Written by Marla Hardee Milling | Photos by Anthony Harden
Self-confessed “watch nerd” Justin Harrell is keeping the craft of watchmaking alive.
There’s something of a Zen nature going on at a small but efficient shop located in the Grove Arcade in downtown Asheville, North Carolina. Not only does proprietor Justin Harrell’s work keep him focused on the present moment as he practices patience by doing intricate repair work on watches, he doesn’t get overly attached to material things. If a customer walks into his store and falls in love with the watch he’s wearing, he’ll take it off and sell it.
“I sell them off my wrist a couple times a year,” says Harrell. “It’s like if the watchmaker is wearing it, it must be good.” He pushes his sleeve back to reveal his current choice—a stylish Omega Planet Ocean watch attached to a black strap featuring orange stitching.
He admits, however, that there are two he won’t sell at The Watchmaker’s Shop. “Everything I own is for sale except the one I made at school and the Tudor engraved watch Rolex gave me when I graduated [from the Rolex-founded Lititz Watch Technicum]. I still have the first Rolex I bought [originally made in 1974]. It’s for sale in the front window, but I’m asking too much for it. I don’t really want to sell it.”
The Countdown to a Career
Harrell grew up in the jewelry business. His mother was a goldsmith and his grandfather opened the East Tennessee Diamond Company in the 1970s in Morristown, Tennessee. Today that company is still owned by his grandmother and operated by his uncle.
“I worked there part-time when I was in college and kept hearing about the shortage of younger watchmakers,” explains Harrell. “I applied to the Rolex school which only accepts 12 students a year. It’s located in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.”
At the end of that two-year program at the prestigious Lititz watchmaking school (he attended from 2005 to 2007), Harrell landed a job in St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands, employed by A.H. Riise as their Rolex technician. During his three years in “paradise,” he met the woman who would become his wife. Justin and Holly married in March 2010 and about two months later they decided to relocate to Asheville. She’s originally from Wichita, Kansas, and works now at Mission Hospital in lab informatics.
The 34-year-old Harrell credits his wife for giving him the opportunity to grow a successful business. They live off her income while putting all profits from the shop back into the business. The tools needed to work on Rolex watches are especially pricey, and he has been able to build a good inventory of the needed equipment and supplies over the past five years.
“She understands it’s an investment in our future,” he says. “All my people get paid, but I don’t take a salary.” They don’t have any kids and live on South French Broad Avenue, which is conveniently located between her work at Mission and his shop. “I ride a scooter to work,” he says, pointing to a Honda moped parked outside his business. “I could probably make more money in larger cities, but it’s all about quality of life.”
He launched the shop with $12,000 in savings—it was first located in the atrium of the Haywood Park Hotel and then moved to the Grove Arcade in June 2013. Situated on the Page Avenue side of the Arcade and sandwiched in between True Confections and a real estate office, The Watchmaker’s Shop sports a black awning with its name, along with its website, www.thewatchmakersshop.com, and phone number, 828-254-0011, embossed on the front door.
It’s the street level sign, however, that draws the most attention. Harrell sees a constant flow of people stopping to snap photos of the sign with their phones.
It’s a welded piece of random pieces that look like oversized watch parts surrounded by a wire cage. The parts were repurposed from a time clock at the Georgia Pacific Railroad Station.
The top of the sign says “The Watchmaker’s Shop” with “Precision Service” underneath. There’s also a welded railing outside the store with the same type of oversized parts.
The store space encompasses a modest 500-sq.-ft. and features display cases made by local artisan Doug Quade filled with new and pre-owned watches. Quade also handcrafts the wooden sleeves used to showcase individual watches. Brands like Seiko, Citizen, 40Nine, and Casio sit side-by-side for customers to view. While the shop doesn’t sell clocks, there is an eye-catching one on the wall: a round, yellow clock featuring a picture of the late reggae legend Bob Marley. Next to it are three photos of a toddler holding a pocket watch. Small green plants in pots line the inside of the front window in stark contrast to the oversized bright yellow Swatch watch hanging from the ceiling with “CAUTION” spelled out in huge black letters across the band.
Since 2014, Harrell has also been leasing a 1300-sq.-ft. space in the Biltmore area that’s utilized as his shop’s service center. At this time, customers can only visit the Grove Arcade location, but if Harrell’s long-term plans come to fruition they’ll one day be able to drop items off at the service center. Before that happens he wants to find a building he can purchase. “I don’t know if that will happen this year or in five years, but I’m looking,” he notes.
