Watch Nerdist Interview: KM Independent Watchmaking
by A Real Person on October 5, 2010
In my last post I talked about a couple of items that could be the future of the wristwatch. One not (necessarily) designed as a watch (the iPad Nano) and the other taking new technology into the wristwatch arena (Seiko E-Ink watches). While both of these designs could be the start of the next area of watches, the immediate future, in my eyes, belongs to guys like Keaton Myrick.
As a young guy in his early twenties, Keaton decided that his future lay in watches. Not in retail sales at a jewelry store but in restoration and repair and, taking it one step further, making watches of his own. He entered and graduated from the prestigious Rolex-funded Lititz Watch Technicum and even worked for Rolex for a spell. Keaton now owns and operates KM Independent Watchmaking, where he splits his time between repair work and machining his own creations; of which his prototype was featured on The Awesomer. I took some time to chat him up to learn a bit about his watch background and his current doings.
JE: So, what kicked off your interest in watches? When did you realized that you had a passion for them?
KM: My interest in watches goes back to my childhood. To this day my mom jokes about the Swatch watch collection I had when I was 10 or so. I had every one of them I could get my hands on, had all the different colored scratch guards too. I think there was something with those Swatches that really piqued my imagination. Most of them had some part on the case that was transparent, so being able to see the inner workings really made me curious. I’m sure more than a couple were sacrificed to the watch gods for a little premature horological tinkering on my behalf.
The passion came later. I stopped at a Barnes and Noble for a little reading material on a road trip to Montana one year, this must have been around 2001 or so. On the shelf I saw a magazine (then) called IW (International Watch). This obviously piqued my interest so I picked it up. Strangely enough that issue had an article on pursuing an education in watchmaking and listed all of the schools and a quick “bio” of the school itself. Up until that point I had always though wtchmaking was something you had to apprentice, didn’t even know schools existed. I knew it would be a few years before I could get myself in a financial situation to go to school so in the meantime I began collecting vintage pieces and joining online forums. This is where the passion really started to take off and I quickly realized that this was destined to be a lifelong endeavor.
JE: So you kind of knew at this point that watches were going to be your career and it was a matter of getting to that formal training?
KM: Yes, I knew I had found something worth pursuing, but I also realized the difficulty of getting into some of these schools. After reading that article and calling some of the schools to speak with administration, I had come to the conclusion that Lititz Watch Technicum was the one for me. First of all, they were a WOSTEP (Watchmakers of Switzerland Training and Education Program) accredited school. Lititz also stuck out above the rest because of the School Watch program. It is an aging tradition in European watchmaking schools to make a watch as part of the curriculum and this was very appealing to me because I knew my future was in the manufacturing and restoration of timepieces. What better way to learn than to do it, right? Once I had established where I wanted to go it was just a matter of getting in. On last check Lititz gets about 175 applicants a year to which only 12 slots are available.
JE: Knowing then that you were going to pursue watches as a career you started tinkering before you enrolled in school (I know this because you worked on a couple of mine). How did you start? Just crack one open and start poking around or did you do some reasearch, etc? And how old were you at the time? I know you’re a young’un.
KM: Watchmaking is one of those careers that is tough to “try” before delving it. Knowing that I wanted to pursue it I decided to enroll in the Timezone Online Watchmaking School. It was fairly inexpensive and I felt it would be important to just make sure that this was something worth changing my life for. This brief introduction to watchmaking just fueled the flame that was already burning. The watches I worked on at the very beginning were junkers that I would buy at the thrift store or antique shops. Once I got comfortable working on those pieces I did take in very few watches of friends to help with simple problems. Gosh, I would have been about 22 when I was doing this.
JE: I notice something that you said, “I knew my future was in the manufacturing and restoration of timepieces.” The word I noticed was “manufacturing” – so you knew early on that you wanted to actually make your own watches? Not just repair, but actually construct your own. I find this fascinating as repair is one thing and could be sustainable for some time, but you wanted to take in a step further.
KM: Repairs are a wonderful thing. You must fully understand the fundamentals of watchmaking to be a great watch repairer. Every watch I have ever repaired has taught me something to either design into my watches or to stay away from. As much as I enjoy repairs, the creative element is virtually non-existent. The manufacturing of even the simplest watch introduces a huge amount of challenges, from the initial movement design through to the fine regulation at the end and all of the manufacturing, and prototyping in between. When I was younger, I jumped around from job to job because none of them ever challenged me, and I have always been a person that craves the challenge. There is nothing that drives me more than when a person tells me I can’t do something, and when you share with people that you want to manufacture watches, this is usually the most common response.
JE: Back on track: you enrolled in the Lititz Watch Technicum, packed up your belongings and moved across the country to go to school. What was the school like? Not your traditional 4-year university for sure.
