words George Upton photography Jasper Fry

The world of horology has changed significantly since Richard Cato began his apprenticeship as a watch repairer in 1969. Having always wanted to follow his clockmaking grandfather into the trade, Cato left school at the age of 15 for the formidable, Victorian atmosphere of Bravington’s – a jewellers and watch sellers in King’s Cross where, as a member of the workshop, looking customers in the eye would mean instant dismissal.

When I visit Cato at his workshop, home to Sekford’s Service Centre, conditions for his apprentices appear to be considerably less severe, even if the process by which they are hired is refreshingly old school. “I ask all the potential apprentices to come in for a bench test,” Cato tells me, smiling. “I give them some tools and ask them to move all the tiny case screws from one box to another. If they do it easily I know straight away that they have the potential to be a watch repairer.”

Top: Cato rarely takes notes when disassembling a watch, relying on his memory to put it back together correctly. Bottom: A block that Cato has used since he started as an apprentice in 1969 to shape and support parts. Made from brass, it will not leave a mark.

Located in Hatton Garden, the traditional centre of London’s jewellery trade, Cato’s workshop is a hive of quiet, concentrated activity. Like Cato, who works away as we talk, the other repairers hunch over watches in varying stages of disassembly, all leaning in so that their eyeglasses, only a few centimetres from the naked movements, can reveal the minute details of their mechanisms.

Top: Cato at his bench, wearing an eyeglass. Bottom: Eyeglasses are essential to accurately view the intricate mechanisms, some of which are almost too small to be seen by the naked eye.

The repairers work with a nimble precision that, I remark to Cato, seems almost athletic. “You wouldn’t believe some of the things we do with our hands and fingers. The tweezers are like an extension of your body,” he tells me. I ask what other skills, apart from impressive hand-eye coordination, you need to make a good watch repairer. “Oh you definitely have to have love of mechanical engineering,” he says. “And a good idea of how things work, how they are affected by other parts in the watch, is essential.”

Cato uses high-quality synthetic lubricant when restoring watches – this bottle costs around £500

It seems, then, that good repairers are born, not made – a quick survey of the office shows that Cato’s staff have always been mechanically minded in one way or another – and yet experience is also key. It was only after several decades, mastering some of the most complicated movements ever made, that Cato established himself as one of the finest watch repairers in the world, specialising in antique pocket watches that often required Cato to make his own parts. “I was the only watch maker who had their card held by Sotheby’s watch department,” he tells me proudly.

Cato with some of the tools he uses every day. Top: specialist hand removing tools. Bottom: High-quality tweezers that are used for a variety of tasks from handling small parts to recoiling hairsprings.

Today Cato has moved towards modern watches, enabling him to expand and take on a new generation of repairers. Despite the fact that watches have been usurped by the mobile phone as the primary way of we keep time, business is booming – each repairer aims to finish three watches a day. And although he has spent nearly half a decade in the trade, Cato’s passion for his craft shows no sign of waning. When I ask him about the latest innovations in the industry, he lights up with excitement. “They’re now making carbon fibre and ceramic hairsprings,” he says enthusiastically. “The stuff they’re doing now, it’s mind boggling.”

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