Watchmakers in Demand
On a recent day, Harrell is seated at his workbench in the store, gazing steadily at a well-illuminated watch as he installs a battery. When the owner walks back in to pick it up, Harrell is still in the process of finishing up.
“I’m sorry it took me a little longer than I said,” he explains to her, “but there was a speck of dust between the movement and the glass and I wanted to get that out.” As he talks, he snaps the band back in place while a new employee, Jane Margaret Bell, rings her up.
“It was just me working here, for awhile,” says Harrell. “I learned quickly that I couldn’t work on watches and run a business. I do quick service here like replacing batteries and bands, but for repairs or other work we do it at the service center.”
He’s joined by Sergio Berrios, another certified watchmaker. Both men have WOSTEP (Watchmakers of Switzerland Training and Educational Program) Certification and CW21 (Certified Watchmaker 21st Century) Certification, among others. They are also currently mentoring a student in a dual system with the Lititz Watch Technicum. That student, Ryan George, goes up to the school for 14 days of intense training four times a year. He’ll do this for two years. In between he receives mentoring by Harrell and Berrios.
“It’s a good way to train another person without them having to spend a full two years at school,” he says. “We’re very serious about the term ‘certified watchmakers.’ We’re watch nerds and pretty open about our love for it.”
Years ago most every town had its own watchmaker, but as battery-operated varieties came on the market, many watchmaking schools shut down. Other companies, especially Swiss brands, continued making high-end mechanical watches, and that posed a problem. When consumers spent a good chunk of money on a luxury watch, they wanted a trained technician to repair it and keep it serviced. Rolex recognized the problem and created the school in Pennsylvania. Harrell says there are only about four other watchmaking schools in the United States.
“I don’t know of a certified watchmaker who doesn’t have more work than he wants,” says Harrell. “There’s a shortage everywhere.” One long-term dream is franchising the business and encouraging those who have gone to school for watchmaking to set up a shop in other cities. He can also see the franchise model working for those who aren’t certified. “We can train someone to replace batteries and bands and then send the more sensitive orders back here to our service center,” he says.
Time is On Their Side
Locals often discover The Watchmaker’s Shop by searching Google for watch repair, while tourists stumble upon it while roaming around town. Customers appreciate the fact that their watches won’t be shipped off to another place—simple work is done at the store, while more complicated work is performed at their service center. Harrell says sometimes people from other states will stop in to inquire about the work they do. Once they return home, they’ll mail their watches back to Asheville for repair.
“We are factory trained with Rolex and use only genuine Rolex parts,” says Harrell “We’re the only place in Western North Carolina to do that without sending in to Rolex. While Rolex is our specialty, we also do batteries and bands for pretty much all watches. We can do it all right here without sending to anybody else and that is a win-win situation: Customers pay less, but we make more money. Plus, all of our repairs come with a warranty.”
He also takes pride in satisfying customers’ concerns about safety. “We’ve spent a lot of money on alarms and security cameras at both locations,” he says. “It’s very secure to give customers peace of mind. We’re also fully insured. Even if it’s a $200,000 watch, it’s covered.”
On average, The Watchmaker’s Shop is working on fifty to sixty watches at any given time. “We track all customer jobs, so if anyone calls, we can pull up a document and see exactly where it is in the process,” says Harrell. The average price of repair work for a mechanical watch is $500, while work on battery operated models often falls into the $65 to $75 range. They do the obvious work, like putting in new crystals and replacing stems and crowns, but they also do specialty work, such as pressure proofing on dive watches.
For those searching for a watch to buy, there’s something for almost every price range at The Watchmaker’s Shop.
The current high-dollar items include a $25,000 Breitling for Bentley and a $17,000 Patek Philippe. Most of the watches here range between $4,000 and $10,000.
“That said, we have a ton of watches for $25 and everything in between,” says Harrell.
While there are a few pocket watches in the window for sale, these are items that Harrell discourages people from bringing in for repair. For the most part, the parts and labor on vintage items will exceed the worth of the watch. He also says that he stays so backed up with orders for modern wristwatches that he doesn’t have the time to devote to pocket watches.
What are the next steps in the growth of the business? “We’re going to get another display case and add a lot more inventory in 2016 and [offer] new brands like Bertucci,” explains Harrell. He has also just revamped the website. It now offers pictures of the shop’s entire inventory. In addition, customers can obtain a free repair estimate online.
In terms of other expansion, time will tell.
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