Published in Private Edition 27:
PETER OBERAUER had no intention of repairing watches for a living. ‘When I was still a little boy, I went with my grandfather to get an alarm clock repaired by the local “watchmaker” in our village, Winzendorf. I was not impressed. The old man worked at his kitchen table; it was a crummy table and his tools were rusty,’ he says.
But fate and an Austrian government-initiated aptitude test saw him signing up for a watchmaker apprenticeship after school, even though he had his heart set on becoming a car mechanic. In Austria, vocational training is regulated and government is involved in guiding school-leavers towards acquiring the knowledge and skills that will help them find a job. A motor-mechanic apprenticeship simply wasn’t on offer nearby.
‘I was never keen on watchmaking, I’m afraid, and there’s no family heritage,’ he says. (Oberauer’s father was a stoker on a steam engine and his own sons went into computer programming.) And in his 10-year-old hands, the pocket watch his parents had given him didn’t last long. ‘It was in pieces after a short time,’ he laughs.
Two years into his apprenticeship he grew fond of the trade. ‘I saw that it wasn’t just about rusty tools,’ Oberauer says. ‘The mechanics, the technique, the finesse of the job got me interested. Like sailing, my other passion, it’s a thing of discipline. If you don’t set your ropes properly, you capsize. If you don’t have the right tools or knowledge in watchmaking, especially on the old and antique pieces, you can do a lot of damage.’
He started his training as a master watchmaker in 1956. ‘In those days, after eight years you were fully qualified to have your own shop, but you had to be a master first.’ In 1971 Oberauer arrived in Cape Town on a travel adventure that was to take him and a colleague by Kombi across Africa back to Austria, but he fell in love – with the city and the woman he eventually married – and never left. A few years later he opened his shop, Fine Time, in Plumstead in 1975.
A fellow of the British Horological Institute, Oberauer is able to repair any watch, as long as he can get hold of the spare parts. Replacing a screw on a case back or doing a regular clean-and-polish is the more conventional order, and a glance around his workshop reveals some of the top names in high watchmaking. At the moment he is busy reversing the damage on a high-end watch that went ‘diving’. ‘The owner insisted on wearing it while swimming without having the crown screwed tightly, and there was rust damage. I was able to fix that,’ he says.
With less time available for sailing now (Oberauer says he hardly ever leaves the shop), he retreats to his private watch workshop for solitude, classical music playing softly in the background. While a man with a more ordinary profession might have opted for Rover as a name, his female crossbreed is a ‘top brand’ watchdog. Rolex then is never far from his side.
Nextdoor, the clock workshop is a different story. This is where Oberauer gets his hands dirty – it’s a more labour-intensive space, involving messy work such as filing, drilling and sanding new parts on his Swiss watchmaker’s lathe.
His favourites are the French carriage clocks. ‘They’re fine pieces with smaller parts, and of course, being from Austria,
I like their Viennese regulator.’ Oberauer has two in his collection: an original weight-driven piece as well as a spring-driven design.
His most challenging task thus far has been fixing an imported Dutch clock valued at R1 million, when some of its parts were damaged or lost en route to South Africa. At half past the hour, this intricate timepiece strikes one extra beat to indicate the upcoming hour on the small bell, and on the big bell for the full hour. ‘Clocks need more repair work, as people don’t take care of them as they should and parts wear out. A watch that is serviced regularly should have almost no wear on it; it’s mainly a cleaning process,’ he says.
Like a physician chiding his patient for poor lifestyle habits, Oberauer gently admonishes those who neglect their masterpieces. But, after all, their carelessness is good business.