Turning to analogue tech in a digital age, Carson Farmer is using the past to craft a future.
By Ethan Bortz
Since the late twentieth century, mechanical watches have been buried under new and advanced technologies. First, the invention of the quartz watch created the “quartz crisis” in the 1970s and 1980s. Quartz watches proved to be more accurate at telling time and easier to mass produce than their mechanical counterparts. Beginning in the 2000s, smart phones and then smart watches became our timepieces. These smart technologies tell perfect time (including daylight savings updates). Mechanical watches have been made obsolete and should just be a thing of the past. Yet these analogue watches remain a highly valued commodity.
The popularity of mechanical watches is not simply a result of their analogue nature or nostalgia. Interest lies also in the method by which they are manufactured, not on an assembly line or by automation but via a skilled technician who builds the piece by hand.
Carson Farmer is one of those skilled technicians and one of Rolex’s newest watchmakers. At the age of twenty, he has already realized time is a precious commodity. And, for Farmer, keeping track of those passing seconds, minutes, and hours warrants something similarly precious.
“Mechanical watches are certainly obsolete in today’s society. Which is a very, very strange phenomena to accept as a watchmaker,” Farmer remarked.
Luxury mechanical watches were popular before the pandemic. However, as a result of the lockdown, opportunities for spending money on activities were limited, so more people bought high-end timepieces.
“Watches are not in any stores right now,” Farmer explained. “Any Rolex boutique you visit does not have a Rolex on the shelves. Most of them sell before they hit the shelves.”
The fact that mechanical watch sales have gone up isn’t actually too big of a surprise considering the legacy behind companies like Rolex. Rolex has used, as Farmer puts it, “a series of triumphant events” to seat itself as the most recognizable brand in the world.
“The first man who climbed Mount Everest did so wearing a [Rolex] watch. The first woman to swim the English Channel wore a Rolex. The first manned vessel to go to Marianas Trench had a Rolex strapped to the outside of the vessel,” Farmer stated.
Rolex understands that events in which humans leave a mark in history deserve to be measured with expertly crafted mechanisms, not mass-produced disposables. Farmer appreciates this philosophy, and that’s why he became a watchmaker at Rolex.
As equally important to the legacy of mechanical watches is the craftsmanship involved. Respect for quality handmade goods is not something that will ever lose its relevance, especially with the ever-growing market of mass-produced garbage. Farmer predicts that the mechanical watch industry will continue its path of upward growth. With the upward growth comes an everlasting demand for new watchmakers.
Watchmaking isn’t a craft you can learn on the job or fully teach yourself. Watchmakers need to be professionally taught, but it’s not like you can go apprentice under the local town watchmaker anymore. Today, you learn the skill at a few hyper-exclusive watchmaking schools. And, as it turns out, one of these schools, the Lititz Watch Technicum, is located in Lancaster County. After graduating from Governor Mifflin High School in 2019, Farmer enrolled at the school.
Farmer’s interest in watches began with a juvenile desire to control – or, at least, understand – his life.
“When I was young,” he recalled, “I always asked my parents what time it was, as if the seven-year-old me had some very important appointments that I had to get to.”
Eventually, his parents bought him a cheap watch for his birthday as a way to shut him up. The trick worked. He no longer had to bug his parents. Farmer wore the watch daily, and when it broke he bought another, then another, then another, until he decided to save up for a more expensive one.
“I spent a ton of money on this at the time and it was the coolest thing I owned,” Farmer recollected. “I wore that watch for, like, five or six years probably. It was way too big for me – like an ankle monitor on my wrist.”
Despite loving his watch, Farmer still didn’t have any interest in the device other than as a tool. But the mere fascination with time would begin to evolve into a passion for exploring how it is measured one fateful day in high school.
One day, Farmer and a friend decided to visit a half-built abandoned mansion off in the woods, which was scheduled for demolition. It was in this mansion that he found a watch lying on the kitchen windowsill.
“When I left that house, I still had the watch on me,” he noted, “and I still have the watch on me today.”
For years, Farmer poured himself into researching this watch. Understanding what the mystery watch was fascinated Farmer, and he enjoyed the challenge. He looked over hundreds of watches. Overtime, he began to examine random watches more closely. Once he figured out what the watch in the mansion was, he didn’t stop researching.
Yet Farmer wasn’t thinking about a career in watches.
