In Paris, a Kind of Watch Repair Cooperative


PARIS — It is not easy to find Horlogerie du Passage, a watch repair workshop nestled in Passage du Chantier, one of the narrow stone-covered alleys found throughout the city’s Right Bank.

Blink while you’re walking along Rue du Faubourg St.-Antoine, a busy road in the 12th Arrondissement, and you might miss the entrance to the passage, which dates to 1842. But once you make the turn, the atelier is right there.

It is a single room — 15 square meters, or slightly more than 160 square feet — filled with three workstations, machinery ranging from a polishing machine to a unit that tests a watch’s water resistance, and a wall lined with sets of tiny drawers to store watch parts. The only windows are in the front wall, looking out onto the passage.

“Often there are guided tours of the passage and visitors are curious to look into the atelier,” said Matthieu Lopez, one of the business’s three watchmakers. “Our tables are facing the outside, so people can see what we are working on. Some watchmakers prefer not to be disturbed, but not us.”

“It all started when one of my watchmaking friends vacated the space, so I moved my material and equipment in here,” Mr. Lopez said. That was at the end of 2020, and “the rent was ridiculously low.” (The monthly rent continues to be 350 euros, or slightly less than $340, and quite a bargain in Paris’s market, where the average commercial rent would be about twice that amount, according to the Leosquare agency.)

He was soon joined by Clément Bonnal, whom he met when they started their watchmaking studies at Lycée Diderot in Paris, one of the three schools in France that offers a diploma in watchmaking and design. And in January, Millah Gilbert, a Diderot graduate, joined the team.

“The concept was a collaborative workshop, where we share material, equipment and knowledge,” said Mr. Lopez, 30, adding that they specialize in repairs because, after an initial investment, the business does not require a lot of additional money and the work can be quite profitable.

Mr. Lopez had an unusual first career for a watchmaker: He used to be a midwife.

“While I was working in the medical system, I discovered watchmaking,” he said. “I was buying old watches and taking them apart, doing the entire overhaul. I taught myself for three years.” (Mr. Lopez is doing an advanced program at Diderot and is expected to complete it in July.)

Mr. Bonnal, 36, already has graduated from the school’s basic program. Formerly a restaurant manager in the Montmartre district of Paris, he decided to follow his uncle and grandfather, both watchmakers, into the field (“My uncle still has a shop in Paris,” he said.)

Mr. Bonnal acknowledged that a watchmaker’s life is rarely a lucrative one. “I joined Matthieu in this space so I could practice, and not to make money,” he said.

Ms. Gilbert, 23, grew up in Villeneuve-le-Comte, about a half-hour’s drive east of Paris, and decided to enter Diderot’s watchmaking course after taking a career quiz online. “Watchmaking is about creating something new with something old,” she said.

She earned her advanced diploma in 2021 after four years of studies and a training stint with Thierry Gibernon, one of the official Meilleurs Ouvriers (in English, Best Craftsmen) in France.

“At school we learn a lot of theory and we overhaul maybe five watches,” she said. “And if you go to work for a brand you usually just repeat one task over and over, but here we do everything from A to Z. This environment is very Zen-like, we’re all self-entrepreneurs.”

Mr. Lopez said the business began as “an association of micro-entrepreneurs for the revision of watches, without a legal existence.” But in March the watchmakers formalized the business, with Mr. Lopez and Mr. Bonnal now sharing the administrative duties and the profits covering the rent, utilities, salaries and equipment.

“Equipment and tools are the most expensive part, but we need them so we can provide more advanced services,” Mr. Bonnal said.

The business offers complete servicing of modern or vintage mechanical watches and clocks, changing batteries on quartz models, replacing broken crystals, polishing away scratches on watch cases and similar problems, with prices averaging a few hundred euros, depending on the job.

“We try to solve everything that comes our way, such as clocks or a Rolex from the 1960s we had recently,” Mr. Bonnal said. “We even changed a battery for a remote control once.”

One memorable repair job, Mr. Lopez said, was an Ebel watch from the 1930s or 1940s that had been damaged and then sat in a drawer for years. They did an in-depth restoration that included remaking the dial, the seconds hand and the acrylic dome, which had to be filed and repolished to give it the same curvature as the original. Afterward, the watch worked perfectly, he said.

“We never say no to anything,” Mr. Lopez said. “We are often people’s last hope. Some watchmakers stay in their comfort zone and refuse certain repairs.”

Mr. Bonnal agreed. “When you’re starting out like we are, we have to accept everything. We sometimes get the leftovers,” he said. “There’s a little crazy side.”

But sometimes the trio just cannot help.

“There are watches for which there are no more spare parts, because the factory no longer exists and has not built up a stock of spare parts,” Mr. Lopez said. “The most common case is when brands hold back parts. This is the case for almost all the current Swiss brands for which an agreement must be obtained in order to have access to the parts catalog.”

Some repair businesses do have such access, he said, “but they have to pay to get it, and it’s very expensive. For us, it doesn’t work. So even though we don’t want to refuse repairs, sometimes we have no choice.”

Ms. Gilbert said that the watchmakers often network with other businesses and friends to find rare parts. “Our work is a permanent quest for pieces,” she said. “We spend so much time on that.”

For example, the Horlogerie team often works with A.P.H., or Atelier Parisien d’Horlogerie, a business in the 9th Arrondissement, and L’Atelier du Temps, at the Marché aux Puces de Saint-Ouen — both watch repair businesses staffed with Diderot graduates.

The watchmakers at Horlogerie du Passage also share their equipment — Tahar Nasri, a friend and watchmaker who does repairs “en chambre” (in English, “in his room”) nearby, comes to the workshop from time to time to use the water resistance testing machine — and in the last academic year alone they had five interns, part of an official Diderot program.

The trio said that such collaboration and cooperation continues to be at the heart of what they do.

“All three of us are on the same boat,” Ms. Gilbert said. “If we drop a part on the ground, we all look for it together.”