“Tis with our judgements as our watches, none go just alike, yet each believes his own.”
— — Alexander Pope, “An Essay on Criticism” (1710)
The steady, rhythmic pulsing of what Yuri calls a “hairspring” reeks of eighth grade science class and a dying frog. It’s all just the same, right down to the tense quiet, the cold, sharp instruments, and the eye—watering chemical waft.
“It looks like a tiny beating heart,” Yuri murmurs, confirming the vivisectionist motif. As he speaks, he stares unblinkingly at the tiny object in front of him with all the steely focus of a surgeon. But, when he suddenly looks up, his bright eyes crinkle and his lips stretch into a toothy smile that seems far removed from acts of petty cruelty carried out in the name of anatomical science.
In a thick accent straight out of a Cold War spy movie, Yuri continues to explain that the hairspring“ is the watch’s heart. Unless it’s healthy, a watch won’t go. ”Then, with a sudden jab of a tiny screwdriver, the heart stops.
“I have to stop the watch to work on it,” Yuri explains as his long, smooth, fingers deftly wiggle the snake coils of the hair spring loose from the guts of the gold Rolex anesthetized on his tidy operating table. There is little natural light over his workspace so Yuri operates under the hum of a white florescent tube. A worn leather patch on the elbow of
a cashmere sweater, Yuri’s neat and orderly workbench occupies the humble back corner of a posh Newbury Street jewelry store. In fact, everything about Yuri is neat and orderly: close- — cropped curls moussed tight over a broad, round face, carefully manicured nails, matching gold neck chain and bracelet, and frameless spectacles clinging to the end of a strong, crooked nose. His brown, pointy shoes have a mirror shine.
With a flick of miniature tweezers, he flops the hair spring into an acetone bath. Multiple twists, tugs, and delicate turns later, it is joined by a thimbleful of tiny screws, gears, gaskets and springs. “An hour in the solvent and they’ll shine like new,” Yuri promises, removing his glasses, folding them closed, and placing them gingerly in a worn patch at the top of his workbench. Underneath, there are several clear plastic sets of drawers, each tiny compartment stuffed with its own, curious contents. Everything, it seems, has its correct place in Yuri’s domain, and necessarily so. Watchmaking is all about imposing order on complicated, if tiny, worlds.
A typical mechanical wristwatch has more than 200 parts and each one of them has a name. “I don’t know the English for this,” Yuri concedes, furrowing his bushy brows, as he holds up what looks like a little wagon wheel with a stubby bit of axle protruding from the center, “but it’s called sotrudniki in Russian. It’s what keeps the watch ticking with the cor
rect beat.” Or at least that’s the idea; apparently lots of things conspire against good time-keeping in a watch.
First of all, there’s gravity. Whatever position a watch is in, gravity is always pulling the moving bits down toward the center of the earth, slowing it down or speeding it up depending on the watch’s orientation. Temperature poses problems, too. Too hot and
springs get less springy, slowing a watch down; too cold and it’s just the opposite. Changes in temperature can also affect the lubricants that keep tiny parts running smoothly. Likewise, bumps and other movements affect accuracy, adding or subtracting speed from the otherwise steady transit of the sotrudniki — “balancestaff,” Yuri suddenly and triumphantly recalls.
But the most insidious enemy is the simple physics of springs — when they are wound tightly, they exert a lot of force, when mostly unwound, they exert comparatively less. This means that when a watch is fully wound, it would tend to run quite fast, and then slower and slower as the mainspring gradually uncoils. This is where the hairspring comes in. With each tick of the watch — each beat of the heart — the hairspring applies an oppositional force to the mainspring, more force when the watch is fully wound and then progressively less as the watch unwinds. This produces a state (at least in an ideal world) called isochronism, in which the watch runs at the same rate whether it has just been wound up or is almost completely unwound. But few of Yuri’s customers know anything about hair-springs or isochronism; they just want their watches to run on time.
“Most of my customers don’t understand or appreciate what I do,” Yuri complains, “they don’t understand how watches work. They think I just squirt in some oil, tighten a few screws and, poof, it’s done.” He punctuates his words with a few rapid, violent squeezes of a big, blue rubber ball that shoots jets of air into what remains of the Rolex’s innards, chasing away invisible bits of grit that might stop the tiny machine in its inexorable grind. “Look at this,” Yuri fairly shouts, plucking a steel Omega from an alcove in his work-bench.“ This watch is fifty years old. No parts. I had to make parts to fix it. The owner willj ust complain about the price I have to charge.”
This is why Yuri is called a watchmaker. If it seems unlikely that Yuri’s powerful hands — Yuri has the compact, muscular physique of a wrestler— can manipulate the truly tiny components of a watch, it seems like nothing short of impossible that he can fabricate those same parts from fragments of scrapmetal. Lathes, punches, files and diamond saws, at least in Yuri’s hands, somehow convert bits of brass into small pawls, cogs, springs and wheels. As a boy in Soviet—era Ukraine, he was inspired by a maternal uncle; it was from him that he learned the rudiments of his trade. However, Yuri explains that he chose his profession partially because there weren’t many options. Although he refuses to talk much about the challenges of life in the Soviet Union — he stiffens visibly when the subject comes up — Yuri allows that political and financial circumstances prevented him from pursuing a university teaching post. But now, watching the speed and confidence with which he applies awls, small hammers, and taps to parts so small he needs a jeweler ’s loupe just to see them, it seems this is what he was meant to do.
