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Watchmakers: the new dot-commers
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A video magnifying system at the St. Paul College watchmaking program. (MPR Photo/Bill Catlin )
Although, Minnesota's job market has been engulfed in gloom for more than two years, we found a bright spot. Demand for people who can repair high-end mechanical watches is high, and graduates of a small watchmaking program in St. Paul tell job-hunting stories that would make a dot-comer nostalgic.

St. Paul, Minn. — Joe Juaire opens a file draw to reveal a haphazard collection of plastic bags, half boxes, and a metal bowl. They all contain several watches in various stages of disassembly.

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Image Joe Juaire

"This is where we find most of our parts here, in the junk watches or unrepairable watches," says Juaire. He's the watchmaking instructor at St. Paul College, the former St. Paul Technical College.

"It's the oldest watchmaking school in the nation," says Juaire. "We were started in 1919, and it's one of the original programs for our college."

The watchmaking school has roots in St. Paul's history as a railroad hub.

"The requirements for railroad timekeeping were strict, and [watchmakers] were regulated, and so it's just like barber training. We had to be licensed, and it was a viable profession for many, many years," say Juaire.

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Image A parts drawer

With the rise of quartz watches, the profession's ranks waned. Many of those that remain are closing in on retirement. As the number of watchmakers falls, the demand for high-end watches is rising.

The American Watch Association says government data show imports of high end mechanical watches grew from about 4 million in the 1980s to nearly 10 million over the 1990s.

"We're seeing requests for employees in the neighborhood of 50 for every graduate that I have; or 50 placement offers, and they're not all of them local," Juaire says. "Some of them in fact are international, but this is a worldwide shortage."

"When you graduate from this program, the world really is your oyster," says Geoff Colber, 27. He got lots of interviews, and chose to use his skills building missile guidance systems in Florida. Starting wages: $37,000, plus a $5,000 signing bonus.

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Image Geoff Colber

Industry surveys indicate median wages for watchmakers range from $40,000 to $50,000. A handful pull down more than $100,000.

While in Florida for the job interview, Colber says he found a couple of places that wanted him to give him work on the spot.

"I just said, 'Hey, I'm a watchmaker and I fix watches,' and I had these guys just about jump out of their seats going, 'Oh boy, you've got to get me your number. I have to get in touch with you because I've got people in here that need watches fixed all the time.' And I looked like a complete schmuck. I was dirty, I was sunburned, I'd been at the beach, probably [had] had a few beers," Colber recalls.

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Image A timing washer, and movement

So can anybody become a watchmaker? Consider this. Across the aisle, student Jamie Mathison has removed the balance wheel -- "the heart and brain of the watch" -- to screw on timing washers.

Each washer is a metal doughnut no bigger than two ridges of his fingerprint. He puts on two. He needs to slow the watch by just three minutes a day.

"Who would want to go to all that effort? Honestly, what's the point of that? Just to get a watch to run on time? But I love it," Mathison says.

Mathison has a degree in English literature, a minor in Norwegian language, and dwindling satisfaction from his job as a cabinetmaker. He still likes working with his hands, and he's fascinated with watches. Mathison says he finds deep satisfaction in the precision and craft required to repair a fine watch. He says you don't leave fingerprints in a watch.

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Image A timing washer close up

"We've got a little tool here for polishing screw heads. If you've got a screw head on a high-grade watch, and it gets scarred up, you polish it, you know, so that it's nice and perfect mirror finish. And, nobody's going to see that but the other watchmakers that work on it," says Mathison.

Geoff Colber says his job working on Trident missiles in Florida will be different than working on watches. There are lots more parts. The missile costs $5 million, which he says is a "little intimidating." And then there's the missile's purpose.

"If you goof up on a watch, and it's a historically important watch, you've done something damaging to history," Colber says. "[If] you goof up on one of these missiles, and you may blow up California."

Colber says he'll probably return to watches. But this former pawnshop employee says watchmaking has opened new possibilities for a career he was resigned to spending in retail.

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