“It was still just an interest in watches and now starting to look at these inner-workings and these tiny gears and screws that I somehow knew were designed hundreds of years ago and were still working,” he explained.
His interest would soon change on another fateful day, this time in an airport.
While marking minutes until boarding a flight for vacation, Farmer learned from his cousin of the Lititz Watch Technicum.
“Sitting in that airport I Googled it on my phone, and I read every word on their website three times over, praying that I could find another page about it that I hadn’t read about,” Farmer said.
At his vacation destination, there was no cell service, and he yearned to learn more about this watch school that existed only an hour away from the home where he grew up.
“It was gnawing at my brain. I wanted to learn more about this school and this career and everything about it,” Farmer recalled.
As soon as Farmer got home, he called the school and scheduled to meet with some of the school’s faculty.
“What I expected to be a tour of the facility, turned into my first interview,” Farmer said.
He spent most of the day at the school while the faculty subtly tested him, trying to figure out his true purpose for being at the Technicum. Was he simply a watch enthusiast? Someone enthralled by the hefty price tag that comes with mechanical watches? was he genuinely interested in the complex inner workings of these tiny machines?
In order to be accepted into the Lititz Watch Technicum is no easy feat; the interview process for the school is several months long and includes one daylong interview. The school’s maximum class size is fourteen people, and for Farmer’s class only ten others were accepted.
“During the eight-hour interview process, a very large part of the day was spent doing aptitude testing,” Farmer said. “They try to figure out the way you take problems apart and find solutions.”
Farmer’s instructors saw a drive in him for problem solving and a passion for the mechanics of watchmaking. Eventually, after the exhausting interviewing, he was accepted into the 2019 class.
Farmer attended The Lititz Watch Technicum for two years. The school condenses the three-year to four-year plans of European watchmaking schools into just two. The schooling was rigorous: eight-hour school days for five days a week added to a large sum of seven-thousand hours spent.
Farmer spent the first year doing “micromechanics,” which consisted of learning tools like saws and files.
“We learned later that a large part of being a watchmaker is creating our own tools as well as creating the watch itself,” he said.
Certain watch brands have brand specific tools and if the brand goes out of business, those tools will no longer be in existence. In order to service these dead brand watches, watchmakers need to create the necessary tools themselves.
During his second year of schooling, Farmer began using his new tool skills to focus completely on watchmaking.
“[We were] going in every day and taking apart the same set of watches and putting them together, memorizing each piece, knowing exactly why each piece works,” Farmer construed. “A part can be six percent larger and still function while another part can be two percent larger and the whole watch stops functioning.”
Farmer’s entire class was motivated to succeed and took immense pride in their work. They were the second class in the school’s twenty-year history to fully graduate. At the school, Farmer found himself among other horology geeks.
“My class included people from all over the country. It’s something about the niche interest that is watchmaking that attracts similarly niche people. Everyone in my class was just extremely unique and eccentric. We all could be given the same problem and solve it in eleven different ways to get eleven successful outcomes,” Farmer said.
After Farmer graduated, he found an opportunity at Rolex.
Farmer interviewed at a Rolex facility in New York at Long Island City. There he did a three-day interview process doing bench work alongside Rolex employees. When he returned home, Farmer decided a service center was the best choice for himself.
“A watchmaker in a service center has a lot more predictable, routine safe work. While a watchmaker at a jewelry store could work on countless different brands,” he remarked.
He looked to gain a deep understanding of a specific brand of watches as opposed to general watch knowledge, eventually deciding on a career at the Rolex facility.
“Rolex now is the single most recognized brand name in the world,” Farmer explained, “and that gives me a huge sense of pride, to know that I work for such an old, honored brand.”
Farmer should be proud of his work. Watchmaking is an old and respected tradition that maintains a strong relevance today.
One could look at Farmer’s career choice as depressing. If anything is a memento mori – a sign of human mortality – the ticking second hand of the mechanical watch is. That watch acts as a constant reminder of life passing by. But Farmer views his career entirely opposite: a defiance of the inevitable. Farmer works to craft timepieces that, like the one he found in the abandoned mansion, long outlive their maker and owner. Timepieces that serve as symbols of human accomplishment, like the Rolexes worn by 1953 Everest expedition. Timepieces that count every second of the mundane and remarkable human life from one owner to the next.