How better to understand the complexities of time than going directly to the source. Not Father Time or Einstein, but the next best thing, someone who makes time for a living. For nearly four decades Michael J. Doyle has been doing just that as a professional watchmaker. By virtue of this intimate knowledge of timepieces, his insights are, well, worth the time.
The interview with Doyle was scheduled for a Thursday morning. I arrive precisely at his downtown Sacramento shop at the designated time of 9:30 a.m. He seems to appreciate my punctuality, which he later explains to be less about his occupation and more about his personality. “It shows respect,” he says. “Time has value.”
For the next hour-and-a-half, we dissect the meaning of time — the mechanics, aesthetics and history of timepieces. We discuss how the invention of the mainspring early in the 15th century made portable timekeeping possible. And that it wasn’t until the early 1900s that watches began migrating from pockets to wrists (and now, on the ubiquitous smartphone, back to pockets.) Initially, Americans considered the strapped-on bracelet watch a frivolous European fashion trend, at best a useful piece of jewelry. Soon, though, they also became a practical wartime imperative for aviators and soldiers to quickly and precisely coordinate maneuvers.
“Time marches on,” Doyle says, unleashing other timeless clichés. First we learn to tell time. Later we learn to make and spend time. We come to appreciate that time flies, passes, heals, changes, is wasted, waits for no one, is of the essence. Later in life, we learn to savor time.
As an artisan and pragmatist, Doyle adds “time is money” to that list of clichés. An independent watchmaker, he is one of only a few thousand practicing in the United States, according to the American Watchmakers-Clockmakers Institute, of which only a handful work in the Sacramento area.
The weathered signs outside his humble shop at 726 Merchant Street (really an alleyway), a block northeast of the mammoth new Golden 1 Center, reads simply M.J. Doyle – Watchmaker. (Doyle’s adopted a sanguine, wait-and-see attitude about the impact of the new arena on his business. “I’m more optimistic than worried.”)
It is an increasingly rare occupation and Doyle, 61, routinely gets asked how he got into this line of work. Ordinarily enough, his career path began as a salesman and eventually manager of a Chico department store’s jewelry counter. Intrigued by the idea of identifying and appraising gemstones, he set out to Southern California to attend the Gemological Institute of America to become an authorized appraiser. A year later, with his new credentials, he moved to Sacramento and for a few years apprenticed and did wholesale trade work.
In 1982, Doyle opened his own business as an independent watchmaker, full-service jeweler and gemologist and has worked out of the same Merchant Street location for the past 34 years. This concentrated work environment, however, contrasts his worldly perspective on time.
In 2005, he spent six months in Switzerland — “ground-zero for watchmaking,” he qualifies — attending the renowned Watchmakers of Switzerland Training and Educational Program. The purpose of the international watch industry school, Doyle explains, is to “take existing watchmakers and bring them to a higher level of perfection.” (WOSTEP also offers a program for novices, students starting from scratch; and another track to train experts to restore museum pieces.)
Students were treated to a private tour of the Geneva factory for Patek Philippe, the oldest privately-owned watch company in the world, which makes a line of watches considered by Doyle and aficionados to be the best made, and most expensive. Issued a pair of white cotton gloves, he was allowed to inspect the company’s finest handmade watch, which retailed at $1 million and — as with all Patek Philippe timepieces, including the three of that particular model — was pre-sold.
Doyle calls himself as a “micro-mechanic,” working with the mathematics of gears. “In its most simplistic construction, watches are steel gears, stone bushing — or gemstones — and an axle sandwiched between two plates.” When he talks to customers about watches, however, more often he uses car analogies because they’re easier to understand. “They’ll bring in their quartz watch and say ‘It isn’t working … I need a new battery.’ That’s as much as they know. I try to educate them that their diagnosis is like claiming an empty tank of gas is the only thing that can be wrong with your car.”
To give proportion to the detail of his work, he takes a pair of tweezers and places a miniscule screw, maybe 1/8-inch long at most, on the counter in front of me. “This is too big for my work,” he says. Then he appears to grab something else and set it down beside the first bit. “This,” he points to the barely visible speck, smaller than a period typed in a newspaper, “is a screw I use.” Remarkably, the metal punctuation mark has a head and threads. The demonstration reinforces the purpose of the ever-present magnifier strapped to Doyle’s forehead.
“Do you feel you have earned a unique perspective on time?” I ask. “Absolutely,” Doyle confirms. “Time is a general thing to most people; to me it is very specific. I work in seconds in 24 hours. It’s a much more precise evaluation.”
We conclude the illuminating interview, un-interrupted by customers. Then, as if on cue, the door buzzes and a couple of customers enter the now crowded shop. The first customer, an older gentleman, lays his watch on the counter and says it needs a new battery. He laughs, “Almost worked overtime because of it.” Doyle opens the back, does a quick assessment and says, “Your battery tests good.” He smiles in my direction and then pokes around the insides with a mini tool, and poof, it’s working.
Doyle hands the watch back to the appreciative customer, explaining the fix is likely temporary and he’s “living on borrowed time.” Doyle opens a binder to check a rate sheet and explains his service will cost between $95 to $110. “I’ll wait,” the customer says, “you’ve been here all these years, you’re not going anyplace.” Doyle grins, “No charge, but don’t rely on it.” The next customer, a young woman, also suggests her watch needs a new battery. She’s right, this time it does.