Blending time-honoured expertise with innovation

Watchmaker Ernest “Nanny” Ramagoshi has dedicated his life to his craft. Now, he is passing on his skills to the younger generation at RLG Africa’s in-house training facility.

By Debbie Hathway

In the 80s, Ernest Ramagoshi was forced to stay at home for almost two years, a victim of the internal unrest and anti-apartheid riots of the period. Born in Mamelodi, a township established by the apartheid government east of Pretoria, now the City of Tshwane, how did this youngster find his way into watchmaking? He didn’t own a watch or read books on the subject, but he says that he had a vision of becoming a watchmaker during that home confinement. “It was a calling. And I think the one thing that inspired me was my grandfather. He had a Big Ben desk clock. I used to wind it for him every night at 6 o’clock.”

Eventually, Ernest was able to enrol in Vlakfontein High School in Mamelodi West, one kilometre from his home, where he could study watchmaking. The institution is long closed. With the global industry facing a shortage of watchmakers due to retirees outnumbering trainees graduating and the volume of watches in circulation having increased thanks to turbocharged online sales during the pandemic, he worries about passing on his skills. “I want to give my knowledge to people who want to repair watches. Eventually, it’s going to die; it will disappear if I can’t pass it on.”

Ernest has worked in the watch industry for almost four decades, starting with the Swatch Group for 15 years before moving to RLG Africa. Now he spends most of his time training his team of fourwatchmakers in movement repairs, case polishing, and waterproofing for luxury timepieces from the Group’s various maisons, travelling to Switzerland for refresher courses, and sharing his experience. “With my years, I can say I’m a master – I can repair a lot of calibres. I can do anything… that’s what being a master watchmaker means.”

According to the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry, “Swiss watch exports reached their highest-ever monthly level in November 2023, at almost 2.5 billion francs. This record value was achieved thanks to growth of 3.1 per cent compared with November 2022.”

That’s a lot of watches, requiring a lot of experts to look after them. The advantage of having workshops like RLG Africa’s in South Africa is a faster turnaround and reduced expense, although some timepieces must unavoidably be sent abroad for certain repairs. In the meantime, clients can reduce associated frustrations by taking better care of their watches and learning how to use them properly. “Take a mechanical watch like the IWC Portugieser Perpetual Calendar, for example. When you buy it, you must learn how it works. If you don’t, it’s a mess. If you set the day or the year wrong, you can’t go back to reset it – you have to wait for the following day or year, or you must come to us to open the watch again,” he says. 

Another tip for owners of IWC Pilot’s automatic watches with a day and date function is to take care when changing either one. “If a month has fewer than 31 days, you need to set the date manually on the first day of the following month. You do that by releasing the screw on the crown and pulling it out to the first position. The date can now be set by turning the crown to the right. The day will be changed by turning the crown to the left in the same position. (This adjustment is also called the rapid advance or quick change). We always advise clients not to use the rapid advance function between 8pm and 2am because the movement wheels are already engaging to automatically change the date during this period.”

A simple thing like the ritualistic winding of a manual watch with the same number of rotations at the same time every day can make all the difference. “A manual watch will eventually stop when you don’t wind it yourself. And you can’t just wind it whenever – it must get used to the mainspring in the barrel being tightened at a certain time. If you overwind it, you can break the mainspring or some of the parts,” says Ernest.

He recalls a client complaint about his automatic watch stopping working overnight, “probably because it didn’t accumulate enough energy during the day. It’s because he was not active enough.”

An automatic watch has an oscillating weight (rotor) that winds the main spring through the movement of your wrist. “But we can’t advise people to walk,” he laughs. “Sometimes people working on their laptops all day simply aren’t active enough. They should wind the watch regularly so that it will keep going if they do not move around much during the day. What I don’t like is people putting automatic watches on winding machines and leaving them there for months. It’s not right. Watches have different types of winding requirements. If the grease in the movement dries up, there is too much friction, or the ball bearings get worn out, the watch will need a service, which will cost a fortune.”

What does he love to work on most? “You know, I’m a watchmaker. I even repair Chinese watches. I just like watches and making them work. Even clocks. If you give me a clock, I will repair it. I can’t leave it,” he smiles.

He shows me the Panerai Luminor Marina on his wrist, admiring the in-house ETA manual wind movement. “That’s what I like. It is fantastic to work on, the engineering, you see. Another very good watch is the IWC Portugieser Tourbillon Retrograde Date. It is very reliable.” 

Both his favourite watches to wear have sentimental value – the Luminor Marina was a 10th-anniversary gift, and a Jaeger-LeCoultre Master Control honours his 20th year with RLG Africa. Set in stainless steel with a white dial and fastened with a brown leather strap, this is arguably his pride and joy, manufactured by who he considers the “masters of watchmaking”. 

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