Gehan & Dorety Watch Masters: Bringing the Mechanical Watch Back to Life in Oakdale
By Paulina Eligos / Photos by Jeffery Lilly
OAKDALE, CT– As I approach the rustic and charmingly bright red barn that houses Gehan & Dorety Watchmaking on a day in early May, I am first greeted by bumblebees meandering through flowers and bushes just starting to bud and blossom. The scene is bucolic, and after meeting the proprietors Brad Gehan, 26, and Jack Dorety, 25, I learn that this sort of workshop locale actually harkens back to the beginnings of watchmaking deep in the mountains and valleys of Switzerland. Gehan tells me that watchmaking began as a cottage industry that could occupy and sustain snowbound farmers during long and brutal Swiss winters in the 1700’s. Intense natural light reflecting off of the snow covered valleys into the windows of the earliest “maisons,” or farmhouses, created opportune conditions under which beautifully crafted timepieces were constructed without any of the modern conveniences of electrically powered machines, or even lights.
Gehan & Dorety Watchmaking is quite a departure from these humble origins. State of the art machines, akin to what one would find in high-end modern European service centers, line the pristine white walls of the atelier. Dorety explains: “The shop layout and every piece of equipment, from specific lubricants down to which screwdriver blades we use, was calculated and deliberate in our plan to forge alliances with some of the best watch manufacturers in the world.” Indeed it shows. Gehan opens a cabinet that the partners crafted out of cherry harvested from the forest behind the shop. I am met with a meticulously organized selection of finely crafted small tools for every conceivable repair and restoration task. The men’s forethought has paid off it seems; they cite Rolex, Audemars Piguet, and Omega as three of the top-tier brands with which they have established relationships. These companies are exacting in their expectations, necessitating specific training and tooling requirements before allowing Gehan & Dorety to work on their all-mechanical watches.
Gehan and Dorety met at the prestigious Lititz Watch Technicum in Lititz, PA, a fully accredited watchmaking school founded by Rolex in 2001 to combat the shortage of watchmakers in the United States. Once accepted, students’ tuition is fully underwritten by Rolex. However, admission into this ivory tower of horological knowledge mandates each student pass a series of dexterity, critical thinking, and mathematical challenges. Before completion of the program, each student must pass tests administered by Lititz Watch Technicum, as well as with the national standard bearer, The American Watchmakers-Clockmakers Institute (AWCI), to become fully certified watchmakers.
Contemporary watchmaking, even with ultra-modern equipment and certifications, still requires a healthy nod towards the machines, tools, and techniques of yesteryear. The men regularly use equipment that might be approaching 100 years of age. In fact, they sit at antique wooden workbenches used by Gehan’s grandparents when they were practicing watchmakers in the very same facility. Clifford VanDyke, Gehan’s grandfather, attended the Waltham School of Horology in the late 1940’s with support from the GI bill after returning from military service in the Pacific. His grandmother Edna VanDyke attended the Joseph Bulova School of Watchmaking. Highlighting one machine in particular, an extremely accurate measuring microscope, Dorety explains how G & D has come full circle with the previous generation of watchmakers: “This [Hauser 324] actually came out of the Bulova factory and was made for taking extremely accurate measurements, down to one thousandth of a millimeter.” To put this extreme precision into perspective, think of a human hair, which is about 40 times as thick as the measurements this machine can obtain.
Our conversation shifts towards exactly what types of watches the young men can work on, and though I am not surprised at this point, Gehan answers, “Almost anything, really.” Mechanical watches, battery changes, bracelet resizing, and polishing are all within their skill set. They explain their affinity for vintage and antique pieces, particularly “complicated” watches – which means the watch has some feature above and beyond just telling the time. Both Gehan and Dorety particularly enjoy working on vintage chronographs, or watches that display the time, but can also indicate elapsed time via additional hands if one pushes a special button on the case. A lightbulb moment compels me to make the comparison to a stopwatch, at which point the young men just smile.
While working on restoration jobs, spare parts are often unavailable in the open market and Gehan & Dorety will fabricate the necessary pieces from scratch. They have restored family heirlooms that have been passed down for generations and seem to love the challenge of bringing long stopped watches back to life. In fact, this particular morning Gehan is hand applying enamel to a “moon disc,” which is a small gear that is part of a calendar mechanism on an nineteenth-century pocket watch displaying the phase of the moon, day, date, and month. This sort of artistry bolsters one of the boys’ earlier claims that watchmaking is truly the ultimate hybrid of high precision micro-mechanics and art. Dorety elucidates what constitutes watchmaking at the highest end and accounts for some of the astronomical price tags: “At the highest level every single component, even the internal parts that only a watchmaker will ever see are hand-beveled, polished, finished, and adjusted to fit a particular watch.” Their tone turns serious as they tell me in earnest that scratches or gouges due to improper handling of parts is a grievous betrayal of an unspoken code of conduct to preserve the integrity of a watch’s condition.
They welcome custom work and regale me with the interpersonal side of interacting with their clientele. “One of our customers sets up programs to help rural communities in Kazakhstan profit on their modest agricultural resources,” Gehan states, emphasizing that watches become global companions in such extreme situations, and the mechanics cannot fail under any circumstance. “Some of our customers are scuba divers and rely on specialized watches [such as the iconic Rolex Submariner] to not only withstand the immense pressure experienced while diving, but also to keep track of their dive time. We feel a big responsibility to keep our clients’ watches functioning correctly, especially regarding safety measures,” says Dorety. On this note, he asks to see my watch and puts it in a specialized pressure chamber to check the water resistance. Ten minutes after the unsatisfactory results of a pressure leak, he hands back my now watertight watch with freshly lubricated gaskets. He adds: “Sometimes simple maintenance like water resistance testing can completely negate costly repair bills down the line.”
When they aren’t at the bench, Gehan and Dorety balance the immense concentration and resulting mental fatigue from repairing watches with a variety of activities. Dorety enjoys the whole body dexterity required of skateboarding and golf, while Gehan plays guitar and can often be found hiking in the woods. Their real passion however, and the long term goal for the business, is to create their very own watch right from their Oakdale, CT workshop. They explain that while there are a handful of companies claiming to make watches in the United States – they are really just manufacturing a small portion of components and outsourcing the majority of the watch. Before wrapping up our chat, the men reach into their benches and pull out two beautiful handmade watches that the men manufactured from scratch in their first year of watchmaking school. “Custom commissions are the most stimulating type of work for us, and we love collaborating with customers to create one of a kind pieces finished to the highest degree,” Gehan states. It is immense passion that drives Gehan and Dorety to their benches each morning, where they are preserving old world techniques and establishing themselves as the vanguard of modern watchmaking in the United States.
Gehan & Dorety Watchmaking
Normal weekly business hours by appointment