THE VALUE OF TRAINING in Haute Horlogerie
The history of watchmaking, since its inception, has been linked to the development of mechanical technology and consequently to the continuous need to keep up with the times, through professional updating through training.
The first schools, where the craft of making mechanical instruments for measuring time was taught, were the ‘workshops’ of blacksmiths. The historical period of the birth of watchmaking certainly sees Italy among the leading countries. We can establish this thanks to the role played by the Supreme Poet, with his Divine Comedy, in certifying the presence of the first mechanical clocks as early as the beginning of the 14th century; an essential document for the Art of Watchmaking. Dante, in describing the dance of the Blessed Souls and in order to highlight such a sweetness that can only be enjoyed in Paradise, uses the clock with its gears as a simile (Paradiso, XXIV, 13-18):
E come cerchi in tempra d’oriuoli
si giran sì, che ‘l primo a chi pon mente
quieto pare, e l’ultimo che voli;
così quelle carole, differente-
mente danzando, de la sua ricchezza
mi facieno stimar, veloci e lente
“And as the wheels of clocks turn in such a way that the first, to the observer, seems to stand still and the last one to fly”; this is a perfect representation of the transmission organ of a clockwork mechanism, with the wheels turning at different speeds; all to represent the movement of the Blessed Souls in Paradise. This is one of the earliest evidence of the existence of mechanical clocks, commonly called ‘monastic alarm clocks’, precisely because of their use in Benedictine Abbeys, where the monks’ daily life was governed by the ‘Ora et labora’ rule. Dante certainly had occasion to visit Benedictine Abbeys and, probably, monastic alarm clocks were already present in some of them.
This makes us realise the value that the Poet attributed to the Art of Watchmaking, using it as a simile for some of the tercets in his work; for us, an invaluable heritage that we have inherited from our ancestors. If we have managed to preserve it to this day, it is certainly thanks to the history that has seen us as protagonists since its inception, but, above all, it was our blacksmiths’ workshops that were the first ‘universities’ to transmit the knowledge and development of mechanical technology.
Over time, these workshops developed into specialised watchmaking workshops and the figure of the blacksmith was transformed into a ‘micromechanical technician’, the Watchmaker. The workshop consequently became a training centre for this new professional figure. A trade that allowed the development of knowledge that could also be used in other sectors. An example for all is Ser Filippo Brunelleschi, whom history rightly remembers for the construction of the Dome of Florence Cathedral. Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574) and Antonio Manetti (1432-1497) are the most authoritative sources for establishing the relationship between Brunelleschi and the Art of Watchmaking. In their respective biographies, they both claim that Brunelleschi engaged in the construction of ‘oriuoli’ and ‘destatoi’ (clocks with chimes, the common ‘alarm clock’). Vasari emphasises a particularly interesting aspect of the Grand Master’s watchmaking experience when he writes that “it gave him great help to be able to imagine different machines and to carry and to lift and to pull”, indicating how this experience was a great contribution to making the machines that allowed him to “carry, lift and pull”, thus useful for moving materials.
Like saying that Brunelleschi’s watchmaking experience allowed him to build instruments that helped transport the material for the construction of the Dome of Santa Maria del Fiore. I could go on with other examples that allow us to understand the fundamental role that Italy has played, from the birth of mechanical watchmaking to the present day, always as a protagonist; all this has been possible thanks to the ability to transmit these values of a craft of Art, with the fundamental tool of training, first, in the workshops of blacksmiths, then, of Master Watchmakers. For centuries, the heritage of knowledge in the field of watchmaking has been passed on, as has often been the case for other Artistic Crafts, from master to pupil in a close relationship within a workshop or from father to son as a family heritage value.
A few centuries after the birth of mechanical watchmaking, Switzerland becomes the country where watchmaking finds its most natural habitat, where manufactures are born and where the generational transfer of knowledge in this field takes place through specific professional schools. For watchmaking, the conditions are created for constant growth both in terms of quantity and, and this is the most important aspect, quality, making Switzerland the world’s reference country for watchmaking. Italy, a neighbouring country that has always been an example of sensitivity to ‘beautiful things’, could not fail to be involved in this great development, both as a manufacturer of components and for the diffusion, in particular, of top-of-the-range watchmaking throughout the world; the saying ‘what is chosen in Italy will work all over the world’ quickly became popular. This created a renaissance of a craft in which, as we have seen, Italy had been a leading player in the past. As a result, the need to create professional figures linked to the world of watchmaking, albeit for a job that was still a niche, became more pressing and we witnessed the creation in Italy of the first technical-professional schools, with distinct qualifications and diplomas. Often the technical and vocational schools, which provided for this specialisation, met the needs of local realities rich in this professional tradition. One example, which I experienced directly, was my passion for this profession that began at the Leonardo da Vinci State Institute of Higher Education in Florence. This institute was born in 1900 in Florence, at the behest of the then Merchants’ Association and the City Council of the city, which realised the need to build a technical-professional school that would provide, among the various specialisations, the Specialisation of Watchmaking Mechanic Technician.