Suddenly the phone rings. He seems not to hear it as he makes a fine adjustment on the Rolex’s center pinion, the tiny bit to which the hands get attached, the only moving part of their watches that most of Yuri’s customers will likely ever see or care about. On the fifth ring, he sighs, dropping everything into a small tin cup, and snaps open his old— fashioned flip—phone with a sudden, agile motion.
“Yuri’s Watches,” he says mechanically. He listens for a few seconds and then seems to get bored. His eyes wander back to the workbench and he slowly picks up the Rolex, the phone now balanced on his shoulder in what is obviously a well—practiced pose. He picks up a small probe and begins round two with the center pinion. Suddenly, a single,
rapid—fire sentence: “I’m busy with a job; I gotta go.” He hangs up immediately, precluding any possibility of a reply. “Some guy wanted to tell me a whole story about his watch,” he explains with a chuckle. “He can come and see me,” and then he is again immersed in his work, attempting to seat one impossibly small tube inside another. The job requires surprising strength and vigor considering the size of the adversaries. Forearm muscles visibly flex under a thick layer of hair as the pinion assembly is at last brought to heel with a bright pointy tool designed expressly for this, and only this job. “Perfect,” Yuri declares, squinting through a loupe clutched tight in a wrinkled—up eye socket.
He turns the watch over and the reassembly process begins. Plucking parts from the acetone bath, he creates a watch out of a pile of tiny bits. It seems like he’s hurrying at first, but then it becomes clear that his speed is merely a function of skill and practice. Like a violin virtuoso running through quick arpeggios, that’s just the speed at which he comfortably, and unerringly, works. Wheels get nested on to each other and then set against miniature gears. Springs get coiled into tiny cake tins. Dozens of flame-—blued screws are carefully turned by a variety of specialized screwdrivers. In fact, every task seems to require its own unique tool. If fingers occasionally fumble, making some imperceptible mistake, the only sign is a hissed profanity — always in English. “Russians never curse in Russian,” Yuri improbably declares.
Just as Yuri finally wrangles the writhing curlicue of the hairspring back into place under that little wagonwheel, the phone rings again. The timing is so perfect it’s as if he had anticipated the call all along and had been racing to greet it. Three mysterious words of Russian and he hangs up. Yuri, as with many personal matters, is not inclined to offer any explanation, even when gently prodded, compounding the air of mystery.
The call, however, does not disrupt the furious pace of his work. Watchmaking is piecework: “I get paid by the watch,” Yuri solemnly explains. The Rolex battle won, Yuri immediately turns his attention to a Seiko chronograph, a cross between a watch and a
stopwatch. The initial prognosis is poor: “Jesus Christ, somebody has glued the dial on to the movement!” Not everyone, apparently, takes the same pride in his craft as Yuri. “You can always tell what kind of person has worked on a watch before. Some people take short-cuts ; others spend their time doing things that no one will ever see or appreciate — except the next watchmaker. I never want someone to open a watch I’ve worked on and say, ‘Jesus, who did that.’” Yuri signs every watch he repairs inside the case-—back with bold
initials and the date. “It’s my guarantee,” he says, “I’ll know if and when I worked on the watch if somebody brings it back with a problem.”
Yuri’s attention to detail has earned him a strong fan following in the local watch community. Paul Duggan, a dealer who sells vintage Rolex and Patek Phillipe watches from his shop in Boston’s famed Jeweler ’s Building at 333 Washington St., uses Yuri for many of his repairs. “The guy is no—nonsense. He fixes things fast and they don’t come back.Most of all he’s easy to work with. He does what he says and doesn’t keep you on the phone all day. I send him things and they come back fixed.” Precision and concision, by all accounts, seem to be Yuri’s watch words.
The Seiko chronograph gives way to an Illinois wristwatch from WWI. It has a massive winding crown that, according to Yuri, was an early attempt at waterproofing. “Not so good,” he says with a laugh. Water and dust are the natural enemies of watches, Yuri explains. And all the things manufacturers do to keep these intruders out of watch cases also work perfectly to trap them inside once they get there. Just a few drops of water can rust a watch movement in hours. One piece of grit, ground by the same gear 18,000 times
per hour (the typical rate at which many mechanical watches beat) can quickly erode metal
parts. “Watch movements,” Yuri says without any hint of humor, “eat themselves.”
But Yuri doesn’t get much beyond unscrewing the case—back of the Illinois before his work is interrupted by a sudden and somehow unexpected intrusion of chic from the crowded Saturday sidewalks of Newbury Street that lie just beyond the bay windows of
the shop. A blonde girl in her mid—twenties enters, breathless from climbing the stairs of the brown stone that houses “Yuri’s Watches.” She pads across the midnight blue, wall—to—wall carpeting, passing gleaming glass cases filled with jewels, porcelain figurines and velvet
boxes, and stops in front of Yuri’s humble patch of real estate. Yuri doesn’t look up. She nervously checks her reflection in an antique mirror propped upon the glass counter, tucking a blonde tress behind one ear. She eventually catches Yuri’s attention with a small noise
and explains in a high—pitched baby voice: “I want to buy a watch for my fiancé, but I don’t know much about watches.”
