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Canada Time is running out for Canada’s last watchmaking school

Blue screws placed in a watch movement at Ecole Nationale d'Horlogerie in Trois Rivieres, Quebec, October 30, 2012.

Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail

The last surviving watchmaking school in Canada is a cacophonous testament to the march of time. Cuckoo clocks trill. Grandfather clocks chime. Stout-faced wall clocks mark the passing seconds a tick at a time.

It seems like a cruel irony, but this temple to keeping and measuring time is facing a shortage of it. L'École nationale d'horlogerie in Trois-Rivières, the only one of its kind in the country, is in danger of closing.

Time out.

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"We're the last ones, from coast-to-coast," said Robert Plourde, a veteran teacher at the school. "Who will repair broken watches? This may be an old trade, but it has a future."

In 1946, the Trois-Rivières school opened its doors to service men from the Second World War, offering wounded and war-scarred men a skill and a new life. That year, 16 soldiers sat down behind eyepieces and workbenches and learned how to maintain and repair timepieces. The diploma belonging to one of them still hangs on the school wall, a framed and yellowing witness to postwar promise.

But yesterday's skills are history. Today, clocks glow from cellphones and microwave ovens, and watchmakers have the same fading aura as milkmen and telegraph operators. Last June, a committee of the Quebec education department that examined the Trois-Rivières trade school concluded that with declining enrollment and only 10 to 15 students yearly, the watchmaking program should be abolished.

In horology parlance, that makes it 10 minutes to midnight.

The bureaucrats have a point. The advent of quartz-regulated, battered-operated watches in the 1970s was seen as the death knell of mechanical movements. Watchmaking schools across North America began shuttering; schools in Montreal and Toronto closed in 1988. The U.S. had 44 schools in the 1970s; today it has eight, according to the American Watchmakers-Clockmakers Institute. The median age of the institute's members is 63.

Yet to the teachers at the Trois-Rivières school, and the young students hunched over microscopic pins and springs in the school workshop, servicing the world's clocks and watches is a vocation. In pragmatic terms, the school says 90 per cent of its specialized graduates find jobs, in places like jewellery stores and after-sale service centres, or working on timing mechanisms for vaults and safes. This week, a job ad was posted on the school bulletin board from a luxury watch boutique in Beverly Hills.

The students, mostly from Quebec but also from elsewhere in Canada, defy watchmaking's greying image. Ponytailed, tattooed and sporting T-shirts, the mostly twenty-something men, along with a few women, are passionate about their work. They see beauty in clock springs, poetry in moving pendulums, ballet in the movement of gears. Students who manically use mobile devices moments before they come to class are able to sit immobile for days to realign a hairspring inside a watch mechanism.

Their training lasts up to two years and teaches them everything from humankind's history of trying to measure time to precision soldering and repairing. These students from the iPhone generation sound enthralled with a centuries-old pursuit.

"When you see these watches tick, it's like you're seeing their heart, their soul," said Jonathan Ng, a 22-year-old from Montreal dressed in a white lab coat. "The tick-tick-tick brings me to a different time, a different world. It's just so mysterious."

Daniel Delisle, a 26-year-old covered in tattoos, had been a sculptor before trying watchmaking. "The philosophy, the control of your hands, the discipline – that's what fascinates me. Your whole mind has to concentrate. You even have to control your breathing."

Said Marek Kowalewski, 29, who came to watchmaking from car mechanics: "It's a step up. And I like the philosophy of time, the idea of what time actually is. All that these [timepieces] do is measure it." Fixing a watch takes training, he added. "You can't get an App for that."

The school, occupying a third-floor former school dormitory halfway between Montreal and Quebec City, is a modest operation with only two full-time teachers. The place has a magical funhouse quality to it. One door off the main hallway opens onto a storage room with shelves brimming with vintage alarm clocks; banks of drawers display glistening vials of minuscule watch parts. Another door gives way to dark wood-encased clocks lined in rows along the wall. Near the entrance door, a brass-pendulum French clock rings out, incongruously, nine times an hour.

School officials are nervously awaiting a decision about the school's future, expected in December; an Education Ministry spokeswoman said Friday the case is still under analysis. In the meantime, the school is pleading that while it may suffer from a low profile, it continues to have a raison d'être. "They'd be closing the last school in Canada. We're going to fight for it," said Luc Galvani, a school-board official who oversees the program.

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The Trois-Rivières school benefits from a good reputation and, with its mostly bilingual students, offers opportunities to work in watchmaking's "mecca" of Switzerland, according to James Lubic, executive director of the American Watchmakers-Clockmakers Institute.

"The ones that are educated and on top of their game are making a darn good living," Mr. Lubic said from the institute's offices in Ohio. With an aging workforce – more than 9 per cent of his group's members are 80 years and over – the watchmaking world offers opportunities for new blood, he said. "It's not a dying trade," he said. "It's a trade where a lot of people doing it are dying."

One person who wants to see it survive is Conrad Gilbert. Mr. Gilbert is 96 years old, a Second World War veteran, and a former teacher at the École Nationale d'Horlogerie. A regimental sergeant-major during the war, Mr. Gilbert learned watchmaking as a young man and devoted his life to it. He said the school served a purpose then, and serves a purpose now.

"It showed veterans a trade, a way to earn a living," he recalled from his retirement home in Quebec City. "Why not teach it to the veterans coming back from Afghanistan? The school should stay open. There are always going to be watch repairs to do."

It's a simple message he hopes authorities will heed. After all, it's a matter of time.

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