Last week, we had the pleasure to visit the North American Institute of Swiss Watchmaking —NAIOSW— invited by our friends at Cartier. This visit that we can refer to as one of the 'most enlightening' days in our watch collecting life, was for sure a day very well spent. The NAIOSW was established in 2008 —education began in 2009— by the Richemont Group with the purpose of educating and training successful watchmakers for a career in luxury watch repair. In partnership with the WOSTEP —the independent Swiss Foundation for Watchmaking that conducts a 3,000-hour watchmaking program— and the Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie, the institute is conveniently located inside the Richemont Technical Center in the Dallas Forth Worth area —two additional programs are also offered in Hong Kong and Shanghai.
Since 2009, the NAIOSW has been providing free tuition to seven classes of aspiring watchmakers. With 250 applicants per Class —1,750 have applied in the last seven classes— and a very rigorous selection process, only eight students are admitted every year to attend the 2-year program —formerly only six students in the past five classes. Following the WOSTEP curriculum, the aspiring watchmakers are given —completely free of charge— all the necessary tools, resources, materials, equipment, education and books to follow their dream in becoming a certified watchmaker. The 3,000-hour program with only 10 days off per year, is highly demanding but incredibly rewarding. The program requires students to pass five intermediate exams and one final exam.
The program, requires students to attend school five days a week with a typical school day beginning at eight o'clock in the morning and extending all the way thru five o'clock in the afternoon, with a one-hour lunch break and two 15-minute breaks throughout the day. During these breaks, most of these dedicated students in love with horology prefer to keep their minds busy by browsing a very well stocked library with books about horology, the history of matchmaking and books on some of the most important brands in the watchmaking world —even if they are not part of the Richemont Group.
Without a doubt, this is an outstanding initiative by the Richemont Group that gives back to the to the community by subsidizing a program that costs a fortune to maintain. The program, currently sponsored by our friends at Cartier —the previous three classes were sponsored by Vacheron Constantin— for the Classes of 2016, 2017 and 2018, includes a two-week internship at the famous Maison, for one top graduate to be chosen at the end of the program based on his/her performance, talent, personality and watchmaking skills.
Nested inside the RTC —Richemont Technical Center—, the NAIOSW is the perfect place to start a career in watchmaking. The RTC and the NAIOSW are currently directed by John Sokol, a watchmaking veteran with more than 40 years of experience and a fine gentleman who has been working for the Richemont Group since 2002. John, started his watchmaking career in 1975 working for a local jeweler in Staten Island as a watchmaker. Then in 1978, he opened a retail jewelry store which he owned and operated until 1994, to then join Tag Heuer for eight years.
The oversight of a repair center with 90 employees of which 60 are watchmakers, plus the direction of the watchmaking program at the NAIOSW are not easy tasks; however, John Sokol excels at managing both. In his own words: "it's not work when you love what you do and you pursue your passion". Today, the RTC is one of the most important luxury watch repairs centers in the world, with about 100,000 repairs a year across all Richemont Group brands including Vacheron Constantin, Jaeger-LeCoultre, IWC, Panerai, Baume & Mercier, Piaget and Montblanc, amongst others. A. Lange & Söhne is currently serviced by the ALS boutique in NY and by the manufacture in Germany. Photographed below, John T. Sokol with his signature smile and positive vibe.
The North American Institute of Swiss Watchmaking offers a solid foundation of education and training which gives students of all ages, genders and backgrounds, the preparation to build an exceptional career in watchmaking. Additionally, NAIOSW graduates are often offered to start a career at Richemont, but they are also encouraged to go on their own and seek job opportunities elsewhere. On a side note, an entry level watchmaker job at Richemont starts paying around $50K a year, while the most skilled watchmakers with many years of experience could be making up to six figure salaries, not to mention the perks of working for such a world-class organization.
The NAIOSW, includes two separate classrooms with eight students each and the program is conducted by a faculty of three instructors that are WOSTEP certified watchmakers with extensive experience in the field. These instructors are Russ Peddy —photographed below—, Stanley McMahan and Houston Clarke. At the NAIOSW the word 'finesse' is the key to success; a word, that sometimes is completely forgotten by independent watchmakers that give this honorable profession a bad name. Without 'finesse', watchmaking is not possible; however, at the NAIOSW that's one of the key skills that watchmaking students are taught to exercise whenever they are in contact with their tools and a watch. To us, in watchmaking if you don't have 'finesse', you have nothing. 'Finesse' controls the dexterity of your movements to avoid putting any scratches on a exquisitely finished watch calibre.
What to many might seem to be just another blue collar job, to us, this is one of the most fascinating jobs out there and one of the most luxurious one can pursue. The fact that these highly skilled hands —similar in dexterity to those of a surgeon— get to service and bring back to life the beating heart inside a timepiece that is worth thousands and thousands of dollars, makes them worthy of what we like to call the 'magic touch', a touch that is required in one of the most unique and in danger of extinction professions around the world.
The program, divided in two phases, takes the aspiring watchmakers all the way from understanding the principles and theory of watchmaking as far as to create their own WOSTEP School Watch. A 'school watch' is a watch that is fully created by a watchmaker while attending school and that upon graduation and completion of the watch, they get to take with them as a keepsake and memento for their achievement. The WOSTEP curriculum, which includes everything from dexterity training to making parts on their own and fully servicing a watch movement —initially working with the ETA/Unitas 6487 and 6498— is very intense but highly gratifying. A program where patience, mental focus and a calm assertive attitude are key personal attributes for success.
After spending a whole day talking and getting to know these students and their mentors, all we can say is that what the Richemont Group is doing, is highly admirable and remarkable. While at the moment, Cartier is the full sponsor of the Class of 2016, 2017 and 2018, other Richemont brands are also actively involved at a different capacity rewarding students for extraordinary accomplishments. By acknowledging and rewarding excellence and exceptional talent within the class, they keep these students highly motivated and fully engaged. Therefore, Pablo Ortiz —a student from the Class of 2015 graduating next December and photographed below—, has just been awarded with the F.A. Lange Scholarship in Watchmaking Excellence Award for the development of a calendar module that could be added to a manual wound calibre ETA/Unitas 6497. Along with this award for his exceptional accomplishment, Pablo will also get to visit the A. Lange & Söhne manufacture in Dresden. Big kudos to Pablo!
If you or someone you know, is interested in submitting an application, all you need to do is head over to the website of the Institute of Swiss Watchmaking here and fill out the form online. The NAIOSW will then mail you an application packet and brochure to begin your application process. All applicants must be U.S. citizens or legal residents and must pass an international background check. But remember, only those of you that really have what it takes to become a watchmaker will be admitted to the North American Institute of Swiss Watchmaking.
Photographed below, the Class of 2015 —in white lab coats— and the Class of 2016 —in blue lab coats—, along with the Director and Faculty of the program.
Thank you Cartier and RTC for lettings us peek into such a wonderful initiative for the love of horology. For more info on the NAIOSW click here.