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Watches and People: ReSTORATION and ReGENERATION

By June 1, 1998July 12th, 2023Career5 min read

It had been a fine Swiss watch, an early automatic from the 50s in 14K gold. It was proudly worn by my father, its dial showing that he was a Freemason. Engraved upon its back was the proclamation that it had been presented to honor him as the Worshipful Master of his lodge in 1956. I had kept it in a drawer for a long time not knowing what I would do with it. By the time I undertook the project to restore it, I literally had to scoop up the pieces, the case, the movement, a few loose gears, and a somewhat scratched crystal. The dial with the Masonic crest was particularly battle scarred, never meant for loose storage in a bureau drawer with coins, pencils and the other dregs disgorged from my pockets at the end of the day. Looking back, it was clear that while I didn’t seem to value this object, I couldn’t part with it either.

Finding someone to restore the watch was the first task. One jeweler kept it in an envelope for over a month without ever starting the work. Taking it elsewhere I found others who would promise no more interest or speed than the first. Eventually I placed the watch in the hands of a watchmaker who seemed genuinely interested and for whom the work presented no real problem. He carefully restored it, even finding new hands and a winding stem to replace those missing in action. He spent many hours tinkering, adjusting and calibrating.

The dial though, was something else again. Since I was not and probably would never be a Mason I wanted the symbol removed. Two dial re-finishers told me that it could not be restored. A call to the importer of the watch led in turn to a call to Switzerland, but alas, none were available for a watch of that era. Finally, as a last resort, the importer gave me a number that had been posted above his workbench for some time. It was a small specialty shop in Lancaster, Pennsylvania that did a variety of work with watches. I sent them the dial and two weeks later I was speaking on the phone with a man who held the dial in his hands. He told me that it was about 42 years old. “Exactly,” I said. “How did you know?” “I made this one,” he said. I was actually speaking with the individual who placed the Masonic symbol on the face of the watch when it was purchased for my father. As wondrous a coincidence as this was, it would only be a footnote to a badly ended story if he could not restore it as I wanted. He said confidently that he could and told me about all of the steps he would take to bring it back, even to placing the original brand name on the dial.

Five months after starting, I was looking into the face of a beautifully restored watch and finally recognizing why I had done it.

I have often struggled with what was my legacy from my father. Along with the watch came some intangibles like anger, impatience, violence, and sarcasm as well as warmth, reason, romanticism, and intellect. For most of my life though I could see only the negatives. While my father’s watch was still intact, I could not see the movement inside or how it was a fabulous mechanical marvel. My eyes only saw as far as the dial and how it really didn’t represent me. This really was not about Masonry. The dial became the symbol for the many other ways I was really not like him. Over the years, the more the watch slid around in the drawer the more beaten and disassembled it became. In the same way it took a long time to separate the various traits and characteristics that I associated with my father. The personality I inherited also had to fall first into disrepair before its parts could be appreciated and then carefully restored. In both cases decisions and struggles ensued about what to keep and what to replace. As with the watch, searching for someone to help put me together was another far-reaching journey. Some had technical skills but no love for the process. Others meant well but lacked the ability to make a difference. Eventually, I found one of those very few, wonderful “watchmakers” among us who patiently puts our little wheels back in place and tenderly calibrates the inner movement so that we might keep time just a little better.

I truly love the watch that sits on my wrist. Its silver face is beautiful, the movement something special, the gold case shines, and its new alligator band is just right to set it all off. It is, like I am, an amalgam of original, new, and restored parts. I especially treasure the inscription that sits against my wrist, close to my pulse, because it was the celebration of a crowning moment in the life of a man who struggled valiantly. All of it stands for reclamation and triumph, for both of us.

Curiously, in the past few days, I’ve noticed that the minute hand is just a little bit too long. The watch is fine for now, but someday I may look for another set of hands. Restoration, after all, is not an event but a process.

Len Burres worked in a family business before joining the insurance industry.