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WOSTEP the watch fixers

WOSTEP the watch fixers

By: Brigitte Rebetez

WOSTEP teaches watchmaking in 16 cities, including Hong Kong.

Founded in Neuchâtel in 1966, the Watchmakers of Switzerland Training and Educational Program (WOSTEP) has never enjoyed such prolific inter­national expansion. Demand for effective after-sales service of Swiss mechanical watches has never been so great, while traditional training courses are diminish­ing in some countries. WOSTEP’s 3,000-hour watchmaker-repairer training programme, certified by the Swiss government, is now taught in 16 schools in nine different countries, and the syllabus is becoming the international industry standard.

From Miami to Shanghai and from Manchester to Tokyo, more than 160 WOSTEP students are at the workbench mastering the intricacies of the profession. This new generation of watchmakers is essential to ensure maintenance and after-sales service for technical watches. The stakes are particularly high in light of record production rates, amounting to around 100 million watches in the past 15 years. “It’s not like the automobile industry, where the product ends up at the breakers after 300,000 km,” points out Maarten Pieters, WOSTEP director since 2003. According to his estimates, there will soon be as many watches needing repair as there are watches emerging from production.

Red alert
The ever increasing numbers of complicated watches, versus the dwindling numbers of watchmakers to repair them abroad makes Maarten Pieters extremely concerned. “The profession is dying out in many countries,” he warns. Watchmaking courses are inexorably disappearing from the official schools. In Ireland, this section was closed five years ago, and there are now only eight such programmes left in the United States compared with 40 previously. Within this context, the Neuchâtel-based centre plays an essential role in preserving skills threatened with extinction.

This mission today is fundamentally different from the initial purpose of this not-for-profit foundation. When first created, WOSTEP focused mainly on after-sales service. It began by training American watchmakers in Neuchâtel, before opening its classes in 1970 to candidates from around the world. The irruption of quartz into the watch industry and the ensuing crisis dealt a severe blow to the institution. It was on its last legs when around 20 watch brands decided to salvage it and redirect its strategy. In 1994, a 3,000-hour training course designed to be taught in partner schools abroad was introduced. Based on a methodical guide and specific evaluation criteria, the courses have earned official Swiss recognition. “Three thousand hours is a lot,” admits Pieters. “But that’s what it takes to achieve excellence. Our goal is to provide an internationally recognised standard guaranteeing a high level of quality in order to train competent new generations.”

A school in a container
Back at headquarters, the centre is constantly fine-tuning its requirements. Quality shifted up a notch in 2006, when WOSTEP decided to provide each of its partner schools with a complete set of tools and facilities. “This enables us to work on a ’copy-paste’ basis, with the Neuchâtel training centre as the model for all partners,” the director points out. “A whole school can thus be sent in a container.”

The programme is taught in 16 schools that are private, public, or run in partnership with various watch brands. There are five in the United States, six in Europe (two each in France and in Germany, one in the United Kingdom and one in Sweden), as well as five in Asia (Japan, Malaysia and China). “WOSTEP enjoys quasi-official status in Hong Kong, as a training course accredited by the Hong Kong education department,” says Pieters with a hint of pride. Never at a loss for new projects, the director is planning to increase the capacity of the Shanghai branch, which currently handles 20 students.

Prospective research is under way in Beijing, Spain, Italy and Russia. The choice is dictated by the high-end watch market: in other words, qualified watchmakers are needed in areas where the largest numbers of expensive watches are sold. Especially since, as Pieters explains, “some major markets like Russia allow watches into the country but they can’t be sent out again.”

Encouraging vocations
Nonetheless, such determination to perpetuate high-quality training is not sufficient to ensure enough people take up the profession. There is also a distinct need to encourage vocations. Pieters feels that “the watchmaking profession is not sufficiently presented as attractive and worthwhile. It is even unknown in some countries. Our sector doesn’t do enough to promote it. Even in the United States, where there have always been many keen watch enthusiasts, watchmaking suffers from a poor image. Watchmakers are more or less relegated to the same category as lawn-mower repairers.”

To consolidate its position, the WOSTEP became a foundation in 2007, funded by around 60 brands as well as by retailers and movement and equipment manufacturers. While the active membership has grown slightly over the years, several watch brands are still not involved. “If all brands supported the WOSTEP, we would have greater means to develop training abroad.”

Pieters emphasises that most brands co-operate. As for the others, “they benefit from the standards we uphold around the world, but have not yet understood that this collective investment in training and after-sales service is part of their social responsibility towards the corporation. If we can successfully defend the ‘Swiss made’ label, why can’t we do the same with ­watchmaking ­training?”