Going The Extra Mile: An Inside Look At WEMPE's Fifth Avenue Service Center
Expert service with a smile and a personal touch.
“We’re not here to get rich on repairs,” says Ruediger Albers, president of WEMPE USA, at the flagship store on Fifth Avenue and 55th Street. With four highly-trained watchmakers and an assistant in the service department, it’s clear that, profitable or not, WEMPE has a lot invested in servicing its clients’ timepieces.
At Your Service
At WEMPE's Fifth Avenue location (700 Fifth Avenue), at least two watchmakers are always in the store to help clients with anything from a small adjustment, professional polishing or a major repair service. “Seven days a week we have master surgeons on deck for every level of emergency," says Albers. Here, we meet the "surgeons" and their unique takes on working with the world's most exceptional timepieces and the people who own them.
Ari Roman, Service Manager, Watch Service Department
Ari Roman started getting into watchmaking at the tender age of 16. His uncle in his native Guatemala was a watchmaker, "and I loved it," he says. He quickly became passionate about watchmaking and learned at his uncle's bench. "I was at school full time, and then part-time after school, I did an apprenticeship with him." When I immigrated to America, I went to the American Watchmaking Institute for training." And thus his career began. But he's never stopped learning, gaining more and more skill at servicing the world's top brands.
Throughout his 20 years at WEMPE, Roman has continually trained with brands in Switzerland and Germany "I’ve been to trainings at the brands, and that changed everything, because I learned all of their different ways, and sharpened my skills,” he says. Roman has achieved authorization from numerous brands including Patek Philippe, Panerai, Rolex, IWC and Breitling to service and repair their watches. And he’s still training now. In June, Roman will return to Switzerland to Patek Philippe for another training.
The Importance of Training
“Many brands have very high training standards that need to be met before you are authorized to buy parts and perform repairs,” says Albers. “So we send our watchmakers for training. We have sent some to Richemont, others to Rolex, others to Patek Philippe in Geneva. It’s a lot of time, and you go more than once,” to achieve authorization, he says. “Even being chosen to go means a lot, because brands are very stringent,” about who they select to participate.
"It's not just training, there's a lot of expense involved,” Albers says. “Not only is the person out of the store and not being productive here, but we heavily invest in tools, machinery, and spare parts in order to be an efficient service center,” he says. Having the necessary tools and parts on hand “means that we can perform services on the spot here, which a lot of companies are not able to do.”
Will Harbison, Watchmaker
Will Harbison was a successful mechanical engineer before he switched gears and decided to become a watchmaker. While he was interested in mechanisms, his job involved a lot of "office and paper stuff that was not really up my alley," he says. One day "I walked into a watch and clock repair store, and I thought wow, this is pretty awesome," he recalls. He researched how to get into the profession, and enrolled at Lititz Watch Technicum in Pennsylvania, which was founded in 2001 by Rolex. Tuition was free, and he completed his work with a certification from WOSTEP (Watchmakers of Switzerland Training and Educational Program).
Besides his certification, Harbison, along with the others who graduated, was given a Tudor watch that he wears with great pride to this day. It’s engraved on the back, commemorating his achievement.
After graduation, Harbison did a six-month apprenticeship at Lititz honing his skills on servicing Rolex watches before becoming a watchmaker at a watch and jewelry boutique in Pennsylvania for five years before joining WEMPE.
Harbison has worked at WEMPE for nearly four years and is certified for Rolex and Chopard repairs in terms of brand-specific training. When asked why he loves working at WEMPE, he says "people who are into watches come into this store. And the people who work here are into watches as well. I appreciate the knowledge and the passion of the people around me. It's really fulfilling."
Soenke Dehnen, Master Watchmaker
“I started when I was about 18,” says Dehnen, “but even before that I was interested in watches, there’s this magical thing on your wrist that you wind up and then tells you time. I wanted to get to know how that works, so when I was finishing school, I wanted to do something with my hands, so I decided to become a watchmaker.” He trained at a watchmaking school in Germany, and after a three-year apprenticeship began a master watchmaker course.
