands. It always pays to have that checked out.”

Amero has been repairing watches for 41 years, most of that with his wife, Veronica, as his co-worker. But for a matter of timing, he might have pursued a different career. “Originally, I went to the NSIT to become a draughtsman... and I was booked for that. When I got there, I was bumped and they said, ‘Everything is full and we figured one would drop out in time and you’d be in. The only thing that isn’t filled is watch repair’.”

Amero remembered the work of a longtime Digby jeweler -“the old Mr. Saunders” - and was quickly interested. “So, I instantly thought, ‘well this’ll be great’ and, when I saw the first watch that I worked on start up, it was just like looking at a Rembrandt. It was just a glitter of everything that was beautiful.”

Sometimes, timing is right for some and wrong for others

He started as a watchmaker in the 1970s, doing work for G.B. Murphy Jewelry, a chain that soon went bankrupt, but, because Amero had been willing to provide repair work through the company’s uncertain times, he found himself doing all the repair work for the chain’s 40 stores. “Then, as the stores broke up and went to different companies, I started doing their work. It’s just branched out all across the Maritimes.”

Sometimes, times are right again

There is a renewed interest these days in mechanical watches. Buyers on eBay and other online forums are showing ready willingness to pay thousands - and even hundreds of thousands - of dollars for watches that need to be wound.

Discussion forums extol the craftsmanship of vintage watches and compare the virtues of particular watch movements - the actual works - and manufacturers.

People familiar with classic car collectors will recognize the symptoms, and there is a tie-in.

When Henry Ford’s mass-produced cars replaced the horse as common transportation, the top quality horses and breeds survived as a hobby for some and an entertainment for others. There remains an emotional and esthetic appeal.

While horses need blacksmiths, watches need watchmakers - which is why Amero finds himself busy around the clock. He is one of only a handful of watchmakers left in the Maritimes. Fortunately for owners of classic, vintage watches, Amero doesn’t plan to retire anytime soon. He’s 61 now and sees himself working well into his 70s. “Funny thing: I had a gentlemen come to my house one day. He came downstairs, he was in his 90s, and he said, ‘One thing that bothers me.’ “I said, ‘what’s that?,’ and he said, ‘Who’s going to fix my watches when you’re gone?’”

The answer is, as long as there are people willing to maintain sentimental links with family - like the man with his grandfather’s watch, or those who appreciate craftsmanship, Amero is certain there will be watchmakers able to keep time ticking over.