WPI Wire, Vol. 10, No. 2 - Summer 1996

Gref '90, watchmaker for The Best of Times

What time is it when the little hand is on the 12 and the big hand strikes 13? Time to get a new wristwatch, if you believe the punch line to the old joke, but collectors and dealers all over the country can turn to Tom Gref, Certified Master Watchmaker and proprietor of The Best of Times. Working from his home in Wakefield, R.I., Gref repairs, restores and sells vintage watches, which range in value from a few hundred to thousands of dollars.

Gref, who established his own full-time business last year, has been practicing his craft for five years, doing watch repairs on the side while working for American Power Conversion. His interest in watches dates back to 1990, when he had just graduated from WPI with a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering. While staying with his father and looking for a job, Gref happened to find some old watches in a drawer. He opened one up and was intrigued by the complexity of the tiny mechanism. He realized that he was in over his head and paid to have the watch fixed, but the experience piqued his interest.

"I started going around to flea markets, picking up junky watches for a dollar or two" he relates. "I began fiddling with those, and then I just hit the streets." A friendly proprietor at one repair shop told Gref where to buy parts and steered him to a specialty bookstore in Virgina that carried books on watch repair. Soon he was being offered free-lance work by his mentors.

The next hurdle was to become a Certified Master Watchmaker, a prestigious designation granted to only a few people each year by the American Watchmaker's Institute in Harrison, Ohio. Applicants must pass a written exam with 600 questions, then demonstrate their skills by making several repairs and adjustments to men's and women's watches. One of the hands-on trials requires candidates to construct a balance staff (5 millimeters long) and a stem from scratch. The miniscule parts are cut by hand on a watchmaker's lathe. Tolerances must be within .015 millimeterčabout one-tenth the thickness of a piece of paper. "Typically about 10 people take the exam every year, and only two or three pass it," says Gref.

Although he is not a collector and he confesses to wearing "a junky quartz watch" himself, Gref contributes to some upscale international publications, including Vintage Wrist Watch Report, International Watch & Jewelry Guild Newsletter and International Wrist Watch Magazine. He writes technical articles to help collectors understand the mechanics of how a watch keeps time, including advice on proper maintenance and descriptions of the repair process. His readers are wealthy collectors and dealers who travel all over the world, trading watches that cost up to $100,000. Gref knows of a English watchmaker who designs and builds elaborate custom watches by hand, making each part from scratch. The price is $200,000. "He's about 70 years old, and he's basically booked for the rest of his life," says Gref.

"I think a lot of it [the passion for vintage watches] is a response to the era of new technology," Gref says. "Everything is so disposable nowadays. You buy a watch for $20 or $30, and you throw it away. There's a lot of history attached to those old timepieces. In their time, mechanical watches were the most complicated mechanisms in existence. I think the size and accuracy of the parts is also part of the fascination."

As elderly craftsmen retire, Gref foresees his specialized services becoming more and more sought after. "It's a dying art," he says. "Hardly any young people are getting into it."

Advertisements for The Best of Times in specialty publications bring in work from all over the country, including Hawaii and California. At any given time, there may be 15 to 20 watches waiting for attention in Gref's workshop. Although new customers are sometimes surprised by his age, the quality of his work speaks for itself. Perhaps the greatest tribute to Gref's growing reputation is that about one-third of his repair jobs are referred by dealers who call on him after others have failed. They know if anyone can revive the old ticker, it's young Tom Gref.

For more information on The Best of Times, call 401-789-8463.


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