Training professionals in this sector stemmed from the need to respond to territorial needs, which offered job opportunities for a professional reality in the region, the result of a tradition that began, as we have seen, at the dawn of watchmaking history.
I joined the school, first as a trainee in the late 1960s, and then returned as a teacher, a role I held for 38 years, until 2012. The teaching programmes, which were created in close collaboration with the training departments of various Swiss companies and schools, were periodically updated to keep up with the particularly dynamic evolution of the sector, which, in the meantime, was not only linked to the development of mechanical technology, but also to electronics, which was already revolutionising the entire watchmaking world in the 1960s. One aspect that has always amazed me, in relation to the other specialisations of the Institute, is that I was able to compare myself with other school realities in our country and beyond; there was the attention that Switzerland paid to the didactic professional development of teachers. Every year we were invited to take part in training courses on the various developments in the sector, in some cases already at the prototype stage of the product, in order to get to know the new watchmaking directions and to be able to modify the teaching programmes for the following school years. It is difficult to find this continuous relationship in other educational establishments. This is in order to always put the training of our students in the foreground, also for the new technologies that would have come onto the market, making schools in the sector not only fundamental for the creation of the various professionals, but also a reference for professionals for their own professional development.
I remember, among the many courses organised for professional updating in my school, the one held in the 1970s on the electronic tuning fork watch, an electronic technology that caused many sleepless nights for watchmakers and many of them, in order to overcome this revolution in the industry and to be able to continue their profession, were forced to go back to school. Watchmaking schools became a point of reference for further training, even for self-taught watchmakers. The electronics revolution in the industry brought the application of new construction technologies and a great development of Haute Horlogerie. Working on these new masterpieces of the art of watchmaking required knowledge of new procedures that only well-planned training could provide; this could only be achieved through the training centres of the Manufactures and the Schools of the sector.
The development of training, for the knowledge of the values of high-end watchmaking, became necessary not only for repair technicians, but also for salespeople, who could understand and value certain characteristics and more consciously accompany customers in making the most appropriate choice for their needs. Some companies, in order to optimise their level of service, certified themselves with ISO 9000 standards. Among the first in Italy, I remember Pisa Orologeria in Milan, a pioneer in the development of certification procedures that had yet to be identified to establish where excellence was created in the sale and repair of high-end watches. Standards that established periodic professional refresher courses in the various skills. This made it possible to better manage the evolution of Haute Horlogerie in these particularly dynamic years.
The evolution of new communication, education and transport technologies has led to a globalisation of the watch industry in general and of Haute Horlogerie in particular. The awareness of the values contained within this concentration of Art and Technology is no longer the heritage of a few countries, but has become a universal heritage. Suffice it to say that Unesco, in December 2020, declared as intangible cultural heritage of humanity ‘the complex of Swiss and French knowledge necessary for the production of mechanical watches’.
The diffusion of Haute Horlogerie in the world is constantly growing, the passion for this Masterpiece of Technology is spreading to the most remote countries and, in addition to a traditional clientele, clubs of enthusiasts are being created. In recent years, the search continues for Vintage watches, which have made the History of many Maisons, watchmaking sector. Training, which until a few years ago was mainly managed at a national level, evolves with international organisations whose role is to “underscore the knowledge of the values of Haute Horlogerie and, in order to be adequate for this mission, to train professionals in the sector. In the 1990s, the A.I.H.H. (Associazione Interprofessionale di Haute Horlogerie) was created and operated until the early 2000s. In Italy, it followed retailers who were dealers of various brands in the world of Haute Horlogerie for personnel training.
In 2005, the FHH (Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie, Geneva) was founded, which maintains the mission of the previous organisation. It is currently directly supported by some 40 leading Maisons in this sector of excellence. For both organisations, I had the honour of being entrusted with the Academy, along with other teachers from the various continents, both to produce the teaching material and as a trainer.
The aim of the Academy of the Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie, based in Geneva, is to impart watchmaking knowledge, with neutral material, not only to professionals, but also to all the ‘players’ in the sector and the training facilities and educational centres of the Maisons in the various countries, with the support of 22 local trainers in 11 languages, spread over the various continents.
If we think about how mechanical watchmaking has developed and spread around the world, from its birth in the 13th century to the present day, the value and diffusion of education could only be the constant in the various achievements.