She is petite and fair and looks youthful in a white linen shirt, knee—length pleated skirt, and Prada espadrilles. She has a nice smile that she uses to good effect with Yuri. The Illinois drops into the tin cup and he is out of his high, chrome—and—black—leather chair in a flash. She glances at his unbuttoned shirt, which reveals a hairy chest and thick gold chain, and beams the smile again. It is hard to say who is getting the better of whom at this point.
Yuri produces a few options, new and vintage. “We collect antiques,” she muses, “so something old, I think.” Yuri asks what kind of watch he wears currently.“ He doesn’t wear a watch,” she admits, looking down,“but I think that’s just because he doesn’t own one.” Yuri coughs in response and begins to put more watches on the counter. “Vacheron made beautiful watches,” he explains, “better than Patek.” She seems unimpressed. “Maybe a pocketwatch?” she asks. Yuri is obviously surprised by this unexpected turn, but produces half a dozen gold cased specimens – one with a streamlined railroad locomotive bursting from the dial. “I think he’d look distinguished with a pocketwatch,” she murmurs thought-
fully. “Nice ring,” Yuri offers, changing the subject. “I know,” she replies, fanning a manicured hand out at arm’s length. She looks down at it expressionlessly. “He spent a lot of money. That’s why I want to get him a nice watch.” Yuri nods approval at the perfection of the transactional symmetry.
Finally she settles on a steel Zenith from the 1950s. The smile comes back out and she asks Yuri if he will model it. “Sure,” he says, strapping the watch to a muscular wrist, and then striking a pose with his hands on the hips of his dated, flared jeans. Now it’s Yuri’s turn to work the smile, twisting the corners of his mouth into a wide impish grin. An improbable blush suggests that it has found his mark. “I’ll take it,” she laughs. Yuri congratulates her on her choice, and adds in his heavy accent that: “he’ll think of you every time he chicks the time.”At this, the man and woman behind the jewelry counters, who have been craning their necks to watch the interaction, laugh delightedly.
After she leaves the shop, Yuri seems cheered by the encounter. Plainly he’s a good salesman. It was, in fact, the first sale of the day for anyone in the shop. However, the afterglow doesn’t last long for Yuri. The sound of the bride—to—be’s footsteps on brown stone stairs still hangs in the air when he grabs for the Illinois. “Piecework,” Yuri says with a smile. The jewelry counterfolk eventually turn their eyes to the bay windows and the sidewalks beyond. In response to nothing in particular, Yuri suddenly muses aloud that watchmaking really suits him. “You never know who or what is going to walk through that door,” he says with a smile that exposes the wrinkles at his eyes and the corners of his mouth.“ And people will always need to know what time it is.”
It’s getting dark outside, but Yuri’s fluorescent tube buzzes overhead unremittingly. The white noise of the shop clerks’ chatter hums in the background. They are discussing a planned trip to Tuscany in hushed tones. Suddenly, Yuri leans forward, narrowing his steel blue eyes. “I come from a different world than these people,” he whispers flatly, glancing furtively toward the clerks. For an instant, a bleak concrete Eastern European landscape looms into view... then the window shuts. Yuri turns back to the old Illinois. Tuscany apparently is a long way from Kiev of the 1980s.
The clerks are gone at 5:30 sharp, but Yuri pays no attention to the clock. He continues to labor in an increasingly distinct cone of ugly grey light, stopping and starting time until he finishes the jobs for the day. The Illinois finally yields to a cheap quartz watch that just
needs a battery. “Soulless,” Yuri mutters as he pops a squat silver disc into the back of the apparently unfortunate specimen. The watchmaker carries on into the quiet evening like the watches he repairs, with all their complicated parts shut up in shiny cases, slowly grinding themselves to an inevitable end — unless, perhaps, someone takes the trouble to open them up and look inside, narrowing his steel blue eyes. “I come from a different world than these people,” he whispers flatly, glancing furtively toward the clerks. For an instant, a bleak concrete Eastern European landscape looms into view... then the window shuts. Yuri turns back to the old Illinois. Tuscany apparently is a long way from Kiev of the 1980s.
The clerks are gone at 5:30 sharp, but Yuri pays no attention to the clock. He continues to labor in an increasingly distinct cone of ugly grey light, stopping and starting time until he finishes the jobs for the day. The Illinois finally yields to a cheap quartz watch that just needs a battery. “Soulless,” Yuri mutters as he pops a squat silver disc into the back of the apparently unfortunate specimen. The watchmaker carries on into the quiet evening like the watches he repairs, with all their complicated parts shut up in shiny cases, slowly grinding themselves to an inevitable end — unless, perhaps, someone takes the trouble to open them up and look inside.