Young watchmakers know time is on their side
Montville — The pristine second-floor workspace in the barn annex in rural Oakdale is an anomaly.
There's the polished woodwork and spanking white walls, as well as the intricate machinery, the glassed-off workspaces, and the cool, dry air circulated by an air conditioner on a blistering hot summer day. The windows offer a majestic view of the green meadow and the laundry hanging on the line in a nearby yard. And there are Brad Gehan and Jack Dorety, dressed in white lab coats with the Lititz Watch Technicum logo emblazoned on their breast pockets.
Gehan, 24, and Dorety, who turns 24 later this week, are watchmakers who have been in business for just over a year in the renovated barn where Gehan's late grandfather once operated his own watch and clock repair facility.
They are the proprietors of Gehan & Dorety Watchmaking; young men in a league of a dwindling number of older watchmakers across the country and around the world - professionals trained to service, restore and repair high-end, mechanical timepieces.
Gehan and Dorety met in August 2012 when the two paired up as roommates at the Lititz Watch Technicum, an Old World, European-style watchmaking school operated by Rolex in Lancaster County, Pa.
They were the youngest in a class of just 13, and after an intensive two years and 3,600 hours of study, passed up offers to work in fine jewelry stores across the country and opted instead to open their own watchmaking shop in Oakdale.
To secure a spot in the free program - students pay upwards of $7,000 for their own tool kit - Gehan and Dorety had to survive an eight-hour interview and tests to check their dexterity, problem-solving abilities, mechanical aptitude, use of micromachinery, and reaction under pressure, among other things.
Established by Rolex in 2001, the Lititz Watch Technicum in Lititz, Pa., teaches the art of Swiss watchmaking and is geared "towards addressing the major challenge that concerns the entire watch industry - the shortage of watchmakers who are qualified to service high-end brands," according to the school's website.
"The shortage originated in the 1980s when the quartz watch debut threatened the future of the mechanical watch and demand for highly qualified watchmakers," according to the Lititz website. "The result was a dramatic drop in the number of watchmaking schools in the U.S.," from 25 four decades ago, to fewer than 10 today.
The average age of an American watchmaker in now 55 to 60, and at Lititz, the 11 other classmates in Gehan's and Dorety's class were older, and a majority were men pursuing a second, later-in-life career.
Gehan, who graduated from Saint Bernard School in 2007, didn't initially set out to be a watchmaker.
He spent three years at Emerson College in Boston studying digital film editing, before deciding that wasn't the right fit for him and he would prefer a career that required "precise and demanding handiwork."
His maternal grandfather, Clifford VanDyke, who died nine months ago at the age of 86, was a watchmaker trained at the Waltham Horological School in the late 1940s, and suggested his grandson consider a similar occupation.
Dorety, like Gehan, started on a more traditional college path after graduating from high school outside Philadelphia, and for 18 months, studied architecture at Philadelphia University.
"The only thing I really liked was doing small models of houses," said Dorety, explaining that he too wanted a more hands-on career. He attended a community college for a while after leaving the university, but eventually ended up at Lititz.
"They made it clear early on that most of us would go on to a traditional jewelry shop, but we began concocting our own idea of taking up this space and reinventing what my grandpa did years ago," said Gehan.
His grandfather, who was a certified master clock maker, lived long enough to see his grandson finish at Lititz, remodel the old workspace, and launch his business with Dorety.
"He was thrilled," said Gehan, adding that his grandmother, Edna VanDyke, is a Bulova-trained watchmaker and pleased with his career and business, too.
Dorety said being in business for themselves allows the two watchmakers to not be limited in the business they accept and to work whenever and as long as they want to.
Some of their business comes from jewelry stores, or customers referred by jewelers, and other from luxury watch manufacturers such as Rolex and Audemars Piguet. A timepiece by Audemars Piguet starts at about $18,000 and can go for over $1 million, and Gehan & Dorety Watchmaking has a unique relationship with the manufacturer of Swiss watches that allows them to do work for their North American service center in Florida.
Before getting the nod, a technical director for Audemars Piguet visited the shop to inspect their tools and test the ability of the watchmakers at the bench.
At the Gehan & Dorety workshop, the two men sit at antique work desks and examine watch movements through jewelers loupes. Inside a single mechanical movement there are 150 to 200 separate pieces - plates, barrels, wheels, pinions, rollers, microscopic screws - and the essential mainspring, which is as long as 10 to 15 inches.
Everything is tiny. Screws from a watch that Dorety is servicing measure 0.38 millimeters. The mainspring looks like a thread.
"Full service" at the shop ensures that a watch is completely disassembled and each part examined.
On the watchmakers' desks there are sets of small screwdrivers and tea-saucer-sized round, sectioned trays (with glass-dome tops) holding the incredibly small screws, plates and other parts. Each component is cleaned in a labor-intensive process to remove lubricants and contaminants. If a part needs to be replaced, the watchmakers may make the piece, or sometimes, have to order it.
Dorety and Gehan have invested in highly specialized machinery - a watchmaker's lathe, jig-boring machine, devices for drilling and milling, a measuring microscope and more - to allow them freedom to repair and service watches.
After cleaning and lubricating all of a movement's innards, the watchmakers reassemble, lubricate and adjust the timepiece before subjecting it to stringent timing analyses and water-resistance testing.
No watch is returned to a customer until the watchmakers are satisfied that it is operating to its top potential.
"We won't turn our nose up at any work, but we prefer to work on older, vintage watches," said Gehan.
Their niche is mechanical and pocket watches, but they will also replace a battery.
Customers are asked to contact them through their website or by telephone, and they will do rough estimates on the cost of repairing or servicing a watch, although an estimate can be imprecise since the full details are unknown until the watchmakers start disassembling and testing the parts inside a movement.
Interestingly, only Dorety is wearing a watch on a recent weekday, and he admits he doesn't typically wear one.
"People our age don't wear watches much anymore," said Dorety, explaining a cellphone is more often used to check the time.
But there has been a recent increase in the popularity of mechanical watches, as some wearers abandon quartz timepieces in favor of those with a mainspring that has to be wound every couple of days. Gehan and Dorety like to monitor bidding wars on online auction sites for vintage and antique watches.
And in their shop, they approach each new job with an appreciation for the peculiarities of every timepiece, and boast they take pride in taking time to ensure a job well done.
One day, perhaps, the two said they may try to design and build their own watch.
"It's kind of romantic, working towards the idea of making our own watch," said Gehan. But for now, they're focused on the quality of their watchmaking.
"People who come here need to know they will receive the highest quality service. We take no shortcuts. There are no steps missed," said Gehan.
Gehan & Dorety Watchmaking
Who: Brad Gehan and Jack Dorety
Phone: (860) 848-0508
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