By Shelley Powers
In a world where it seems more people reach for their smart phones in lieu of their wristwatch to read the time, Alan Burrow is a rebel.
At age 34, Alan, who lives in Jackson, MS, and works as a public servant of the state by day, not only still wears a wristwatch (he owns several, actually), he’s also a student of horology, the study of mechanical-timepiece repair and creation.
Alan took on the challenge of learning timepiece repair six years ago when Brian Beckham, a certified gemologist, was opening a jewelry store in Forest, MS, and needed a watch and clock repairman.
“Brian said, ‘You’re mechanically inclined, why don’t you do it?’” Alan remembers. “I’ve always fixed things. My dad was that way…[He] would always say, ‘If you don’t know how to do something, get a book and read how to do it.”
Alan did just that and began practicing on old pocket watches that people would bring to the store to scrap for gold and, before long, he was repairing family heirloom clocks and watches.
“I would stay up until the early morning doing watch repair and wouldn’t know what time it was,” he says, then laughs at the irony of his statement. Alan says he was surprised at how quickly he picked up the skill. “I didn’t know I could do it, but I did and enjoyed it.”
And he seems to still enjoy it. His workbench is littered with an array of cogs and gears and springs and pieces so tiny that he needs special tools just to pick them up. Every situation and repair is different, and the work is nothing short of meticulous, requiring magnification and a dust-free environment.
“Even a hair can mess up movement,” Alan says.
But while he hammers and adjusts and squints and repairs, Alan becomes immersed in his work, be it fixing the mechanical movements or cleaning and oiling the inner workings of a timepiece—which requires full disassembly.
“It’s challenging. Challenging to do it right,” he says. “I like a challenge.”
Today, Alan and Brian co-own Beckham Custom Jewelry Co. in Jackson, MS, where Brian designs jewelry and Alan works on timepieces. Though the store has only been open a year, it’s been named the official jeweler of the 2014 Mistletoe Marketplace and will be designing a custom piece of jewelry for auction at the November event.
Alan, who says he feels naked without a watch on his wrist, believes mechanical timepieces not only connect us to the past but can represent the finer things of modern life.
“People can’t find watchmakers anymore, but everybody’s got an heirloom clock. These were items that were cherished and kept and passed through generations, but, at the time, they were a luxury,” he says and then explains that the personal value placed on family timepieces makes repair and upkeep worthwhile to many. “It’s a sentimental thing.”
Alan says mechanical watches began to lose popularity in the 1960s and 1970s when the quartz-movement watch hit the market. These disposable timepieces meant folks wouldn’t have to have their watches serviced every couple of years (as is required for proper operation of a mechanical timepiece). When the quartz timepiece quit working, the owner could get a new battery or just throw it out.
“[Mechanical watch repair] was an honorable profession until the quartz watch movement occurred,” Alan says. “Now there’s just a few old guys doing it.”
Fortunately for those “old guys” and for Alan, consumer trends change as often as watch batteries need to be replaced, and the desire for mechanical watches has come back into fashion.
“Those who wear these [pieces] appreciate what goes into one,” Alan says, looking at an array of watches on his workbench that have been brought in for cleaning or repair. “It’s fascinating to see a timepiece from the turn of the century and see how accurate it is, especially all the parts that could have been machined [but were handmade]. It’s a fascinating piece of micro-engineering.”
Alan’s Guide to Buying a Mechanical Watch
Alan says that, because a watch is a “very personal item,” you should buy for yourself or, if you plan to purchase the watch as a gift, be sure you know the recipient very well before making the investment.
Once you make the decision to buy a watch, consider the following to help ensure you’ve found the right timepiece for your needs.
- If the watch will be used daily, consider a metal band for durability. Leather bands are stylish but may be more appropriate for occasional wear.
- Don’t buy more watch than is needed. A daily-use mechanical watch needn’t cost an exorbitant amount. Compare costs before buying!
- Look for a Swiss-made movement to ensure the most accurate time-keeping and durability.
- Look for a “water-resistant” watch that will help fight against the ravages of humidity. “Water is a watch’s worst enemy,” Alan says.
- Consider personal style. Is the wearer…Flashy? Traditional? Sophisticated?
- Consider comfort, weight, and size.
- Some watches wind themselves as you wear them. Alan says this may be a feature for someone who prefers a lower-maintenance mechanical watch.
- Choose the watch face that will most compliment the wearer’s wardrobe while still being easy for the wearer to read. “If,” Alan says with a smile, “reading the time is even important.”
- Alan says that, while engraving adds to the sentimentality of the watch, it also devalues the timepiece for after-market value. So, consider whether the watch will be a keepsake or something short-lived.
- Finally, Alan says that adding complications (moon phases, chimes, date functions, etc.) can raise the cost of the timepiece and the cost of maintaining it. “If you want something that’s easy to maintain,” he says, “keep the complications as simple as possible.”