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From Vintage Finds to Timeless Craft: The Remarkable Journey of a South African Independent Watchmaker

Read on to find out what makes Alexander Claassens unique in the highly specialised world of luxury watchmaking.

By Debbie Hathway

New York Times report about concerns among Swiss watch brands about a shortage of watchmakers globally caused by enrolment decline and retirements, leading to worries about growth, prompted me to go local and find out how we were doing in South Africa. While some watchmakers have been able to spend some time training abroad, for most South Africans keen on entering the industry, attending watchmaking schools abroad is financially out of reach.

Their options are to enrol for online tuition, learn through mentorship if they can find a local watchmaker or business open to it, or nurture their passion through trial and error like Alexander Claassens of Crowns and Chronos did. However, his introduction to the microcosmic world of the watchmaker’s bench was an unusual response to a business bottleneck – he was buying vintage watches in need of repair before he could profit. “You can’t exactly sell watches that don’t work, so I started giving them to a watchmaker in Newcastle, KwaZulu-Natal, where I lived originally and learned a few things from him. Then I began researching online and teaching myself how to repair watches.”

Taking the DIY route is all good and well, but to develop the skills and confidence to do a sterling job and build a reputation and client base, you need watches to practice on – and parts. Plenty of them. But Alexander had a plan. He partnered with a friend to buy the contents of defunct workshops to build a stock of watchmaking tools and parts, enabling him to service the watches he was selling and grow his business to the point that warranted a move to Johannesburg and a watchmaking partnership with John Harrison.

Focusing on servicing and repairing watches proved more consistent than buying and selling, leading to a shift in his business. He found that relocating to the City of Gold opened opportunities to cater to a wealthier clientele. Alexander thrived, specialising in high-end pieces for private collectors. “I specialise in vintage watches going all the way back to the 20th century. However, I work on a lot of modern [luxury] watches, too.”

Removing the automatic assembly

How did it all start? Alexander’s first watch was a toy with a kids’ meal at a well-known local restaurant chain. “I was seven years old, and this was the coolest thing because it had a radio built into the watch. And it came with a set of tiny earphones that acted as an antenna so I could listen to the radio at school, which inevitably got me into trouble. It was most likely confiscated because I don’t know where it is.”

But his fascination with watches was really ignited close to home. “My father had a small collection of 12 watches, Citizens and Seikos, nothing fancy, but growing up I always thought those were top pieces.”

It also made him aware that watches are more than just things that tell time. “You only have one wrist to wear a watch on, so to have 12 is crazy – it blew my mind. But then what got me more interested was inheriting my grandfather’s watch and discovering that earlier watches were mechanical objects – literally a series of gears and springs designed to keep accurate time, with such consistency. That was my fascination.”

Their signature model, the watertight Anfibio case, introduced in 1955, was a commercial success until the late 70s

The watch was a vintage Roamer Anfibio, described by a watch blogger as an ordinary man’s brand powered by an extraordinary in-house movement – the almost forgotten Meyer & Stüdeli (MST) named after its owners. “Apparently [my grandfather] got it in Switzerland, soon after he and my grandmother got married, so it’s quite a special piece to me,” says Alexander.

This is the first watch to feature the Vacheron K1120 movement from 1967, which is prized among Vacheron Constantin collectors as it is only 2.45mm thick and still holds the record for the thinnest full rotor automatic

Today, he enjoys wearing a dressy Vacheron Constantin, saving his sporty, built-for-purpose Casio or Rolex Oyster Perpetual Submariner for weekend pursuits like hiking, trail running, or paddleboarding.

A Rolex Oyster Perpetual Submariner fulfils its destiny on Alexander’s wrist along the Otter Trail, Garden Route, South Africa

There’s no hard and fast rule around the number of watches a collector should own to qualify for that label, but Alexander steers clear of it. “I don’t have a collection. I enjoy the watches that I work on, so I don’t really need to own all the fancy things. I prefer to just have a few pieces.”

However, talking about the most complicated watch he’s repaired – his own Jaeger-LeCoultre Minute Repeater pocket watch – reveals a penchant for collecting after all. “I have a collection of beautiful, complicated pocket watch movements, including minute repeaters, left behind after people have scrapped them for their gold case. Some of them are prototypes that never went into production. Although it’s sad that the cases were scrapped, I’m happy to have some incredibly rare pieces of horological history you don’t get to see daily.”

Part of the fun is tracing their history if they have maker’s marks that enable him to date the period and region they were manufactured in, but not the manufacturer. Alexander’s latest find has led him to Golay Fils & Stahl in Geneva, once the official jeweller to the Romanian royal family. “Golay Fils & Stahl’s name is engraved on the bridges, but there’s no manufacturer mark. We don’t know how they came to sell a pocket watch with a movement only 1.4mm thick from around 1910, but for somebody to have the technology to make something that thin back then is incredible. It should have been one of the thinnest movements in the world at the time, but it’s not documented.”

Assembling the Breguet Tradition movement

The piece is likely one-of-a-kind or part of a very limited production, as Alexander has yet to find another one like it.

Last year, he had another coup – buying the workshop contents of a former agent for some of the world’s best brands, which gave him more tools and parts than he could ever use. He sold or traded what he didn’t need with contacts around the world, financing a watch tour of Europe and visits to trade shows in Munich, Geneva, and Birmingham and cementing relationships in the industry without which he says you can’t survive as an independent watchmaker. Alexander credits Ernst Janner, a retired Rolex watchmaker who at 84 is still working on watches, his former partner John Harrison, and client Matthew Taylor for getting him where he is today.

And it was this contents sale that revealed a Rolex part Alexander has been after for years to repair a Rolex Reference 2849, which he bought and then sold to Matthew. Known as the “Lifesaver” among collectors because of its resemblance to lifebelts found on ships, it was advertised under the heading “Oyster De Luxe” in period advertising. According to Antiquorum, it was made in stainless steel only and powered by the Caliber 500, which was created in 1935 and produced from 1943 to 1953. “It was made in a series of 60 with every single piece being unique. And we know this because Rolex gave an extract to someone who had sent a watch to the Swiss auctioneers. [To learn what was required to complete the repair] I started with an article documenting all the different movements, dial, hand, and case variations. I think I found close to 30 of the 60, but it’s taken three years to find the part I needed to get this watch working again. It’s now one of Matthew’s all-time favourites.”

Antiquorum sold this Rolex Ref. 2849, dubbed Lifesaver among collectors, for CHF 9,440 in Geneva in May 2006

Alexander advises aspirant watchmakers wanting to enter the industry to reach out to companies like Swatch Group and Richemont to explore training opportunities. And for watch owners who think they don’t need to fix a thing that ain’t broke, he says the principle is the same as servicing a car. Regular maintenance is preventative, saving costly repairs in the long run and extending the watch’s life.

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