Technical Director Terry Irby approached the executive leadership at Tourneau about creating a teaching program for young people to learn how to repair watches three years ago, when he began to realize that most of those currently populating the industry are between the ages of 40 and 65.
“I realized that I am getting up there in years, and I thought to myself, I had better start giving back before it’s too late,” Irby said. “I wish I could teach them everything I know.”
Currently, Tourneau’s 24 watchmakers comprise over 700 years of experience, with most of their staff consisting of second- and third-generation watchmen. Irby hopes Tourneau’s program will spark a new interest in the craft and inspire a new generation to take up the tradition before all of the current knowledge in the industry is lost.
“Watchmaking is a skill that most often stays in families, because it takes a long time to learn,” Irby said. “As a kid, I loved it , I couldn’t wait to help my father. Now, my career is about passing those skills on. These students can take what they learn with them and support their families. I tell them, 'I have 50 years of knowledge and eight weeks to teach you.'”
All participants in the eight-week, 16-session Tourneau program are students of the Comprehensive Night and Day High School in Manhattan, and hail from all five boroughs. When students complete the program, they take away vital skills that they can use to get a job making and repairing watches anywhere in the world.
Mamadou Berry is one of several former students who went on to become an employee at Tourneau.
“Before I came here I didn’t know how to fix a watch and assemble it,” Berry said. “I have learned a lot and now I do quality control. It’s really interesting work, and it changed my life.”
Matthew Perez, another former apprentice who graduated from the first iteration of the program in the fall of 2012, said that because of the program he has found the confidence he needs to pursue a career as a surgeon.
“I thought it was not going to be really interesting, but you’re not working only with your hands, you’re working with your brain,” he said. “It’s like a puzzle and you’re trying to put everything together. My favorite part is when you open the watch, there’s a coil and it’s like a heart, you have to keep the heart beating. I want to study medicine and become a surgeon, so I assimilate the watch as a person and I imagine that I have to keep it alive.”
Ayushi Pant, a Queens resident who graduated with the most recent class of students, drew a connection between her newfound watchmaking skills and everyday life.
“The most important thing that I learned is that watchmaking is related to everyday life,” she said. “It sounds strange, but each and every small part is important. If you lose one small part the watch will not work. In life, too, each small part is important.”