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Watchmaking revived by at-risk youth

Mark Garrison Jun 20, 2014
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Behind the heavily secured doors of Tourneau’s New York workshop, watchmakers work on repairing the world’s most expensive timepieces, worth tens, even hundreds of thousands of dollars. With all the Rolexes inside, one expects to find an elderly Swiss man in a milking jacket in charge.

But the luxury watch seller’s technical director is American Terry Irby, a third generation watchmaker. His gentle Arkansas accent and pristine white lab coat give him the air of a country doctor; one with a magnifying eye loupe around his neck instead of a stethoscope. He’s running something of a teaching hospital for watch repair; an unusual program that combines students from tough backgrounds with the fantastically pricey watches that wrap the wrists of billionaires and celebrities. It’s a bid to save a threatened profession, while bettering the lives of some at-risk young people.

During a recent class, Irby leans over the workbench of 20-year-old Justine Hernandez, showing her how to delicately take the hands off a watch — a tricky thing to do without scratching its face. The tools she uses include some of the smallest tweezers you’ve ever seen, because many watch parts are the size of gnats.

Like others in the class, Hernandez comes from Manhattan Comprehensive Night & Day High School. It’s for older students — those whose progress may have been held up by poverty, homelessness, or run-ins with the law. The timepieces they work with come from a whole different world.

“We were looking at all the beautiful watches and there’s this one watch that stands out — costs like $40,000, which is like a car, probably a couple of cars,” Hernandez recalls.

The skills she’s learning could lead to a stable job with solid pay. Irby says qualified watchmakers start at $50,000 and are in demand around the world. Students who do well in the class can move on to paid internships at Tourneau, which can lead to full-time jobs.

This program isn’t just corporate goodwill. Wristwatches are fashionable again and the company needs people.

“I have often said that I would take ten watchmakers today if I could find them,” Irby explains. “Our biggest complaint is that we can’t do the job fast enough.”

Irby’s office overlooks the floor where the watchmakers work, quietly hunched over benches tending to the world’s finest timepieces, some new and others passed through families over the decades. Among those at work is Edwin Larregui, a recent graduate of the program. Irby speaks highly of his talent and dedication and expects him to be in watchmaking a long time.

Fresh from wrapping up work on a handsome Cartier worth several grand, Larregui recalls a time when he got so wrapped up in his work that he unwittingly went home wearing his eye loupe. He giggles as he recounts the funny looks people gave him on the train home. Then he turns serious, speaking with the calm satisfaction of a young man who has finally found something he loves, something he’s great at.

“It’s a part of me now,” Larregui says.

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