When we think of watchmakers, we immediately think of European and Japanese artisans. But to ensure our watches remain in tip-top shape, watchmakers around the world and of varying backgrounds all work hard to ensure the immortality of our timepieces. Earlier this month AFP via Prestige shone a spotlight on 52 year-old Youssef Abdelkarim, a third-generation watchmaker in Baghdad. Thousands of watches fill his workshop, and Abdelkarim diligently spends his days at his desk working his way through the queue of watches that need his care and attention to fix.
According to AFP, “Abdelkarim began fixing watches at the age of 11, after the death of his paternal grandfather, who opened the store in the 1940s. His grandfather had already passed the trade onto his own son, who began to teach Youssef.” During his days in his shop, Youssef Abdelkarim can be seen repairing anything from a cheap Sigma watch to a coveted Patek Philippe.
He even claims to have possibly repaired a watch that belonged to former dictator Saddam Hussein. He explained to AFP, “It was a rare watch brought to me by the presidential palace, with Saddam’s signature on the back.” It apparently cost 400 Iraqi dinars to repair, which was more than $1000 in the 1980s but less than a dollar today.
His work has certainly changed over time. Abdelkarim notes how the rise of smartphones and digital technologies have led to less reliance on mechanical and analog devices. But he remains steadfast in his belief for the need for watchmakers. His dedication to the craft is not only a tribute to his family, but also his faith in the need for quality working timepieces. Abdelkarim explains to AFP, “A man’s elegance begins with his watch. And his shoes.”
As AFP notes, he may very well be right. “His shop is still packed with customers of all ages and styles, including former ministers in sleek suits, collectors looking for vintage classics and younger Iraqis bringing newer pieces for him to fix. ‘Everyone finds what they need here,’ he [Youssef Abdelkarim] said proudly.”
One thing that’s also very clear from the article is the reality watch collectors have become all to familiar with. Watchmaking is in dire need of more trained watchmakers. While there were once neighbouring watch repair shops to his storefront, today only Abdelkarim’s shop remains. This means he has become a sole resource for those in the area to have their watches fixed locally.
With many watches to fix, it can take some time before a customer will receive their watch back. AFP explains, “With his eyesight starting to falter, he fixes just five pieces a day now, compared to the 1980s when he sold and fixed hundreds every day.” That is quite a sharp decline in productivity each day, but I believe his customers are thankful his shop has survived and that they can count on someone to faithfully restore their precious watches.
Fortunately as his father taught him, Abdelkarim is now training two apprentices – his sons Yeha (24) and Mustafa (16) to eventually take over and preserve the business. According to AFP, “He insists they will preserve the store as it is, with its cracked walls framing the door, its dusty shelves and its mountains of timepieces. ‘This shop hasn’t changed in 50 years, which is what keeps people coming back,’ he said. ‘That’s what preserves its identity.'”