Know how to tell a clockmaker from a watchmaker?” asks Richard Paige. It sounds like the start of a joke, but it’s not. Paige says he can always tell at conventions who the clockmakers are by looking at their hands. A clock’s mainspring is so large and tense that if it pops while being serviced, fingertips get lost. Maybe that’s one reason Paige has stuck with watches, and having kept all his fingers, he’s at the top of the game.
Not that the watchmaker hasn’t tried to switch gears, so to speak. Years ago a 24-year-old Paige was working in his “really, really small” repair shop in Mill Valley, California, where the walls were lined with clocks—all set to go off at the same time. “I was working on a really delicate watch,” he recalls, “when all the clocks went off at once. It surprised me, I lost the torque and I sliced that watch right in half. I never wanted to have so many clocks around me after that moment.”
But he stayed in the business, opening seven shops altogether around Northern California and operating what he describes as the world’s largest web site for watch-making, repair and collecting. Eventually he burned out from the repetitious work and long hours, so he sold his watch collection and moved to O‘ahu. “I couldn’t think of anything more exotic than Hawai‘i. Every time I got off the airplane here—I’d been visiting since 1977—I started to smile. I just needed to get away from it all,” he says. “So, I moved to Hawai‘i, and I never wanted to see a watch again for as long as I lived.”
Famous last words. In 2002, after settling into his new life, Paige’s wife took him to a watch shop in Waikīkī searching for the perfect birthday gift. Which might seem odd for someone trying to get away from it all. “She didn’t know what to get me,” Paige says. “It’s not easy to buy a guy a nice gift in Hawai‘i. How many Hawaiian shirts can you have?” But Paige was unimpressed with what he saw. “Everything was subpar, and knowing so much about watches, I couldn’t bring myself to waste money on any of them. They were made from prefabricated materials, their parts weren’t challenging to work on and, unless they were really high-end, they had generic personalities.” That fruitless search rekindled Paige’s passion for watchmaking, if only to create something that he himself might wear. At least, Paige says, he had the foresight to bring his hundred-year-old watchmaker’s bench with him to Hawai‘i —just in case.
Paige is a fourth-generation watchmaker; his great-grandfather—a watchmaker and jeweler—came to America from Lithuania in the early twentieth century. Paige’s father, Harold, started Paige Jewelers in 1954 in Westborough, Massachusetts, where Richard cut his watchmaking teeth at age 12. “We used to have these ‘Dollar Watches,’ with characters like Mickey Mouse, Cinderella and Howdy Doody. They were cheap, and my father gave me a bunch of them. He wanted me to change the hands—you know, put the Cinderella hands on the Howdy Doody watch and the Howdy Doody hands on the Mickey Mouse watch. So, I learned my dexterity putting hands on all these character watches. I remember how much fun it was at the time.” His father also introduced him to the pocket watch, which by then was an anachronism;“He didn’t want me to ruin any new watches,” Paige says, “so he gave me all the old pocket watches to fix.” Paige Jewelers is still open, now run by Paige’s brother. Though Richard is the only watchmaker in his immediate family, seven uncles and three cousins are also watchmakers.
Paige left Massachusetts in his early twenties and headed to California for graduate school—and away from watchmaking. With a background in engineering, mathematics and psychology, he aimed to escape the gravitational pull of the family business. But it wasn’t so easy: “I was broke, and needed to earn some money because I wanted to go to UC Berkeley for grad school. So, I started doing what I knew how to do: fix watches. It took me no more than two phone calls to find a job while everybody else was scrambling to find work.” When he opened his first store—the one with all the clocks on the walls—in Mill Valley, watchmaking didn’t have the cachet it does today. “It was a really blue-collar job, like being a plumber or electrician,” he says. “It wasn’t a glamorous profession, but today it is because watches are very expensive. They make a whole thing out of it: There are even schools in Switzerland and the US. Most people go to school today; they don’t apprentice.”
Since he started working on them at 12 years old, Paige has been drawn to antique pocket watches for their style and durability. They have stood the test of time and could, with care, “easily last another hundred years or more,” he says. Paige aimed to create something that would replicate the elegance and quality of a pocket watch but with contemporary appeal—and that wouldn’t be stratospherically expensive, as luxury watches have become.
