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Rebecca Struthers on Watches, Watchmaking, and the Hands of Time

Mon Jun 12 2023

Econ Talk with Russ Roberts and Rebecca Struthers

  • Rebecca Struthers is a watchmaker and the guest on the podcast.
  • The podcast discusses her book, "Hands of Time: A Watchmaker's History."
  • Rebecca makes, repairs, and restores watches with her husband.
  • She separates her work into clean and dirty tasks to avoid contamination.
  • Rebecca started in jewelry making but switched to watchmaking for a creative outlet.
  • She studied Julian Silversmithing to learn basic hand skills.

Watchmaking Techniques and Restorations

  • Drills are extensively used in watchmaking for creating holes and tapping screws.
  • High precision pillar drills are used, which are miniature versions of larger engineering laboratory drills.
  • Restoring watches is a rare skill, and there is a shortage of top-level restorers globally.
  • Complications in horology add to the difficulty in restoring watches.
  • There is a tendency among restorers to recommend work to each other due to the shortage of good high-end restorers.
  • Watchmakers support each other and are not competitors.
  • Traditional watch case making using bar and sheet metal is becoming rare.
  • The oldest watch Rebecca has worked on dates back to 1530.

Learning Watchmaking and Tools

  • Rebecca spent years studying Julian Silversmithing and learning basic hand skills.
  • The first year of the watchmaking course was spent making tools before working on precision watch movements.
  • An orary is a reproduction of the solar system that can be put on display as jewelry.
  • Setting up a business in watchmaking can be difficult without significant backing.

British Museum and Dutch Forgeries

  • The British Museum has two gallery spaces for clocks and watches.
  • There are around four and a half thousand watches in the horological study room in the basement that can be viewed with curators for free.
  • Rebecca conducted research on Dutch forgeries of watches for her PhD.
  • The emergence of non-standardized mass manufacture of watches through the production of forgeries was uncovered.
  • London was home to famous watchmakers, and everyone wanted a London watch.
  • Manufacturers on the Swiss-French border used a different manufacturing technique called Tabla Sarge.
  • Division of labor and specialization in watchmaking led to increased productivity and lower costs.

Decline of UK Watch Industry and Success of Swiss Watch Industry

  • The UK watch industry declined by the end of the 19th century due to complete transformation in production.
  • The Swiss watch industry combined mass manufacturing with luxury marketing to create a successful product.
  • They backed the future of wristwatches over pocket watches.
  • Emerging markets are now producing high-quality watches that even experts struggle to differentiate from originals.

Art, Accuracy, and Extraordinary Watches

  • Art is worth paying for, even if it doesn't make us more efficient.
  • The beauty of an object appeals to people.
  • Accuracy is not a priority for everyone in watchmaking.
  • Some clients demand high accuracy standards in watches.
  • Quartz and atomic timekeeping are the most accurate timekeepers available.
  • The Marie Antoinette watch made by Abraham Louis Breggae is an extraordinary work of engineering with 23 complications and self-winding capabilities.
  • The Brigitte watch had power reserve indication, a chronograph, a thermometer, and a perpetual calendar.
  • The completed Marie Antoinette watch was stolen but later found in a private collection.

Meaningful Watches and Favorite Restoration

  • Watches hold significant meaning beyond their practical use.
  • A favorite restoration for Rebecca was a Mavardo watch with an incredible story behind it.
  • The owner's father survived a plane crash during WWII, and the watch was found folded up in his flight jacket when he arrived at the hospital.
  • The restoration process focused on preserving its history.

Rebecca Struthers' Work and Outlook on Time

  • Rebecca Struthers sells hand-made watches on her website.
  • Making things in a traditional way is therapeutic and beautiful for her.
  • Creating watches allows her to measure parts of her life with the projects she's been working on.
  • Working this way is a real pleasure in today's fast-paced modern world.