The next guy you see wearing a wristwatch, I want you to pull him aside for a second. Don’t be creepy about it, but lean in and ask him: “Hey, do you ever think about how tiny the pieces are inside that thing?”
I’ve been wearing a watch on my left wrist since I was eight years old. I still remember the first watch I wore: a little bulletproof Swiss Army number. Since, I’ve had the pleasure of wearing watches at all edges of the complexity, price, and aesthetic spectrum. But until a few weeks ago, when Audemars Piguet invited me to the Four Seasons hotel in New York for a chance to build one of the most beautifully designed movements available in a wristwatch today, the Calibre 3090 Manufacture, I had no idea just how incredibly difficult it is to assemble one of these bad boys.
Everything was presented in stereotypical Swiss fashion: sterile, sleek, and meticulously organized. An exact replica of the benches that master watchmakers use at their Le Brassus headquarters in the Vallée de Joux were arranged. I’d only have access to five tools: massive brass tweezers, what appeared to be a clear plastic pencil, and three of the smallest screwdrivers I've ever seen in my life. They were like toothpicks.
The class was taught by a master watchmaker, who informed me that this process would normally take, from start to finish by a seasoned professional, about two hours per movement. I had 45 minutes. Now, to be fair, Audemars Piguet simplified the process a bit. The base of the movement had already been assembled, as well as a handful of the really complex parts. But still, the heat was on.
Just like a complex LEGO set, everything had to be assembled in order. I have to assume that the pros don’t have everything laid out in a spectacularly simple numbered box system, so it should go without saying that if I didn’t have everything arranged so smoothly, there would have been no chance of completing the movement in the allotted time.
As the movement neared completion, a few things struck me as noteworthy about the experience: for one, I’ve never felt so pleased with myself after finishing the construction of something mechanical. Sure, I’ve built model airplanes, boats, and LEGO sets as a kid, but none of those things really came to life after I finished building it. With a watch movement, I started with nothing. Now I had a tiny mechanical beating heart. It’s surreal to watch these inanimate objects designed years ago by men I’ve never met spring to life once the final screw is put into place.
The other thing? Most anyone's hands look as though they're shaking with frostbite as they try to thread a half-millimeter wide screw through an optical loupe. I, for one, shook like a leaf for all 45 minutes.
But it was worth every minute.
Ted Gushue is the Executive Editor of Supercompressor. He only lost three screws during the construction of this watch movement, which he is told is really not that bad for a first-timer. Hear his grunts as he searches the floor of the Four Seasons with a magnet, on twitter @TedGushue.