The Time Keeper

What makes a top watchman – and his watches – tick.

by Lon Wagner
photography by Eric Lusher

The man who is known as perhaps Hampton Roads’ premier watch repair expert works at an unlikely place.

Near the intersection of Holland Road and Lynnhaven Parkway, across from a 7-Eleven, down the street from a thrift store, next to the parking lot of a car wash.

In a room at the back of Nathan’s Lynnhaven Pawn Shop.

 You can’t judge a book by its cover, you can’t judge a watch by the advertisements that try to sell it, and you can’t judge Gilbert Calle’s watch-fixing knowledge by his surroundings.

Surroundings have not kept the big watch companies from making the trek to Nathan’s Lynnhaven Pawn and trying to hire Gilbert – as he’s known around here – away from Nathan Segal.

“Gilbert’s too modest to tell you this, so I will,” Segal says. “For years, there was constantly someone down here – Rolex, Patek Philippe, Vacheron. …”

Tiffany’s sent a recruiter four or five years ago, he says. Gilbert told them he had spent time in New York, had no intention of moving there, so if they wanted their watches fixed, they were welcome to ship them down
to Virginia Beach.

Gilbert left Colombia when he was 9 and moved to the U.S. He got into watch repair completely by accident, landing a job at age 12 polishing jewelry. He’s now 66, still speaks English spiced with Colombian pronunciations, and is busy three full days a week fixing watches worth thousands of dollars.

“They said cellular phones were going to kill watches,” he says, “but watches are more popular than ever.”

He’s been trained by Rolex and admits a bias toward their watches. He wears a 2002 Rolex Submariner. He concedes, though, that Patek is “the king of watches.”

“Even compared to Rolex and the other high-end watches, Patek Philippe is an expensive watch. They can get that money because they manufacture their own watches by hand.”

Gilbert is a purist. His real bias, one he is not shy about, is against what he dismissively calls “generic watches.”

He is not talking about lesser expensive watches like Casio or Timex or even Citizen. He is talking about some brands that are well-known, well-thought-of and high-priced.

“They are made by the same place that makes every other watch,” he says. “They are disposable watches.”

Nathaniel Borgelt, a watch expert with Antiquorum, a premier luxury watch auction house, explains: Many of the watch movements that make up the insides of dozens of elite brands come from the same place. They are made by ETA, a subsidiary of Swatch, and wholesaled to other companies.

“They make millions of watch movements a year,” he says. “They come out of a factory and not out of a watchmaker’s hand. There are some brands out there that are all about their name and their image and not about the work.”

This is a well-known fact in the watch expert world, but not among the public. A lawsuit has removed some of the secrecy, and in December The New York Times wrote about it under a Geneva dateline. Swatch, through ETA, wanted to cut back the number of movements it sells to competitors so it could bolster its own brands – Longines, Omega, Tissot and Breguet. Nine smaller watch manufacturers sued, saying this diminished supply would risk their demise. Notably, TAG Heuer had also filed a complaint but withdrew it, according to The Times.

These mass-produced movements are what irks Gilbert, what makes him say that many of the most famous brands are little more than slick ads and marketing. He doesn’t care much about how a watch looks.

“To me,” he says, “there’s nothing other than what’s inside.”

Inside his workshop, Gilbert opens a drawer full of the tiny parts of watches he’s in the middle of repairing, and explains the most important parts that make a watch tick.

THE MAIN PLATE

Gilbert has an instrument he uses to open up watches. It looks like a microscope. He sets the watch inside a cushioned pad, clamps down the top of the instrument, and cranks open the bottom. Even a delicate watch is not harmed.

Once the watch is open, the wheel-shaped gears and springs and tiny screws are all obvious. The main plate is the platform on which all of it rests. “It’s like the chassis of a car,” he explains. Good ones are made of a heavy metal like brass, and really good ones are plated with rhodium, a metal that sells for multiples of the price of gold per ounce. Rhodium is favored because it is hard and has superior corrosion resistance.

THE MAIN SPRING

This spring appears as a fragile, thin piece of metal, curled almost like a piece of gift wrap ribbon when pulled tight against a pair of scissors.

“It gives life to the watch,” Gilbert says. “Without a mainspring, there is no power.” As the spring seeks to unwind, it provides energy to the watch and moves the hands.

The mainspring sits inside a housing called the barrel, and gets its power in one of two ways: It is tightened when a person winds the stem on the outside of the watch – or on “self-winding” watches, the motion of the wrist helps parts of the movement swing to wind it.

These springs weaken as they age, Gilbert explains, so servicing a watch often entails replacing the mainspring. When a Rolex is overhauled every five to 10 years as recommended, for example, the mainspring is automatically replaced.

 THE OSCILLATING WEIGHT

The weight that makes it all happen, sometimes called “the rotor” (or, to laymen, “the winder”), winds the mainspring. The weight swings 360 degrees in most watches and thus keeps the watch running “perpetually.” Self-winding mechanical (non-quartz) watches have become almost standard these days, but they require a lot of room and have caused watches to become quite thick. Patek continues to make watches that require hand winding, in order to allow them to be thinner, and these fetch tens of thousands of dollars.

THE BALANCE WHEEL
Going back to the car analogy, this is what distributes the power to all the gears that need it. It’s what makes the rest of the watch move, Gilbert says.  Mechanical watches have become more accurate, because older balance wheels rotate at 19,800 beats per hour; new ones rotate at 28,000 per hour.

FINALLY

So you don’t want to spend thousands or tens of thousands of dollars on a watch? And, hey, let’s face it: a decent quartz movement probably will keep time more accurately than the best mechanical watch.

Gilbert tells everyone, just go buy a Casio; you can’t beat it for the price.

“It’s an unbeatable watch,” he says, “you can run it over with a car.
If it goes bad, you just go and buy another one.”

He pauses.

“But that’s just for someone who wants to tell the time.”

And you can do that with a phone.

FASHION AND CHANGE
When it comes to watch fashion, several trends have steamrolled the industry in the past couple decades, says Byron Baker, one of the owners of Baker’s Fine Jewelry in Norfolk. First, everyone wants a big-faced watch these days. For a while, women going out for a formal dinner or public event in the evening would want a small-faced “dress watch.” “Now women want watches they can read,” Baker says.

“It all has come down to fashion, to looks,” he says. “Now, if a lady is wearing a blue dress, she wants a blue watch. These aren’t fine watches, they’re not Swiss movements, they’re Asian imports. When it breaks, you throw it away. It’s part of the disposable society.”
Until a couple decades ago, a person typically could get a nice watch only in a jewelry store or a high-end watch boutique. “Now, all hell has broken loose,” Baker says. You can get watches at Walgreens, the dollar store, dress shops, gift shops, Walmart.
But there are still one or two fashion dos and don’ts. For a dress occasion, you want a watch with a leather band (exceptions are for high-end watches, like Rolex, which almost always have metal bands). For business or a dress event, skip the diving watch that you wear on the boat; it is unlikely you will need to be water-resistant to 300 meters.

A while back, Baker’s stopped fighting the disposable-watch trend. They didn’t want to compete when someone could get a decent – if not great – watch just about anywhere. So, Byron Baker says, they found a comfort zone.
They buy Swiss movements, contract with a company in the U.S. to assemble them by hand, and sell private-label, Baker’s watches for anywhere between $150 and $300. You can’t get one anywhere else.

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