KM: Lititz has a very intense curriculum. Not only did we do the regular WOSTEP and AWCI (American Watchmakers-Clockmakers Institute) requirements, but added to that both the School Watch project and we were the first class to complete a Precision Pendulum Clock, of which we made every part. This clock can still be seen hanging on the wall in the lobby of LWT. The program is 2 years long with minimal time off. The first year is heavily focused on micro-mechanics with a basic introduction to repair. As a class we added both the School Watch project and the Class Clock project to the first year – as you can imagine, it was a very busy year. I am very proud to say that we not only had a running clock at the end of that year but every student had a running watch to present. Take into account that all 12 students maintained a passing grade on the rest of the curriculum as well, this was quite an accomplishment. The second year is focused entirely on repair and restorations and is easily as intense as the first year….especially around exam time. We were able to work on some very fun, complicated watches. Every repair/restoration we did during the second year was closely scrutinized by our instructors and counted towards our final grade.
JE: After you were through with your schooling what was the next step?
KM: About half way through the second year everyone starts coming back to reality, and the realization the we need to find jobs becomes quite apparent. I came to the conclusion pretty quick that although the curriculum at LWT is quite good, I wanted to learn more. I got to work on a resume and decided to apply with Rolex USA. The interview process and bench test went well and I was offered a position as a Watchmaker. You can imagine how exciting this was for me, having not even graduated from school and having my dream job lined up (pending graduation of course). I spent a month learning the product and ended up working with Rolex for a year. The decision to leave was one of the toughest decisions I have ever made: Rolex treats its employees better than I can possibly describe and the lessons I learned in my short time there have proven priceless. The final decision came down to family. I was 2700 miles away from my nearest family member back in Oregon and I struggled with that constantly. You can imagine the difficulty finding a Watchmaking job in Central Oregon, so self-employment was the obvious next step for me.
JE: As far as the manufacturing process, what components do you make yourself and which do you source?
KM: Well, the wrist watches are based on a ETA (Unitas) 6497. I remake the mainplate and all the bridges to meet my standards of fit and finish. I refinish the stock gear train and use the stock escapement but it is finely adjusted beyond the factory tolerances. The balance wheel will be made in house as well. For a while there I was trying to get my balances from Switzerland but I can’t get anywhere near the minimum order requirements that they require. I am currently doing some intensive R and D work on both materials and shapes for the production balance wheels. I have been keeping fairly quiet but I am working on a pocket watch prototype right now as well, which I will be making about 95% of here in my shop. The design is complete and I am about 25% into the manufacturing. No photos of this one until it’s done, but I am very excited about it.
JE: Your prototype is pictured on your website; do you have a timeline for when you expect to have models available?
KM: I would like to have another wrist watch done within 6 months. I have cases ready to go, so its really just about making the balance wheels now. My watches are really made one at a time, so I never intend to have “models” out, per say. The watches will be individually numbered and although the technical design may stay the same, the aesthetics of the movement may change from piece to piece, depending on what I feel works for the overall mood of the watch.
JE: How do you balance your time between your repair/restoration work and your work of actually creating your watches?
KM: Funny thing is managing my time is really the toughest part of my job. I mentioned above that I enjoy repairs. That wasn’t a lie, the problem is I enjoy design and manufacturing much, much more. Currently I would say that they are split right down the middle. I have a home office where I do a great deal of design work late into the night so I can focus on machining and R&D when I am in my shop with my tools. As I finish my next watch my repairs will cut down to probably 25% of my time leaving me more time to manufacture. Restorations will always be a big part of my business, I love the challenge the bring to the table and the work can be immensely rewarding.
JE: And for fun, what’s your favorite watch you own and one you’d like to own?
KM: Man, that’s tough. I have a 1912 Tiffany & Co. Longines Cal. 13.33 that I am very fond of. The 13.33 was the first chronograph movement designed to be worn on the wrist. It’s a beautifully thought-out caliber with an instantaneous minute register. Longines always manufactured an impeccable chronograph. This particular watch has a fascinating military history; I am working on an article about the history of this watch and its restoration right now. There isn’t really a watch that comes to mind that I desire more than tools – I love tools. A rose engine would be nice.
The watch shown here is a pre-production prototype and not for sale. A few design elements not present on this watch will be added to my future pieces. The production pieces will have the logo on the dial and a steel plaque on the movement with my initials and an individual sequential number beginning with 002. Production pieces will also have a slightly different click design and the hands will be more proportionate to the dial. Remember, these watches are hand made one at a time, each one will be unique. The straps for my watches are also handmade and hand-stitched one at a time here in the US. They are made to exact customer specifications and are available in just about any look that the customer may choose.