Crafting Time: The Journey of South Africa’s Young Watchmaker, Ruan Naudé

As one of South Africa’s youngest watchmakers with scarce skills, the 24-year-old has no shortage of work servicing and maintaining precious timepieces

By Debbie Hathway

Independent SA watchmaker Ruan Naudé is wearing a watch I can’t write about. But I can share that it’s for himself. It’s his first creation to be revealed in early 2025, featuring a self-designed skeletonised movement and much of the finishing by his own hand. “Watchmaking is going in a different direction. People are combining a lot of old designs with modern technology and techniques to come up with the most amazing watches – like sci-fi watches, based on a 20-year-old traditional design that conservative watch collectors respect enough to [compare] with the likes of F.P. Journe and Philippe Dufour. I thought that would be my take on my watch.”

The angle is not surprising. Ruan has been fascinated by science fiction and mechanics since childhood. Add film to the mix as a youngster obsessed with Star Trek and Star Wars, and he knew early on that the multidisciplinary environments of film, mechanics and modern technology relied on craft to progress. And, for that, they had to be challenged. Boundaries pushed to prevent stagnation. In high school, he toyed with the idea of studying architecture, then mechanical engineering (his grandfather was a civil engineer), but they weren’t “romantic” enough. There was no emotional connection.

Something Ruan’s father said ultimately inspired his career choice. He advised finding something in the same field that requires different solutions and challenges different problems. “I’d come across [mechanical] watchmaking, but never thought too much about it, until I realised what goes into making these watches so expensive – the craft. That clicked and one day, I decided to try it, but I didn’t know how to go about it. That’s where my parents came in with an introduction to the jeweller Liebrecht van Deijl.”

Liebrecht’s father, Wilco, was a highly qualified jeweller in his day, with a bronze medal, the highest annual award of the British Horological Institute (BHI), and a Fellowship from this institute to his credit. Liebrecht and his brothers Henri and Ernst continue the family legacy as directors at their Cape Town boutique. “Liebrecht warned me that it was going to be hard, I wouldn’t have much support or even mentors to teach me physically how to do something. He suggested I try the BHI distance learning course, and that’s how I started, with a little of his supervision and late nights at his workshop. And it was quite hard but made more financial sense.”

Liebrecht’s guidance gave Ruan a much-needed foot in the door and hands-on time with an expert in a field represented by precious few worldwide. It led to further mentorships, one with Darryn Clark and the restoration team for the Cape Town City Hall tower clock, a 50 per cent scale replica of Big Ben installed in the 1900s, and the V&A Tower Clock. Ruan was the youngest on the team, with Darryn commenting that most of the other clockmakers he knew of in South Africa (less than 15) were near retirement age.

After a two-year apprenticeship at a local watch repair company and a short stint at a vintage watch store, Ruan started his own business, Meyer & Co. Since 2019, his service ethic, integrity, and abilities, including scarce skills like laser welding and lapping, have seen him service hundreds of watches in private collections, some historic clocks, and vintage music boxes. (Lapping uses a numerically controlled machine to achieve precise polishing and satin finishing, eliminating unsightly scratches or deep marks and returning the watch to factory condition.)

Now 24, he says it took about a year to establish himself, maturing quickly to make people take him seriously. “At the end of the day, watchmaking is not about the money. For me, it’s still a childlike obsession. It’s almost like play, there’s joy in working on watches.”

Ruan’s first watch was a black-and-white Adidas Sports Chrono quartz watch gifted to him in sixth grade. “I love black and white watches. My first ‘real’ watch was by the watchmaker of watchmakers, a Jaeger-LeCoultre Powermatic 34mm, which I found in a vintage store in Kalk Bay.”

He bought it for next to nothing, despite its smaller diameter than he would have liked, and he wore it for the better part of a year before his girlfriend asked to try it because it looked so good. “It fits her perfectly. I’ll never sell that watch. It means so much to me.”

The comment leads to a discussion about buying watches for investment, a subject he dislikes. “Honestly, I’m tired of hearing about resale value. Five years ago, people were more interested in how it fits, looks, makes them feel and what they associate with it. Now, resale value is an issue. I think that has skewed the perception of many collectors or even first-time purchasers of what watch is best for them.”

Longevity should be part of the decision-making process, and that’s the beauty of mechanical watches. They last for generations with appropriate care and maintenance. Ruan advises buyers to get to know their watch, play around with it and get used to it so that if it underperforms, it’s easy to recognise and rectify. Quartz watches are very sensitive to dirt and debris inside the movement. However, mechanical watches have ample power to continue working, leading owners to think it works fine. However, with time, this condition will damage and slow the watch. “Look after your watch, sure, but don’t be too careful. It’s a tool, after all. Another issue that people often don’t think about is water-resistance. This functionality should be checked annually, or every two years, depending on the watch.”

Ruan warns against complacency. Made in Switzerland doesn’t mean enduring perfection without servicing and maintenance. “If you haven’t had it serviced or pressure tested in five to 10 years, and you get it wet, your next stop could be the watchmaker. It’s the same at the beach. If you wear a watch with a black face, and lie in the sun for longer than an hour or two before going into cold water, especially in Cape Town, the drastic change in temperature will shrink the gaskets and water will come pouring in. I see it often with diver watches that have dark dials and big sapphire crystals so it’s something to look out for.”

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