The eagle eyed amongst the readership of Jewellery Focus will perhaps have caught the recent broadcast on Channel 4 telling the story of the renovation work currently being undertaken on Big Ben, or The Queen Elizabeth Tower and the Great Clock of Westminster as it is more properly known. This work will keep the clock covered up for at least four years, and concentrates not just on the mechanism but on the very fabric of the building itself. One of the keepers of that prestigious clock, and helping with the renovation work on the mechanism is a former horology student of the Birmingham City University’s School of Jewellery and we know him well. For a number of years we have been taking our horology students to visit the clock, and Ian Westwood has been our knowledgeable guide on a number of occasions.
It is always pleasing to learn where our students end up after studying with us, and horology as a subject area is very lucky in the sense that there is limited but highly respected market for talented watch and clockmakers. We are rightly proud of our alumni working with the well-known brands such as Patek Philippe, SWATCH, Rolex, Tag Heuer, Bremont, as well as at specialist clock & watch restoration businesses and auction houses. The streets of the Jewellery Quarter house businesses that also employ our students in smaller specialist servicing operations, and indeed some have strayed as far as the British Museum and even to help Roger Smith make bespoke watches on the Isle of Man.
For the skilled, there will always be work. The recent upsurge in demand for complicated mechanical watches with a high value is creating a worldwide shortage of trained watchmakers and there is a constant demand for highly skilled clockmakers able to deal with items of high value and importance, with appropriate knowledge to undertake complex repair, restoration and even conservation work.
Every skilled craftsman has to start somewhere, so we begin by describing horology as the art and science of time measurement, and the study of devices, both mechanical and electronic, used to show the passing of time. The subject has been taught at the school for over 100 years, and until recently, it was very much focused on the professional qualifications of the British Horological Institute. About 25 years ago, the university created its own HND, before launching the new BA Hons Horology degree in 2013, and our students can still have a route to professional membership of the BHI.
Ours is the only course of its kind, quite possibly in the world, but certainly in the UK. Designed to attract, train and educate students in horology, with a particular emphasis on employability skills tailored to meet the growing global demand for qualified watch and clockmakers to the industry standard. Our students exit, not only with specialist skills but with a degree, allowing them to enter the employment market at graduate level should they not wish to continue in the discipline. That said, most of them do stay with horology, and our degree programme provides a really solid grounding in a subject area that one can never stop learning in.
So what do we teach? Well, “teach” is the operative word. Many expect that we train, or spoon feed at the knee of a master, but higher education demands that we encourage all of our students to develop independent learning skills so that they are better equipped to move on after university. So we spend a lot of time giving the background to how horological mechanisms have evolved the way they have, and what each technological advance has brought to the accuracy of timekeeping. We develop their traditional hand and machine skills, making and high quality finishing of incredibly accurate components as well as developing their fault finding, repair and restoration skills. We then encourage the students to explore and to discover, with our support, how they can embrace new technologies such as computer-aided-design and rapid prototyping, laser welding and sintering alongside the more traditional practices.