Monthly Archives: February 2016

Herr Altmann was a small lean man who reminded me of drawings by Wilhelm Busch. He was a Meister from Austria, which meant that he had served an apprenticeship lasting twelve years, and in theory no aspect of the Trade was beyond him.

Altmann BuschSomehow he had got himself into debt, and his business had failed. He came to work for Huppertz and we were in awe, but it must have been humiliating for him to become just another man at the bench receiving his weekly wage packet.

He was put at a bench right next to mine, which meant I could watch him going about his craft. Living up to his name, he seemed old and wizened though he must have been in his fifties.

He was a taciturn man with a heavy accent, so whatever instruction I got from him had to be via observation. He worked slowly and meticulously, and I can still see him licking his lips as he fiddled with some delicate construction. His techniques were antiquated. Instead of the proprietary flux which we all used for soldering, he would grind flux from a solid cone of borax in a special ground-glass dish. He wouldn’t use our soldering torches but brought along his own blow-torch. It was not the torch you might find in the hands of someone stripping paint, but the device which had given all blow-torches their name – it had two pipes, one connected to the gas and the other to a mouthpiece into which he blew, so that he could control the intensity of the flame with his breath. From him I learned the use of binding-wire, the thin iron wire that we use to hold things together while soldering them. When he lifted a tiny piece of solder, called a paillon, with his no. 2 brush, he did it so carefully that he didn’t leave a drop of flux behind to dry and stick the other paillons together, making them unmanageable.

This was in the mornings. During our half-hour lunch break he would nip down to the bar at the City Hall Hotel, a sleazy venue with tired old hookers. There he would drink spirits, doubles. In the afternoons he was no good. His hands shook and he made errors which a Meister should have been able to avoid.

One day Huppertz called me over to show me a ring. It was a delicate thing made to hold many stones in little settings around a larger stone.

“Herr Altmann is supposed to be so good. But look at this. The stone doesn’t fit.” He sighed and shrugged. It was the right thing but the wrong size. Two or three days’ work would have to be scrapped.

After a while Altmann stopped showing up for work. Perhaps the booze had overcome him. Perhaps Huppertz had fired him. No explanation was offered.


Apprenticeship IX


There was a parallel trade to jewellery, with a few overlaps – watchmaking, or rather watch repairing, since to my knowledge there was nobody making watches from scratch in Cape Town. Everybody had a watch, and like all mechanical devices they needed repair from time to time. Watches were sold in jewellery stores and when they broke they were taken there. Sometimes we might get a fob watch that needed some repair to the metal case or bail (the loop from which a fob watch or pendant hangs), but more usually watches went to the watchmakers. Like the jewellers, watchmakers were scattered around the city, in small, low-rent offices. They bought their parts and supplies from the same stores – Cape Watchmakers and Jewellers Suppliers, Southern Watch and Jewellery Suppliers, B J Oberholzer, and so on.


Because each watch had a great number of different parts and there were hundreds of kinds of watches and clocks, these stores were furnished with rack after rack of small wooden drawers, hand-made long ago, that contained all the parts which might need replacing.

Working at these stores were old men from the watchmaking trade – Mr Weiner, Mr Talmud, and others, who seemed to possess an encyclopaedic knowledge of watches, and I can remember how, standing at a scratched glass counter cluttered with a display of pliers, files, hammers and other tools, waiting for service, I would observe them open the watches, stare into them through a loupe, remove something with tweezers, and pronounce a codified diagnosis – ‘you need a Z20’ or whatever – and at once locate it among all the stuff in the drawers and boxes. Sometimes they would carry out the repair on the spot, simply replacing an old part with a new.

In the late seventies, digital watches arrived. They were cheap. They were a sensation, world-wide. With a watch-on-a-chip, the need for expensive repairs by experts was done away with – you just chucked it away and bought another. The only drawback was the ugliness of the devices. The crappy LED numbers lacked any of the refined elegance of the older dials and hands, and digital watches became synonymous with bad taste. But within a few years digital quartz watches arrived – not only were they more accurate than their analogue forbears, but they had similar faces and didn’t need winding. They, too, were replaced and not fixed. By the mid-eighties the suppliers were selling off their watch tools and I was able to buy some – tiny escapement files which I found useful in other applications, a set of ebony tool handles, as well as the chest of drawers in the picture above.

Now, if you have an analogue watch you will struggle to find anyone to repair it, and if you do they may not have the parts. An entire trade has gone the way of weavers, potters, blacksmiths and others – only a few practitioners are left, and these serve the collectors who can afford their expensive labour. Also gone from the collective memory is all the embodied knowledge that came with it, the way of holding certain tools, the fact that a tiny amount of useful lubricant skin oil can be obtained from the side of one’s nose.