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New centre tells the time for future watchmakers

Stefan Mittelmann, a third-year student at the ZeitZentrum in Grenchen

(swissinfo.ch)

A new school for watchmakers in the town of Grenchen in canton Solothurn ticks along differently from all the rest in Switzerland.

It's the only one in the German-language part of the country but it can look back on a history stretching back more than 100 years.

The Time Centre (Zeitzentrum) opened its doors to would-be watchmakers in early November after moving from the nearby town of Solothurn.

"Here at the Time Centre we train only watchmakers. We're focused on the German-language part of Switzerland, in contrast to the schools in the French-language part of Switzerland," the centre's principal Ulrich Bucher told swissinfo.

"Those are mostly incorporated into technical schools and form a department. We here are totally independent," he added.

The Centre takes in two types of students - those doing a full-time four-year watchmaking course and apprentices who come for vocational training. About a third of the students are women.

At present, there are 54 full-time students and about 70 who come for the vocational training.

Patience and determination

A visit to the Time Centre reveals that watchmaking is not a profession for the impetuous or faint-hearted. Viewing students at their workbenches reveals that patience and determination are two essential tools of the trade.

Defining what makes good watchmakers, Bucher says they are people who can solve problems on their own, who have a solid basic education and good manners. They generally tend to be not too extrovert.

"They have to sit a lot and it's a profession in which the working area is concentrated on a few square centimetres... so it's not that easy for young people," he said.

"The students we train here mainly go on to jobs in lower and middle management. They will have to quite quickly take on leadership positions."

"We hardly have any watchmakers educated here who will remain at the workbench till they retire," he added.

In the blood

Third-year student Stefan Mittelmann, a German-American, told swissinfo that watchmaking had been in his blood for many years.

"The idea has interested me since when I was little, but in the States I didn't have the chance to go to a watchmakers' school," he said.

"In the US, I studied gemmology and goldsmithing. I worked as a goldsmith for a while and then came over here. I found this school on the Internet," he added.

Mittelmann explained that the courses offered a wide range of watchmaking subjects.

"We learn how to make watch parts when they break, when they need to be replaced, when they're worn down; how to repair old clocks and watches, how to renovate them and we also learn how to fix the casings of the clocks or watches," he said.

Fellow student Stephan de Peyer from Bern emphasised that the mechanical watch was an object which told much more than the time.

"Oh, it's a work of art actually. A watch is something very beautiful to me. You know that someone has really worked hard to put it together, to keep it clean, to make it work and I like that very much," he enthused.

The Time Centre is located near the heart of Switzerland's watchmaking industry, with some 2,800 employed in various companies in the Grenchen area. Notable brand names include Breitling, Eterna and ETA, which is renowned for manufacturing the Swatch.

Contacts with industry

"We've always had contacts with the watch-making industry at several levels. We have people from the industry who are in our various expert committees so that we can tell what our customers really want. We also send our students to outside courses," Bucher said.

"That means they work in companies for two to three weeks. We also organise visits to watch companies. In addition, we organise courses for firms themselves in some areas of watchmaking," he added.

Asked about the future, Bucher says he hopes that the Time Centre will flourish.

"I would like the school to continue to be successful, that the relationship between the school and industry remains as close as it is today and that the mutual trust we've built up will be maintained. If it stays that way, the school will be around for another 100 years," he said.

swissinfo, Robert Brookes

Key facts

The Time Centre's history dates back to 1884.
It is the only watchmaking school in the German-language part of Switzerland.
About one third of the students are women.
The oldest student is a 54-year-old Japanese.
The Time Centre has its own repair department which is open to the public.

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