More watchmakers needed to meet demand

by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: JIM CLARK - Leon Abel recognizes that watchmakers are disappearing and, as a result, his expertise is in high demand.If you think there’s less demand for watchmakers these days, think again. On the contrary, there’s a shortage of watchmakers and watch repairmen, says Leon Abel of Abel Watch Repair, and young people should think about it as a career.

“When I started out there were 60,000 watchmakers in the United States and now there are only 5,000,” he said.

Abel said the watch repair business hasn’t slowed down, but not enough people are going into the field as older practitioners retire.

“It is not a dying trade and there aren’t enough watchmakers and the demand is still there,” he said. “I work a lot.”

His advice?

“Do it. Absolutely,” he said. “You can make an excellent living. I have a standing offer from a guy in Detroit to make $100,000 a year. But I don’t want to live in Detroit.”

Abel has run his business in the jewelry department of the Fred Meyer store on Burnside Road for five years, but he got his start in Homestead, Fla., where his father had a watch repair shop on an Air Force base for many years.

“I got my first one up and running at age 11 and started making money at age 15,” he said, before becoming licensed at age 19.

Abel, now 58, said he originally wanted to be a veterinarian and studied veterinary science for several years before deciding to stick with watchmaking and watch repair. So he studied at the Mary Karl School of Applied Technology in Florida before going to study at schools in New York City run by Bulova, Accutron and Rolex.

Abel and his dad opened their own jewelry store in 1976, but in 1979 he moved to the Portland area where he worked at several watch repair jobs and then worked out of his house for about nine years.

Abel works on more than 100 watches every week, “everything from Rolexes to Timexes,” he says, and has stacks of reference books on all kinds of watches, including antique pocket watches.

The Patek Philippe watch is “the finest in the world” and next are Vacheron Constantin watches, Able said. Patek Philippe started making watches before 1850, he said, and he recently got to work on a $400,000 Patek Philippe pocket watch, called the “minute repeater” where you push a button and the watch rings off the hours and minutes.

It’s not surprising that Abel collects watches as well as repairing them. He says he has about 140 that are in working condition and “thousands that are not.”

For his personal use, he has about a dozen he chooses from, though he often wears a Citizen quartz watch because it can take a lot of wear and tear, he said. “I don’t have to worry about hurting it and it has an eco-drive so I don’t have to change the battery every year,” he said.

Repairing a stem-wound watch is quite different from repairing a quartz watch, he said. The stem watch has more than 100 parts and requires intricate work.

“With a quartz watch you just take out the guts and put another one in there,” he said.

The downside to watch repair is that it’s tedious, but Abel said he likes it because it gives him “independence and notoriety” and he can always find work.

“I can always find a job, and I’ve never been unemployed any longer than I wanted to,” he said.

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