SCORES OF CLOCKS—retro, chic, and real antique—ticked, clicked, and rang like a drunken carillon while Jody Laine, loupe to her eye, pored over a mechanical maze the size of her thumbnail. “I don’t even hear it anymore,” she said with a shrug. A customer, clearly a regular, popped in looking for a gift: “I need a battery-operated retro clock that Brian can use in his bathroom.” “Fantastic!” said Laine—a word she uses the way other people say “Okay”—and pointed to a row in classic bungalow colors. “And they’re on sale, $10 off. It’s a miracle every day here at Tiempo!” Without missing a beat, she switched from barker back to craftsperson and resumed tinkering.
Laine, a short, stocky woman with merry eyes and close-cropped pepper-gray hair, is a watchmaker, which sounds as anachronistic as a profession could in the digital age. The very term evokes Old World, one-of-a-kind handcraft, though watchmakers generally fix watches rather than make them from scratch.
The next customer, a mom seeking a watch for her teenage son, underscored the point. “He only uses his cellphone,” she explained, “but he’s going to be graduating, so he’ll need a watch for dressing up.” “Fantastic!” said Laine and offered some advice: “Don’t get him anything too small.” Young men want man-sized watches.
There’s nothing like ubiquitous, inscrutable microchips to make one appreciate exquisite springs and gears. But Laine was drawn to watchmaking for practical reasons. In the early 1990s, she was a social-justice activist, stage techie, and set designer looking for a steadier career. “I made lists of things I liked to do: work with tools, interact with the public, run my own business.” And, though she didn’t realize it, watchmaking was a natural second act in another way. Like the old joke says, the most important thing in theater is…timing.
As it happened, the Watchmakers of Switzerland—the ultimate guild—had lately established their first and only training program on the West Coast, at North Seattle Community College. “It was a really intensive sort of old-fashioned apprenticeship”—40-plus hours a week for two years, learning to fix watches.
Twelve years ago, when Laine graduated and launched Tiempo, most local watchmakers still clustered in the Joshua Logan and 1425 Fourth Avenue buildings downtown (though renovation has since displaced many). She opted instead to pioneer in Pike/Pine, which was just making its transformation from a fix-it district of car repair, cabinet, and used-appliance shops to the city’s hippest neighborhood. She wanted to be in on the recreation. An old-fashioned watch repair and chic timepiece boutique is a bridge between the old and new Pike/Pine.
Five years ago, Laine learned that watchmaking could have another social purpose. A fellow member of the Seattle Metals Guild asked if she could fix some watches the group had collected for the needy.
Watches are no small gift to the down-and-out. Being on time is essential to holding a job and getting on your feet—not to mention the credibility- and confidence-building value of a nice watch. Laine decided to make collecting, refurbishing, and donating watches a regular mitzvah, and found she’d created a monster. No other watch shop she knows of does this. She’s heard from would-be watch donors from as far away as Hawaii and New York. “I guess there aren’t any watchmakers in New York. I tell them to give them to their local Goodwill.”
In 2008, Tiempo gave about 150 refurbished watches to the likes of Francis House, the Compass Cascade Women’s Program, and Jewish Family Services. By mid-December 2009 it had only given 70—and 300 more, packed in Ziploc bags, awaited new straps, batteries, springs, and homes. Laine didn’t know when she’d get to them. Her righthand watchmaker had just decided to retire, leaving all the repairs to her. Till she can hire a new assistant, she prays customers will come to buy stylish new timepieces, not get their old ones fixed.
“When we get time, we’ll do it,” she said, and turned to greet another customer. Here, especially, time is of the essence.