"It’s what you bring to the tool, not what the tool brings to you.”
A sign bearing this adage hangs above the desk of Paris Junior College horology instructor Stan McMahan, who leads the school’s watchmaking program. It’s a lesson he works to instill in his students each day.
In horology, students learn how to assemble and disassemble, maintain and repair watches.
“The first thing we get at on the repair side is chronometry, the ability of the watch to keep accurate time according to a known time
standard,” McMahan said. “The atomic clock is our time standard.”
Classes consist of a lot of hands-on learning, though McMahan said there is also a theory component, with readings and written tests.
Watchmaking is unique for the way it draws from several fields of science — even those that many people might not immediately think of, McMahan said.
“Watchmaking’s cool because you learn about astronomy, you learn metallurgy, you learn chemistry, you learn physics, you learn mathematics, so all the sciences,” he said. “You even have to know a bit about biology, how a person wears a watch.”
Before students even begin to build and service watches, they learn the importance of their tools. Chase Berry, a watchmaking student in his first semester in the program, said the process of maintaining tools is often arduous.
“You can spend five hours sharpening one screwdriver,” Berry said. “It’s a very humbling experience but the precision is necessary for the work we’re doing.”
The art of watchmaking requires a deft touch with a surgeon’s precision, and a big part of the educational process is learning how to train one’s eye to to perceive and understand discrepancies that can be as small as a thousandth of a millimeter, McMahan said.
“I would say (it requires) as fine a touch as any other profession,” he said.
Watchmaking student Julian Tellez said some of the pieces they work with can be smaller than a freckle.
“If you accidentally flick one of those little pieces or it falls on the floor, you need to get down and find it because some of them can be like $20,” Tellez said. “But also that precision makes the feeling of finishing a watch so rewarding.”
McMahan teaches students at all levels of watchmaking proficiency with some having several semesters of watchmaking under their belt and others just entering the program at the start of the young semester.
For first semester students, classes so far have consisted of learning the basics of customer service, fault analysis, the repair process, timing and regulation and more.
Students in their later semesters are learning more advanced lessons, such as the art of creating their own watch parts.
“It progresses; the skills build upon each other,” McMahan said. “Every semester builds upon the skills of the previous semester.”
Eric Balser, who is in his third semester studying watchmaking, said he’s currently learning the ins and outs of micromechanics.
“It’s very important to make precise cuts,” he said.
McMahan’s approach to teaching is that he doesn’t teach to knowledge, though he said knowledge is an important part of understanding.
“I am not satisfied for the student just to know something; to me, that’s the easy way out as a teacher,” he said. “They must understand why because understanding is transferable.”
While some people might think the watchmaking business is waning, that’s not the case, McMahan said.
“The luxury watch market has boomed since the 1990s,” the instructor said. “The demand for watchmakers worldwide is as high as it’s ever been.”
The art of watchmaking at Paris Junior College has a long history, dating back to the 1940s, and was the first workforce training program at the school. McMahan values that history, and it was a big reason he decided to join the program.
“This class is an amazing opportunity I don’t think you can get anywhere else,” Balser said. “It builds confidence and it gets you to the point you can go out and get a job in the field you enjoy.”