Tinkering with the Past

November 20, 2019
Nick Harris

A Watchmaker's Vision of the Future

Every watch tells a story. In this case, the 1955 Omega Constellation Nick Harris ’13 inherited from his great-grandfather tells how an industry steeped in tradition is surviving changes in the technology of time.

A Watchmaker in America

It almost seems like fate that a house fire destroyed the small collection of watches that Harris’ great-grandfather purchased in post-war Germany—all of them except the Constellation. With its pocked-brown leather band and classic, understated face, it’s exactly the kind of watch you would expect to be passed from generation to generation.

It was still broken when Harris strapped it to his wrist for his high-school graduation: the crown was missing, the movement was damaged, the hands couldn’t decide what time it was. But there was something about the watch that compelled him to hold onto it.

Though his future as a watchmaker wasn’t always a given, Harris was driven to learn what made the world tick in other ways. He enjoyed working with his hands from a young age, and initially attended an art school for industrial design. Then he found his way to Evergreen, where he studied biology and chemistry and earned his Bachelor of Science degree.

Harris said Evergreen taught him there’s no replacement for hard work and it was there he gained the tools that would later be crucial to his success as a solo watchmaker. “If I went to a more traditional school, I don’t know that I would be equipped with the mental tools to direct myself in the same way,” he explained.

Mechanical Watch

After Evergreen, Harris moved back to Pennsylvania where he grew up. He rediscovered his great-grandfather’s mechanical watch which had been left at home while he was at Evergreen. He tried to fix it, but quickly learned it was going to be complicated. As a link to his family history, he didn’t want to damage it further. So he began buying old watches and modifying them for practice, a kind of upcycling many watchmakers start as a hobby. After posting his work online, people started offering to purchase his modified watches. Harris started to wonder about a career in horology—the art and science of watchmaking.

“I was hiding away in my room working on watches,” he said. “To my parents, it must have looked like I wasn’t doing much, beside the watches I would occasionally show them.” But his online success continued, and he decided to take the plunge and start his own business. The first step would be to find a factory to manufacture the pieces for his first watch.

“I told them I was going to raise this money, start a company, and wire tons of cash to this factory overseas,” he said. His plan was not an immediate hit with his parents. Around this same time, Harris resolved to pursue a watchmaking degree at the Seattle Watch Technology Institute, one of only three schools worldwide to offer the Swiss-American Watch Training Alliance (SAWTA) Certificate. With this and his new business called The Orion Project, he had thrown himself full-force into the time-honored tradition of mechanical watchmaking.

“The program is about 45 hours a week. It’s a full-time job on its own.” Harris said he learned things he could have never taught himself opening up watches in his spare time. “The first year, students focus primarily on manufacturing, micromechanics, friction reduction, and a lot more refinishing and case work,” he said. “And the second year you focus more on different complications, different types of movements, and how to service them.” By the time he began the program, he had already released his first Orion watch and he was continuing to modify watches and sell them online.

Harris represents an optimistic new generation of American horologists bringing back the craft of mechanical watchmaking. But few industries have been forced to reinvent themselves as quickly and as thoroughly in recent decades as mechanical watchmakers. Harris’ goals go beyond just being a successful watchmaker—he wants to rebuild America’s mechanical watch industry. And that won’t be easy.

The Quartz Crisis

Mechanical Watch Gears

On Christmas Day 1969, Japanese manufacturer Seiko changed the future of timekeeping with the world’s first quartz wristwatch. Instead of using springbound, human-powered mechanical movements to mark the passing of time, it used a battery-powered crystal that vibrated 32,768 times per second.

By the mid-70’s, quartz watches were being manufactured at an astounding rate. What soon followed was an extinction event for mechanical watchmakers worldwide: the quartz crisis.

“It completely destroyed the mechanical watch industry,” explained Harris. Swiss manufacturers, bound by centuries of tradition, began to close their doors one after the other. American companies quickly followed suit. By 1980, the number of workers in the mechanical watch industry had plummeted by nearly half in 10 years.

By the 90’s, the mechanical watch seemed destined to go the way of the telegraph. But as luck would have it, a few overseas manufacturers reserved a place in their hearts—and their factories—for the fabrication of mechanical watches.

The Orion Project

Nick Harris working on a watch

Two generations later, these sorts of companies are now where Harris orders shipments of mechanical pieces to assemble in his Philadelphia workshop. Small businesses like his are contributing to a resurgence of this nearly-lost craft around the country.

Harris collaborates with his designer and, after ensuring the piece will be functional and elegant, sends the final design to the parts manufacturer. Then a working prototype is provided so he can start promotions on his website—which he built himself—to fund the full run of his new timepiece. At this point, buyers are eagerly anticipating the product. Most of his watches sell out.

Some 50 years after the advent of quartz watches doomed a generation of mechanical watchmakers, Harris dreams of rebuilding the infrastructure of mechanical watch manufacturing in the States.

“It’s starting to come back, but there aren’t very many watchmakers in the world,” he said. “Orion is partially a means to an end—a way to get to the next step.”

Harris believes his Evergreen education has helped him approach the challenge ahead.

“We need adversity in our life. Creating a life in which you avoid climbing those mountains in exchange for a circuitous path will deprive you of achieving your greatest potential; it will deprive you of the view that you can only see at the top of the mountain,” said Harris.

“These are the lessons I learned at Evergreen, some of them at least. It doesn’t make the work easier, but it gave me the tenacity and resolve to approach it—which I certainly didn't have before attending Evergreen.”

And his great-grandfather’s Omega Constellation? Harris said he took it to a professional watchmaker for repairs long before he had the knowledge to fix it himself. It now enjoys a place among his small personal collection.