Two talented students at the British School of Watchmaking have received Guild awards for their outstanding achievements during study.
Rafal Chmiel, who studied on the 3,000 hour course (two years) and Alice Neri, who has recently completed the 1800 course (one year) are delighted with the accolade.
Rafal received a £500 tool voucher and Alice, a £250 tool voucher, from Cousins, and both received honorary membership of the Guild.
Rafal was born in Warsaw, Poland, to an opera singer father and a professional ballet dancer mother, moving to England at the age of ten. He was initially interested in computer programming and studied computer science at University but, after working as a software developer for a couple years, quickly realised that this wasn’t the path for him.
He explains: ‘Sitting for long hours in front of the screen was draining for me and I wanted to switch to a more traditional field; a craft of some sort, where I could work with my hands, concentrate and be in silence. I wanted the field that I chose to overlap with what I had already learned from computer science, namely logic, problem solving, critical thinking, and attention to detail.
‘My father told me that there were watches which work without a battery, naming Patek Philippe as an example. Over the course of a year I got very interested in researching mechanical watches, especially ones from the independents like Philippe Dufour, Vianney Halter, Greubel Forsay, as well as minute repeaters from Patek Philippe. I collected watches, watched videos, listened to podcasts, attended brand events, and asked local jewellers to let me try on the pieces they had on display,’ he added.
Rafal’s strong Roman Catholic faith also played an important part in making his decision and he says that instead of focusing on the hedonistic consumerism of buying and owning watches, he decided to delve into the art of watchmaking itself and pursue it as a humble profession, building a solid-oak portable watchmaker’s bench with his father, and getting some tools, books, and scrap movements to practice on.
Rafal settled on BSoW to give him a solid foundation and an industry-recognised qualification. He adds: ‘I wanted to learn the traditional watchmaking skills that are dangerously close to becoming forgotten and lost, fine lathe turning, micromechanics, component manufacture, and high-end finishing methods.
‘The course is one of its kind and the tutors are excellent. They managed to get us to the point of turning balance staffs to tolerances of five microns within a few months, and by the end we become proficient at servicing mechanical chronographs with full-calendar and moonphase complications,’ added Rafal, who was delighted with his excellent final exam result, which he says he wasn’t expecting as he found the course very challenging. He is now a watchmaker at a family-run jeweller’s in Scotland, and has also recently passed his Rolex accreditation.
Alice was born in Lausanne, Switzerland, and grew up in a small Swiss town called Porrentruy. She says she first became interested in horology about seven years ago, after a few years of ‘trial and error’ with University course choices. ‘When I started looking into watchmaking, it was more out of curiosity than passion,’ she explains. ‘I had limited knowledge on the subject then, with many misconceptions. I considered it as a career on the sole basis that it would probably be like Lego building – only on a smaller scale. I loved building Lego, and this was all it took to convince me! It was when I realised how much more was involved that my interest really grew; I was drawn by the wide range of subjects – engineering, design, history, arts, restoration. There were so many areas to explore that I knew I would never be bored!’
Alice started a horological engineering degree in Switzerland which included practical courses in a watchmaking school. As she progressed towards the more theoretical aspects of the degree, she found she was spending less time at ‘the bench’ so decided to re-focus on more ‘hands on’ studies, joining the horology degree at Birmingham City University.
After graduating, Alice started her first job as a trainee watchmaker at Watches of Switzerland’s National Watch Service Centre in Manchester, who sponosored her to take the BSoW 1800 course, which she says complemented her previous knowledge of vintage servicing and making, with a more commercial environment and a focus on modern movements.
Alice says the course was intense but extremely rewarding and the curriculum was heavy so, by design, constantly challenged her and forced her to adapt. She says the highlight was the realisation of how much she had actually learned in a year. Her current goal is to further her brand knowledge and in the future work on complicated watches and explore the restoration side of vintage watches.