J. O’Donnell Watchmaker & Jeweller – est 1923

Address: 125 Swanston St, Melbourne VIC 3000

Phone: (03) 9654 6892

From an interview with Michael that has been edited

J O’Donnell was established by John Alfred O’Donnell.

John worked as an apprentice and at a jewellery store before he opened 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.

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.

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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 here?” 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.

Photo by Tatiana C C Scott

The term watchmaker is a bit of a misnomer these days.

I repair watches and clocks.

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.

Photo by Tatiana C C Scott

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 out the water.

Once it dries I put the watch back together and oil it.

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I also 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 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 machine winds up the automatic watches. You know the watch that works off the movement of your wrist?

Without that, I’d have watches up my arm while I am working.

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The power-source for a mechanical watch or a clock used to be a mainspring. 

But – once the Quartz clocks came in – the power source became a battery.

They have a natural resonance that breaks down into seconds.

Now, a lot of people use their mobile phones to tell the time, because it’s always in their hands.

Less people wear watches, but it hasn’t really affected our business.

Let’s face it, watches are jewellery these days.

They probably sell more higher end watches now.

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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 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.

Photo by Tatiana C C Scott

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.

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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.

Photo by Tatiana C C Scott

Written by Aron Lewin with all photos by Tatiana C C Scott


3 thoughts on “J. O’Donnell Watchmaker & Jeweller – est 1923

  1. He hasn’t changed his labour prices since he started. It’s rare to find such an honest & fair priced repairman in the jewellery/watchmaking industry. Xx


  2. Hello
    On doing a quick history search tonight regarding the maker of the J. O’Donnell clock we’ve had in the family for years I wasn’t expecting to find the actual store still operating honestly! Magnificent…
    Pleased to inform you that it still runs very well and am now looking forward to bringing it in for what I presume is a long overdue service.
    Address sticker inside the clock reads (first floor 288 little Collins st Melbourne)



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