Address: 125 Swanston St, Melbourne VIC 3000
Phone: (03) 9654 6892
From an interview with Michael that has been edited
J O’Donnell was started in 1923 by John Alfred O’Donnell.
John worked as an apprentice and at a jewellery store before he established his own business in the Methodist Book Buildings.
I started working for J O’Donnell in 1971 with his son Brian, who continued the business after his father died. In 1977 we moved to the Centreway Arcade before settling in the Century Building on Swanston St.
We took on an apprentice in 1979, Peter Carr, who was with the business until he sadly passed away in 2015.
The business has been operating for almost 100 years.
The term watchmaker is a bit of a misnomer these days.
I repair watches and clocks.
We have an advertisement in the Yellow Pages but all of our business is pretty much word of mouth. A battery lasts 2-3 years and – when they need one replaced – a customer might come in.
So your customer base has to be quite large, because you might not see them for a long time.
That’s how the business works.
I use a pair of tweezers all the time.
When I pull a watch to pieces, I take the screws and wheels out and lift the plates off.
Then it goes into the cleaning machines with two solvents to clean off the water.
Once it dries I put it back together and oil it.
I use a range of small screwdrivers.
And these are the pliers that we use. Flatheads, little cutters, round-nose pliers and speciality pliers. I use those all day every day.
I use a back-opener to open the back of watches. If the watch doesn’t have a screw-back I use a knife – which I’ve had for forty years – to pop the back off.
And that machines is for the purpose of winding up the automatic watches. You know the watches that work off the movement of your wrist?
Without that, I’d have a bunch of watches up my arm while I am working.
Originally the power-source for a mechanical watch or a clock was a mainspring.
If you coil it up it has a lot of power which drives all of the wheels. All of the wheels are geared into seconds and minutes. You put the hands on the front, and that’s how you tell the time.
But – once the Quartz clocks came in – the power source became a battery. They have a natural resonance which breaks down into seconds. Now, a lot of people use their mobile phones to tell the time, because it’s always in their hands.
There are less people wearing watches but it hasn’t really affected our business.
Let’s face it, watches are more a piece of jewellery these days.
They probably sell more higher end watches now.
Working with clocks requires the same skill-set as watches.
It’s just bigger.
For this one I’ll pull the clock apart, put the wheels through the cleaner, buff the plates on the polisher, peg it all out, clean it off, put it all back together again and oil it.
It’s the same process. All clocks and watches run off oil and – when the oil dries – they have to be cleaned and re-oiled. For your mantel clock you should probably get them done every 5-7 years.
If you don’t, it will wear out.
A lot of people leave them on the mantelpiece for 20 years and – when they bring them in – they are broken.
Who knows why I became a watch maker.
I was at school and I wasn’t doing that well at the time.
A family friend was looking for somebody over Christmas to help him out. He said, “would you like to work?” I finished school on the Friday, I started on the Monday and I am still in the same job.
I worked with Brian and – if you worked under a qualified watchmaker for five years – you became a watchmaker. You got your qualifications through a Grandfather Clause.
You worked, and they taught you everything you know.
A lot of people think the watchmaker trade is dying.
You buy a watch, you pay $100, and if it stops you say “I’ll get another one.”
A lot of the Quartz watches are disposable, and people replace the movements rather than servicing the watch.
And there are very few watchmakers at the moment. I don’t think there is an institution in Melbourne that currently trains people to repair watches.
It’s not a popular – or high paying – job.
When I started working here I didn’t have an interest in watchmaking.
But I’m still getting here early every day.
And I still enjoy doing the job.
I’ve been here for 47 years so I’ll have to give myself a gold watch soon.
Written by Aron Lewin and all photos by Tatiana C C Scott