The UK has a worrying shortage of watchmakers, but helping to plug that gap is the British School of Watchmaking (BSOW), which says the industry in Britain needs some 2,500-3,000 more staff.

Founded in 2004, the Greater Manchester-based BSOW is the only watchmaking school in the country to offer courses by the Watchmakers of Switzerland Training and Educational Program (WOSTEP), an industry standard certification for luxury watch brands and retailers.

In 2020, the school moved to larger premises in Stockport, south-east Greater Manchester, giving it capacity for additional courses. Jon Weston — one of the school’s six trustees and managing director of West Midlands-based Rudell The Jewellers — says the UK is a significant market for the industry. “For most brands, the UK is in the top four [markets globally]. That’s quite an achievement, and comes hand in hand with the [number] of additional watchmakers needed.” All these UK sales require qualified servicing staff.

But the industry’s unprecedented growth in recent years — which has made long waiting lists and “display only” signs in retail windows commonplace — has only worsened the staff shortages. According to the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry, the value of Swiss exports in 2022 was SFr24.8bn ($27.8bn), up 11.4 per cent on the previous year and some 28 per cent higher than in 2016.

BSOW general manager James Robinson leans on a desk. Behind him is a room full of students of watchmaking
BSOW general manager James Robinson © Sara Porter

“That comes back into aftersales,” says James Robinson, general manager at the BSOW. “If you sell twice as many watches, you have twice the capacity for aftersales.”

A rising number of ageing and retiring watchmakers will only exacerbate the shortage. The BSOW turns out eight graduates annually; 16 every other year, from a two-year course. In 2021, it produced its 100th graduate.

The BSOW runs two WOSTEP courses. A one-year, 1,800-hour programme, with a fee of £11,700, focuses on preparing graduates for roles in aftersales service and has eight places available. Meanwhile, a two-year, 3,000-hour course, at £20,700, offers the same syllabus but with additional training in micromechanics. Here students create watchmaking components, such as a winding stem from a 12-inch bar of metal to tolerances of 1,000th of a millimetre.

With 40-hour weeks and four weeks holiday per year, the courses feel more like a workplace than a school. “In the end, it makes the students employable,” says Robinson. “Graduates should hit the ground running.”

The one-year course is the most popular with both students and employers. The school started the course in 2018 and is planning to add a second one. The BSOW, notably, was chosen by WOSTEP as the pilot school for the 1,800-hour course in Europe, running in the UK before Switzerland.

Of the eight students on the current one-year course, six are being sponsored by their employer, while the other two were initially self-funded but have since found jobs in the industry. Robinson says graduates typically have multiple job offers — and a bidding war for students is not unheard of. While retailers in or around Manchester, as well as international watch brands, recruit from the school, companies across the UK are keen to hire BSOW graduates. The school has 35 sponsors and has been operating as a registered charity since 2019.

The British School of Watchmaking moved to Stockport in 2020 © Sara Porter

Lyndon Jones is on the one-year course and initially was self-funded. Within months of starting, he was hired by a retailer which is now covering his full course fees. He previously worked at a small jewellery retailer, where he was exposed to luxury watchmaking from clients who brought in their timepieces for servicing.

That spurred him to apply to the BSOW. Like many students, he was drawn to the industry-approved WOSTEP training. “Watchmaking is quite a difficult industry to get into,” says Jones. “It’s a niche subject. To
work for the nicer brands, they want you to have a very specific kind of technical knowledge.”

Jones adds that he found the recruitment process “bizarre” — but in a good way. “I was aware there was a demand for watchmakers, but I was never really quite aware how quickly I’d get picked up,” he recalls. The BSOW’s reputation with brands and retailers is also strong. “They trust the school and trust the process,” he says.

Tag Heuer, which has operational facilities in Greater Manchester, currently sponsors two students on the 1,800-hour course. Both are employed by Tag Heuer and the brand has previously sponsored four BSOW students. “Primarily, the technical and scientific training that the school provides is exactly what we need,” says Colm Ahern, technical operations manager at Tag Heuer. “The course is geared towards the industry and the needs of our customers.”

Who funds the British School of Watchmaking?

  • Beaverbrooks

  • Berry’s

  • Boodles

  • Breitling

  • Bremont

  • Brufords

  • Bucherer

  • David M Robinson

  • Fraser Hart

  • G Collins & Sons

  • Harrods

  • Hamilton & Inches

  • Hettich

  • HL Brown

  • Houlden

  • Hugh Rice

  • John Pass

  • Laings

  • Lunn’s

  • Luxury Watch Repairs

  • LVMH Watches & Jewellery

  • Mallory

  • National Association of Jewellers

  • Patek Philippe

  • Prestons

  • Robert Gatward

  • Richemont

  • Roger W Smith

  • Rolex

  • Rudell

  • Signet

  • Swatch Group

  • Wakefields

  • Walsh

  • Watches of Switzerland

Ahern says the biggest talent gap is recruiting fully trained watchmakers. Having qualified UK watchmakers also avoids delays related to sending timepieces back to Switzerland for servicing. “Our customers want convenience and efficiency, and high-class service,” he says.

Like several BSOW students, Jones studied engineering — in his case computers — before switching to watchmaking. “I thought I was going to go down the [software] developer route,” he says. “The puzzle side drew me to it, but I was more of a physical person. Watchmaking definitely fills that niche.”

Following its move to larger premises, the BSOW plans to offer a WOSTEP polishing course next year and has invested £200,000 in equipment for this specialism. It will be the first such course in the UK. Polishing is increasingly part of aftersales service, with Robinson saying there is a lack of formal training. Most UK watchmakers are either self-taught or sent by their employers to train in Switzerland. “But those courses are now all full,”
says Robinson.

Sending students abroad still does not address the shortage of watchmakers in the UK, as Switzerland faces its own struggle to recruit staff, adds Weston.

“We have a shared responsibility, both on the brands and retail side, to ensure the future of watchmaking,” he says. “Our approach tends to be ‘grow your own’. It’s more controlled that way — and more loyal.”

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