Watchmaking Has Become a Haven for Traditional Artisan Crafts

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  • Jonathon Keats

Watchmaking is a de facto preserve for global handicrafts.

Visiting the russian town of Vyatka in 1837, Alexander Nikolaevich Romanov was seized by the urge to buy a pocket watch. The timepiece he coveted was expensive—nearly twice the cost of a watch cased in gold—though that did not concern the future czar. What really caught his attention was that the watch was locally made, completely carved out of wood. 

The maker was a man named Semyon Ivanovitch Bronnikov, a carpenter who taught himself horology while repairing wooden clock enclosures. He became a watchmaker by trial and error, cutting his gears by hand and fitting his wooden movements into cases of birch; only the springs, pivots, and pinions were metal. He taught this métier to his sons, one of whom passed his knowledge on to his own son. By the early 20th century, when the last of the dynasty retired, the Bronnikovs had likely built some 500 timepieces. Wooden watchmaking was a bona fide Vyatka tradition and the demise of the custom was a loss to Slavic cultural heritage. 

Nearly a century later, a young Ukrainian cabinetmaker became interested in horology while restoring the cases of old grandfather clocks. Like the Bronnikovs, Valerii Danevych had no metalworking skills—let alone horological training—so he started making clocks instinctually, crafting his own wooden gears with a saw. The Bronnikov watches, some of which are now in the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, soon inspired him to try his hand at miniaturization. He began creating pocket watches and wristwatches of increasing complexity, culminating in a dual retrograde wristwatch with flying tourbillon.

Danevych’s Retrograde took 1,800 working hours to complete. Aside from several springs, all 188 parts (including pinions and pivots) are wood, a feat he achieved by taking advantage of the distinct physical characteristics of materials ranging from bamboo to ironwood. Some of these woods even surpass metal in certain respects, including self-lubrication. (Natural oils in woods were also exploited by John Harrison, an early carpenter-turned-watchmaker whose first record-breaking marine chronometer used oak cogs.) Revitalizing the Bronnikov tradition, Danevych shares the richness of traditional crafts and also reminds us how easily they can be lost if not continuously practiced. 

The importance of old-world métiers d’art has been recognized by no less an institution than the United Nations, which has also acknowledged their precariousness: In recent years, UNESCO has broadened international protection of World Heritage Sites to encompass “intangible cultural heritage” ranging from Chinese calligraphy to Zmijanje embroidery. Yet the UN’s guardianship is fundamentally defensive. Cultural heritage needs to be practiced and appreciated, and no institution or industry is more actively promoting and advancing historic métiers d’art than haute horlogerie.

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