From Tango to Timepieces: The Artistry of Jurjen van der Eems

This young South African watch- and clockmaker’s journey explores the rhythmic parallels between ballroom tango and the intricate world of watchmaking, culminating in the creation of a unique Cape Dutch gable clock

By Debbie Hathway

 In 1912, the musical comedy The Sunshine Girl introduced British audiences to the ballroom tango, a dance notable for its sharp, staccato movements. As the dance’s popularity spread to Europe, Breitling prepared to launch one of the first wrist-worn chronographs in 1915. The chronograph featured a push-piece at 2 o’clock, separate from the winding crown, setting it apart from pocket-watch chronographs of the time.

Both the dance and the timepiece play a central part in the life of young South African watch- and clockmaker Jurjen van der Eems. You’ll find him restoring old cars, scouring flea markets for antique pipes and vintage watches, or practising ballroom and Latin American dancing when he’s not at the workbench.

The link between dance and watchmaking lies in precision, movement, timing, heritage and passion. At the highest level, achieving excellence becomes an obsession.

Jurjen likens the two fields to biorhythms, which are tied to an internal clock in the brain and work cyclically to control things like sleep, wakefulness, body temperature, etc. The presence of rhythm can be determined by the beating of the heart, and researchers argue that the sense of time itself can be considered a sixth sense, life moving in sync with the beat of clocks and calendars, whether externally or internally. “How that relates to watchmaking for me is it gives me basically a sense of how we go through time. And when we’re dancing, we go through time with everything else. My favourite is the tango. Counted in phrases of four or eight beats, there is always a clear finish when you complete your step. I like that. You go through time with everything else and you’re basically in sync with the universe,” says Jurjen.

He was home-schooled and then self-taught as he developed his watchmaking interest, discovering a natural instinct for understanding how mechanical objects worked. The first time he took a watch apart, his intention was to fit it into a pocket watch case, but neither the watch nor the adaptation worked. Next to be sacrificed was his mother’s Swiss Tradition, a tiny watch opened with a scalpel (the only tool small enough that he could find) and still in pieces six years later. Most of the innards were broken.

Jurjen’s journey into watchmaking continued with a hands-on approach, learning through trial and error while seeking guidance from literature and online resources. His dedication caught the attention of Thys Willemse, a respected watchmaker, who provided him with an informal apprenticeship at his workshop in Cape Town. Later, Jurjen gained retail experience at a high-end watch and jewellery shop before seizing an opportunity at a watch and clock shop in Knysna under the mentorship of French watchmaker Patrick Belleme. Despite the unfortunate passing of his mentor, Jurjen continued to expand his horological knowledge, servicing and restoring various timepieces. After five years, he returned to Cape Town and obtained his Level 3 Diploma in watchmaking through the British Horological Institute’s Distance Learning Courses. Currently, he focuses on repairing and restoring watches and clocks, specialising in restoring pocket watches. Under the mentorship of Erik Smit, he handles cost estimates for repairs, continuously refining his skills in a professional environment.

A very early verge fusee movement made by John Whilter ca,1775 made in London

But what do trial and error mean precisely when you’re learning a practical art without another pair of hands and eyes to guide you? “You can try to follow instructions, but you must develop a feel for it. I’ve fixed quite a few complicated things without instruction manuals, so I think I’ve got a good feeling for mechanical things and how they work together,” says Jurjen.

His speciality is repairing antique pocket watches. “That’s what I’m passionate about, including the development of pocket watches from the 18th and 19th centuries and the hand skills needed to create them. I really adore fixing those because it took such skill to make them.”

Jurjen’s clients are primarily collectors who keep their treasures on display, but some still use and wear theirs, which is “heartwarming.” Others have requested restoration work on inherited pieces containing broken pivots and jewels, which are often tricky to fix, but he rises happily to the challenge. Most of the time, the work requires him to make, modify or repair parts. “If it’s a very collectable, high-end piece, it’s most likely a repair because you want to keep the parts original.”

Which are the brands to look out for today? “Still in circulation, I’d say those by British watchmakers JW Benson and Thomas Mudge are quite popular, the latter being more collectable. According to The Naked Watchmaker, Mudge invented the “detached lever escapement, which he originally used in a clock and can be considered the greatest single innovation ever applied to watches, around 1755. Almost every mechanical pocket watch and wristwatch built to date has this feature. A lever escapement is a “detached” escapement, which allows the balance wheel to swing totally free of the escapement throughout most of its oscillation until it gives a short impulse, which improves timekeeping accuracy. In mechanical watches and clocks, the escapement produces the ‘ticking’ sound.”

To get an idea of value, an 18ct gold half-hunter pocket watch by JW Benson, London sold for the hammer price of R16 000 at Stephan Welz & Co in June 2023, while a silver-cased Bank pocket watch circa 1916 by the same brand is currently for sale for €600 (R12 222). A gold pair cased pocket watch by Thomas Mudge & William Dutton, London, with a signed movement, sold at Christie’s for £3 290 (R78 622) in 2002.

Jurjen’s most rewarding and priciest repair was commissioned by the owner of a Russian pocket watch. “Most experts might have decided it wasn’t worth fixing because it took almost a week to make the missing parts and complete certain modifications. I had to redo the entire escapement and replace the balance wheel, hairspring and 13 jewels so that was the most challenging, and definitely the most rewarding project. In the end, it was working and keeping time, which was just ‘Wow!’”

In January 2021, the idea of creating a Cape Dutch gable clock emerged during a conversation between him and his colleague Chris Nel, both experienced in repairing and restoring clocks and antique pocket watches. They aimed to craft something unique yet traditional, scaling down the elaborate designs of typical skeleton clocks. Inspired by the graceful contours of Cape Dutch gables, they designed a clock that incorporated these architectural features.

Utilising a fusee gear train from an 1800s English pocket watch, they merged aesthetics with mechanical layout, facing challenges in balancing design and functionality. Despite initial setbacks, including high friction in the mechanism, they successfully redesigned the layout, achieving smooth operation and sound amplitude. Enlisting the skills of an engraver, they adorned the clock with intricate scrollwork, meticulously attending to the finishing touches to ensure a flawless appearance. The project served as a creative endeavour and a means of honing their craftsmanship, culminating in creating a one-of-a-kind piece now part of a prized collection. 


Subscribe to our weekly newsletter and don’t miss out on regular updates from the YourLuxury Africa team on all things luxurious, beautiful and inspiring.