South African student horologist Jurjen van der Eems has won the Guild/BHI Prize for 2023 and receives a £500 Cousins tool voucher.
His success, achieving the best result in the Distance Learning Course (DLC) Level 3 Diploma in Clock and Watch Servicing, was announced at the BHI Awards Day at the end of October.
Although Jurjen wasn’t able to attend in person, he was delighted with the Award.
He was born in Pretoria, South Africa, in 1998 to a Dutch father and an Afrikaans mother, as the second youngest of five children. At the age of 10 the family relocated to Cape Town.
He said: ‘I was home educated and we followed an eclectic approach that allowed me to follow my own interests. Homeschooling was my main education right from the start until I finished my schooling at 17.’
Jurjen’s first interest in horology was with a small ladies traditional wind-up watch, which he says he ‘curiously disassembled’ with a scalpel, describing it as a ‘simple yet intricate device’.
From that first encounter the seeds had been sown.
‘I became captivated by the simplicity of timekeeping and the marvel of the complex machinery responsible for it.This new-found passion led me to flea markets, where I would buy watches only to take them apart, repair them, and restore them to their former glory,’ he said.
Jurjen’s training as a watchmaker began with a hands-on approach. Through trial and error, he says he honed his skills, gaining valuable insights from every watch he encountered, seeking guidance in the form of watchmaking literature and instructional videos available online.
His watchmaking journey took a significant turn when Mr Thys Willemse, a well known watchmaker in Cape Town, recognised his interest and dedication and gave him a platform to grow.
Jurjen explains: ‘He gave me the opportunity to start an informal apprenticeship at his workshop, OnTime Watch Services, whilst finishing my school leaving diploma. Mr Willemse later recommended me to the owner of a high end watch and jewellery shop where I gained valuable knowledge and skills in retail, while repairing and servicing watches, carrying out battery replacements, and stock taking.
‘After a year, a remarkable opportunity arose at a watch and clock shop owned by a French clock and watchmaker, Reichen and Belleme, at a shop called Time Machine, in the beautiful town of Knysna, situated 500 kilometers from Cape Town. Here I was able to embark on a more structured path to becoming a watchmaker through the mentorship of Patrick Belleme.’
Jurjen says that during his time in Knysna, he expanded his horological knowledge servicing and restoring a variety of watches and clocks, although, sadly, during this time his mentor passed away.
He enrolled in the BHI’s DLC obtaining his Level 3 Diploma in October 2023, which was a significant milestone in his quest to master the art of watchmaking.
Today Jurjen’s role is focused on the repair and restoration of both watches and clocks. He has also honed his expertise and specialises in the restoration of pocket watches. In addition to the hands-on work, he also handles cost estimates for watch and clock repairs, under the mentorship of Erik Smit, watchmaker, who, he says, provides insights into the intricacies and subtleties of working within a professional agency whilst improving his skills.
Jurjen says he still draws inspiration from the watchmaking masters of Europe and the United States.He explains: ‘The craftsmanship they achieved with limited tools continues to astound me. One figure that resonates deeply with me is Henry B Fried, whose practical solutions to watch repair have left an indelible mark on my approach to horology.
‘Beyond the old masters, I also find inspiration in the antique tools they used in the olden days. The precision and artistry that went into crafting these tools remind me of the dedication and ingenuity required to excel in the world of watchmaking.’
Jurjen, who wrote in TimePiece (May/June 2022) about his ‘Cape Dutch Gable Clock’, says he has another exciting project underway – designing and creating a custom watch for a property company owner.
He explains: ‘This watch will serve as a promotional item and I am involved in every stage of its creation. From designing the dial to selecting the ideal case, movement, and components.
Jurjen says that oddly enough his ‘perfect timepiece’ is not a luxury watch but a humble Casio F-91W.
‘What makes it special is its unobtrusive design, robust reliability, and remarkable durability. You can throw it across the room to the astonishment of onlookers, only to find it in perfect working order when retrieved. It is a testament to the enduring appeal of simplicity and functionality,’ he said.
For the future, Jurjen says his ultimate dream would be to create a watchmaking training centre in Cape Town that can
nurture aspiring horologists from Africa and around the world.
‘It is a vision that combines my passion for watchmaking with a dedication to sharing the beauty of this art with the next generation, offering them an affordable and accessible path to becoming skilled watchmakers.’
His other interests include restoration of old cars, collecting antique pipes and improving his Latin and Ballroom dancing skills.
Guild Chairman, Shuajb Berisha FBHI, said: ‘I would like to congratulate Jurjen on this significant achievement and wish him continued success on his horological journey.’