“While I was taking my one-year master watchmaker course, I met Rudy and his buying team during last year’s Baselworld. Shortly after he offered me a position at WEMPE. First in Germany so I could receive special training on the WEMPE Zeitmeister, and Chronometerwerke watches” he says. "I have been here only eight weeks now!" Dehnen also has an in-depth understanding of clock repairs, which is more and more rare, especially in the US.
“What makes this job so great is being able to talk directly to the client and to the manufacturer,” Dehnen says. "I can be aware of every aspect of what’s going on in the process, everything that’s involved in servicing the clients.”
Angela Chan, Assistant Watchmaker
Angela Chan, an assistant watchmaker, keeps everything running like clockwork in the service department, including taking in the watches and keeping in contact with clients. She also speaks fluent Mandarin, so she often also serves as a translator for Chinese shoppers. "I'm fascinated by movements and the way all of the parts work together in harmony," she says.
Angela possesses a great deal of patience and will explain to the customer whatever they want to know about servicing and mechanical watches in general. "Some clients want to know and truly understand what's going on with their watch. I will take as much time as it takes to explain it to them until they truly understand. That makes me happy."
Nelson Cruz, Master Watchmaker
Nelson Cruz is a master watchmaker who joined Wempe 18 years ago. “My father was a watchmaker, so I learned from him during my middle and high school years, back in my country – the Dominican Republic. After high school, I got a job at the Rolex and Omega distributor and then in 1983 I immigrated to the US", he says. He attended the AMERICAN WATCHMAKER AND CLOCKMAKER INSTITUTE in Ohio.
Furthuring his knowledge and expertise, Nelson has also completed practically every training available from Rolex, Cartier, Breitling, Jaeger-LeCoultre and others. “Then, in 2001 I got my best opportunity as a watchmaker, a job at WEMPE," he says. "in 2003 I attended the WOSTEP program for a 10-week training on micromechanics, and in 2004 I went for a 20-week training on restoration of vintage and complicated watches - a dream come true," he continues. "Just this year I had my long awaited training at Patek Philippe In Geneva. As a watchmaker you never stop learning.”
Good Value, and Trust
“We are very lenient and generous in terms of service, we do a lot of minor repairs free of charge,” says Albers. If the watch needs more care, “we keep the customer informed during the process through emails and or texts. We give a customer a pretty accurate estimate of how long the service will take, and the price."
Explaining to clients why a repair can be pricey, Albers puts it in perspective. “You spend $100 for gas every week when you fill up your tank, and an oil change for your car is normal and necessary," he says. "A watch is like a small machine. If you’ve had your watch for eight years, and the service will cost $800, that’s $100 per YEAR." Transparency is key, he says. "Often, I show the customer the actual invoice from the manufacturer, so they can see that there is practically no margin, and most of them say 'I had no idea' and agree to proceed.”
Going the Extra Mile - Taking Service to the Skies
Albers delivers on his promises, even if he has to go to great lengths do to so. “We once had a service that took longer than expected, but I had given my word that the watch would be back in time for the daughter’s wedding," he says. The upset lady had to leave for Canada just hours before the watch came in from the manufacturer, a delay beyond our control. So in order to keep my promise, I put someone on the next plane, and we hand-delivered the watch just in time for the big event."
A Family Affair
Albers' support of the watchmakers goes the extra mile, too. “Being that I am a master watchmaker myself, as was my father, I will never ask my service team for the impossible, and it helps me understand their needs and challenges," he says. “It also requires a culture of honesty. If you have a mishap in the service, you’ve just got to say so. We are only human."
WEMPE operates the largest watch service center in Northern Europe at its Hamburg headquarters. This facility is a great resource for additional support for the New York team. Lastly, WEMPE offers a two-year warranty on all watches that have undergone a complete service, whether the repair has been performed in-house or at the manufacturer.
(Photography by Liam O'Donnell)