He started by purchasing six hundred pocket-watch movements (the mechanisms that make the hands move) dated between 1895 and 1930. Horologists and historians call this period the “golden age of watch-making,” and “Americans were the ones who made the best watches in the period between 1860 and 1930,” Paige says. American watches were so superior that Swiss watchmakers visited the United States to study the Americans’ technique. But that golden age has long since passed; during WWI and WWII, American watch companies were turned to the task of producing artillery and military equipment, while the Swiss remained neutral in the wars and continued making watches, reclaiming dominance until the advent of digital watches in the 1980s. The early 1900s, too, marked the end of the pocket-watch era. Wristwatches, invented in 1868, were generally regarded as effeminate—until 1904, when Louis Cartier created a wristwatch for French-Brazilian celebrity pilot Alberto Santos-Dumont after the aviator complained that it was difficult for a pilot to pull a watch out of a pocket while flying. The Santos-Dumont “Pilot Watch” caught on, and thus did the wristwatch become fashionable and manly.
After 1930, pocket watches all but vanished, and watch movements were downsized to fit smaller casings. A watch-maker hoping to revisit the glory days of the pocket watch must glean what he can. “They haven’t made parts for the watches that I use for at least seventy years. It’s like having a Corvette from the ’60s,” Paige says. “If you need an old carburetor, you need to go find an old Corvette that has a carburetor. So, I blew the dust off my Rolodex, contacted people in the business and purchased all the pocket watches I could get my hands on.”
Then Paige had to conjure something new from these old watches. A large, heavy timepiece meant to be carried in a pocket hardly has modern appeal. “I had converted a pocket watch back in the ’90s, but back then a pocket watch for the wrist was considered huge. People said, ‘Why do you have a clock on your wrist?’ I’d joke, ‘Because I’m hard of hearing.’ It wasn’t until the mid- to late ’90s that oversize watches became fashionable again: Seiko destroyed the Swiss watch industry, so the Swiss started coming out with more design-forward concepts. Oversize watches gave them the ability to reintroduce old styles, so I thought I could go back to that design I did in the ’90s.” Many drawings, nine iterations and a year later, Paige had designed and manufactured his own watch casings, large enough to accommodate the dial and movements of vintage pocket watches but that could be worn on the wrist. He calls it the “Wrocket,” a portmanteau of “wrist” and “pocket.”
A finished Wrocket typically falls between $1,800 and $3,500, depending on the rarity of the dial, movements and number of jewels—usually synthetic rubies—that prevent wear in the mechanism. Among collectors, these things are paramount. “A really outstanding dial will be worth a lot more,” Paige says, laying a watch on the table. “This is my holy grail of dials. It’s solid gold from a pocket watch from the 1800s.” His previous holy grail was a watch featuring a hand-engraved image of Christopher Columbus’ ship, Santa Maria, made in 1905. He “hoarded for ten years until my wife told me to just sell it,” he says. It sold in one day to a collector for $3,400. One of his current favorites features a niello dial. Niello, a liquid compound of(typically) sulfur, copper, silver and lead, was widely used in Renaissance art. Silver or gold would be etched and then filled with niello, which would harden and then be scraped away, imparting detail and definition to the engraving.
Paige calls himself an “Art Deco fanatic,” and his enthusiasm for the style shows in his work, from watches like “The Crash of’29” and “The Speakeasy” to watch hands he designed based on his favorite example of architecture: New York’s Chrysler Building. However, to imply that he has a “signature style” rubs Paige the wrong way. “I don’t want to be like anyone else, ever,” he says. “If I ever design a watch where someone says, ‘Oh, that looks like something else,’ then I’ll never do it again.” Until that happens his limited-edition, customized and handmade watches can be found in select Martin & MacArthur stores in Hawai‘i and through his web site, rpaigewatch.com. He typically makes no more than twelve a month, and they sell out quickly to collectors and aficionados.
To keep the work fresh and interesting, Paige is always innovating, designing new watches from the bones of timeless classics. For now at least, he doesn’t seem to want to run away for a third time from what’s apparently his destiny. “The day I wake up and don’t love it anymore,” he says, “I’m going to stop doing it.” HH