An Hour With A Swiss Watch Repairman
“Hello, Swiss Watch, how can I help you?” It’s the fifteenth time this afternoon Harri Beutler has answered the phone in his small shop, the Swiss Watch Repair Center Inc., half a block from the New York Public Library. Harri exclusively repairs Swiss watches in a tiny space above a construction site that used to be an Irish bar. He relies on an analog workflow almost entirely without computers. He is what you would call an old-school, stereotypical Swiss man: extremely professional and precise in his work ethics.
Fixing watches is not Harri’s passion, but it is a proud profession. The Swiss are known to have pride in their work—be they carpenters, janitors, or watch repairmen—and delivering quality is their leading philosophy.
Harri became interested in watches because he liked to fix small things. Now, most watches don’t need fixing because it’s cheaper to buy a new one. But, as a testament to his skills and the reputation of Swiss engineering, Harri remains jammed. About 70% of the movements Harri fixes are mechanical, meaning they need to be wound rather than battery operated. Such a mechanism was invented in middle Europe around the time Columbus discovered America. Harri’s trade is time tested.
A less obvious reason for Harri’s choice of work was travel. “The world is open to a watchmaker” was the school credo in Solothurn, Switzerland, where Harri got his professional education. The Swiss watch business is so strong internationally that a Swiss watchmaker can be placed at virtually any location in the world. Harri’s first stop outside of Switzerland was a tiny town called Vryheid in South Africa, about five hours outside of Johannesburg. Arriving in a small plane, he couldn’t spot house as far as his strong eyes could see. After returning to Switzerland for a quick stint, he started working for Rado, a Swiss high range watch manufacturer, which placed him in New York due to his experiences operating in foreign countries and his ability to speak English. Harri opened his own business two years later, in 1988, and he’s been at it ever since.
Harri’s not worried about new technology, like the Apple watch. “It’s a gadget, that’s all,” he says. “People thought my profession was doomed with the arrival of the smartphone but nothing happened, so I’m not worried,” he continues. “Watches, especially for men, are jewelry,” and a lot of customers have special relationships with their watches. For example, the man who continuously stopped by to check on the progress of his beloved timepiece, or the woman who cried after dropping and damaging her Longines. Once, Harri had to break it to a young woman that her fiancè had given her a fake Rolex. It wasn’t the first time someone brought in a fugazi, and some are hard to spot. “Counterfeiters will even forge the serial number. One time I only noticed the watch was a fake while I was putting in a spare part. But usually I can tell immediately,” he says.
Harri’s personal collection isn’t much; a few modern wristwatches and his grandpa’s old pocket watch. His Swiss accent never went away, and after three decades in the States it’s still thick. But, he notes, “it’s good for business.”