Tell us a little bit about yourself...
My name is Seth Kennedy. I work as an antiquarian horologist, which means I repair and restore antique timepieces, in my case specialising in pocket watches. Most of the watches I work on were made in the 19th or 18th centuries but some are newer, up to around the 1950s and some are older, generally back to the mid 17th century. England had a significant watchmaking industry during this period and so many of those I repair were made here, though watches made in Switzerland, America and France also regularly cross my bench. As well as restoring the movements – the mechanism inside that keeps the time – I also repair and restore the cases which are usually made of silver or gold.
Movement work is obviously very delicate. Since it’s impossible to buy any parts for the watches I deal with, anything broken or missing generally needs to be made to suit. It’s also important to finish any new parts so that they match the materials and finish of the original components.
Case work involves tasks such as removing dents, repairing the joints (hinges), remaking bows (where the watch chain is attached) etc.
I also make complete pocket watch cases from scratch in silver or gold to re-home antique movements. Many old watches have had their cases scrapped for the precious metal value and so there are very high quality movements bereft of their original case and so in an unusable state. I can make a case in a period correct fashion to suit these and bring them back to life. Related to case making I also carry out the craft of engine turning which is a semi mechanised engraving process used to create even, geometric patterns. As a technique this has its roots in the 16th century but it became popularised on watch cases from the late 18th century.
Nearly all of my work is carried out using traditional techniques and very often using old tools and equipment that has passed through several generations of watch or clock makers. As well as preserving the watches themselves I feel that part of what I do should be to retain the traditional, historical skills.
What made you choose this career?
This career chose me rather than the other way round. I was made redundant from my job as a design engineer and was introduced to antique watches as a possible new path. I very quickly realised that this was what I was going to carry on doing.
Did you go through formal education? If so, what did you study and where? If not please explain your journey.
I’ve not had any formal education in horological work. I did A levels and then a degree in mechanical engineering, since that was the career path I thought I was taking. But when I began working on watches I had an experienced mentor who helped describe and train me on certain tasks and guided me though my initial years.
Did this have a positive or negative impact on your chosen career?
There are formal routes into this career but they would largely leave a person unprepared for much of the antique work that I cover since they tend to focus on more recent watches. There is a huge variety of technology to understand across the centuries of watchmaking and this can only really be learnt by reading of old texts and by practice – and the help of a mentor to answer questions. Ultimately success depends on the ability to pick up the delicate skills required and qualifications are not necessarily a path to this.
Who inspires you?
I think I am most inspired by the watchmakers whose work I get to see and handle. When you sit back and think about the working conditions of one, two or three hundred years ago (or more!) it is always incredible to see the quality of work that they were able to manage. Some of them, the more successful businessmen, are known by name. But many thousands are anonymous but became so highly skilled in the specialist work they carried out.
What’s the scariest thing about your job and how have you overcome it?
Taking apart and handling some of the rarer, extremely delicate components always takes extra concentration as there’s no room for error. It just comes down to being very careful and making certain of your actions at every moment.
Also, certain aspects of case making when working with particularly precious metal focuses the mind. In that case I always tell myself that even if the worst happens the metal itself is still valuable and so while a mistake could cause a loss of time spent working, the great value of the material is not affected.
What do you want to change about your industry?
All of the work I do is classed as ‘Critically Endangered’ by the Heritage Crafts Association yet there is currently a shortage of people taking it on. There are moves to try and ensure training of younger people but this will always be the struggle for this trade. Ensuring it is financially viable is the most important difficulty.
What advice would you give someone who is starting out in your field?
Reading and practice are the two most important things. Once the more common (and probably more recent) types of mechanism are understood then branching out into others so as to broaden experience. Finding someone who can mentor to some extent and help when coming across new problems would greatly smooth the way. There are associations you can join which will help in meeting people and gaining contacts.