In a small attic workshop in an industrial area in Haarlem, watchmaker Jaap Meijer (66) is busy with screws, bolts and weights. Every half hour there is a ringing of bells ringing at the same time: tick, tink, chime. Does the noise make the watchmaker angry? “No, really,” he laughs. “I can see by ticking if a clock is running smoothly.” And the time, he is always aware of that. “I do not have a watch on.”
Meijer, a charismatic man with gray hair and a mustache, is dressed in a blue sweater and jeans. He has been restoring watches for 38 years. Especially antique watches: he may not be ‘too picky’ for the money, but he tries to keep modern watches out as much as possible. Until 2021, the watchmaker had a store at Overtoom in Amsterdam: Meijer Antique Clocks. The rent only increased faster than the watchmaker’s turnover. Now he only has a small workplace in Haarlem. He does not complain: Most clocks still hang on the wall, so they do not take up much space.
‘A good niche’
The watchmaker taught the subject clockwork technician at the vocational school in Schoonhoven. He went to Vocational School to become a jeweler, but came across watchmaking education. “I thought: hey, that’s a lot more fun!” And then it happened. There were few restorers of antique clocks, so that became his specialization. “A good niche, I thought.”
There are hardly any antique watchmakers like Meijer in Holland anymore. According to the trade association for the Gold and Silver Association, only twenty-five companies are registered with the thesis ‘Grootwerk old’. The watch industry talks about big and small work: big for watches and small for watches. According to MKB Nederland, 540 people are still active in the total industry, but most are watchmakers. Logically, Meijer believes, there is more money involved in the watch industry. After all, there are more watches than there are antique watches. And new watches are added every day. But there is also a “desperate need for antique watchmakers”.
Antique clocks are often centuries old, and without clock restoration a piece of history is lost. Watchmakers have many skills that an antique watchmaker also possesses. For example, knowledge of how a watch works is somewhat comparable. Meijer: “But for the restoration of antique clocks, you need a more versatile knowledge.” Antique watches easily contain hundreds of different parts. And broken parts are no longer for sale. Meijer therefore makes new parts for the watch himself. “It takes a lot of technique and creativity.” He recently made his own silver paste to color dials. In the store, the silver paste was not pretty enough in color.
The small workshop in Haarlem is filled with antique clocks. Currently, Meijer is mainly in the process of restoring many French fireplace clocks; a French chimney clock, with round shapes and spring winding, dating from the nineteenth century. He does not know why the watchmaker now receives many pendulums. “It simply came to our notice then. Now it’s the pendulum clock, and soon it’s going to be another clock. “It takes Meijer, on average, a day to restore a fireplace clock. He aims for an hourly rate of 70 euros excluding VAT. It is less than the hourly rate for a car repair shop, though depending on the watch. “Some watches are so old that almost all parts have to be replaced. Then I’m more expensive,” he laughs.
The oldest clock in the workshop is an English table clock from the beginning of the eighteenth century. Knowledge of history is important as a watchmaker, says Meijer. “You need to be able to set the clock in time to restore it properly. A sixteenth-century clock has different characteristics than a seventeenth-century clock. “And not only that. Meijer goes to his desk and takes a large brown book from it. He flips through the book and points to the contents.” Look! French. All non-fiction is in French, English or German, so it is also important that you speak some languages. ”
In the ideal situation, Meijer will have an antique clock running again within a few hours, but more often it takes him a few weeks. “You can not be impatient as a watchmaker,” he says. Everything is done by hand: replacing bearings, making silver paste, turning screws and cleaning parts in an ultrasonic bath [een reinigingsmethode die ook wel gebruikt wordt voor ziekenhuismateriaal]† There is a magnifying glass on his work surface. “The work is very close. A mistake and your watch will not tick or strike.”
You have to pay everything yourself: rent, tools, equipment, insurance. It does not stop
Jaap Meijer (66) watchmaker
It takes more old clock enthusiasts like Meijer to preserve the antique clock, but there are too few young people. Meijer still had trainees from Vakskolen in Schoonhoven in his old studio, but they have not come for a while. He has no room to train them. And without practical training, you will not become a watchmaker, for you will only learn to restore watches by doing so. Meijer himself took years before becoming a skilled watchmaker, “and I still learn new things every day”.
Most of Meijer’s colleagues are in their mid – fifties or older and, like him, have neither the time, money nor the space to train people. Could an emergency recovery course be the solution? “It does not work right for me. Restoring watches is not a hobby,” says Meijer. Years of training are required. “Otherwise, we have no antique watches left.”
no fat pot
Economically, the subject is “not so attractive for young people either”. Most watchmakers are self-employed. To start a business as a startup watchmaker, you have to pay significant investment costs. A large lathe quickly costs 5,000 euros, almost 2,000 euros. “And I don’t even want to discuss renting a property,” Meijer says. A watchmaker can expect a turnover of between 1,600 and 2,600 euros per month depending on specializations, experience and age. So no fat pot, and certainly not with everything that goes off. “You have to pay for everything yourself: rent, tools, equipment, insurance. It does not stop. “The watchmaker has no pension.
There is no follow-up on Meijer’s business. He once gave his two sons an antique watch, but they never developed the same love for watches that he did. But as long as there is demand, Meijer continues to work. “It’s the best subject there is. Who can say that he makes old clocks work again every day? ”