Time surrounds and defines Jim Casey; but while the 50-year watchmaker maintains a time-honored vocation, he also reflects changes that make him a rare breed.

Pieces of watches he repairs sit on a century-old wooden workbench in his store, Casey Jewelers, at 326 Fourth St. in downtown Columbus. Watch parts — some so small that they seem the size of a flea — fill dozens of trays. Wrist and pocket watches hang from hooks on the wall, waiting for his attention.

Tweezers, pliers and tiny screwdrivers — some of the tools of his trade — are found on his workbenches or in drawers in his workshop in the back room of the store.

A fixture downtown himself, Casey has seen The Commons built, torn down and rebuilt during his career of selling and fixing timepieces and jewelry.

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Times change. Casey knows.

He is part of the declining trend of small business owners who actually fix the timepieces they sell.

“It’s a dying breed. I think about it quite a bit. It’s been good to me, … but nothing is like it used to be,” said Casey, 73.

Jewelry repair has remained steady, he said, because rings always need to be resized or rebuilt. Watch repair is a different matter.

Nowadays, many people throw away watches that stop working, or stores send the timepieces to specialty repair businesses or manufacturers to be fixed, he said. Others don’t wear watches and turn to their smartphones to check the time.

Downward trend

The trend of fewer small-business watchmakers can be traced to the decline of the U.S. watch and clock manufacturing industry, which started tailing off in the 1960s, said Jordan Ficklin, executive director of The American Watchmakers-Clockmakers Institute based in Harrison, Ohio.Fewer and fewer were made in the U.S., and more were imported from Switzerland, Ficklin said. Consequently, fewer people saw watchmaking as a viable career in the United States and pursued other jobs, he said.With fewer people entering the profession, the need for teaching the necessary skills also declined.

The U.S. used to have about 40 schools, including state universities, that offered degrees or certifications in watchmaking. Now there are eight, down from more than a dozen in the 1980s, Ficklin said.

Ironically, the demand for watchmakers now outpaces the supply. Demand is on the rise because of a renaissance of high-end mechanical watches that require the talents of watchmakers for maintenance and repair, Ficklin said.

Manufacturers are willing to help support people who want to become a watchmaker. Of the eight schools now operating, five receive support from companies within the industry, and three schools will pay the cost of schooling for those who are accepted into their selective, intense programs.

Watchmakers can make good money, Ficklin said. Those right out of school with certifications can make $40,000 to $50,000 per year, while watchmakers with five years of experience can make $65,000 to $80,000, he said.

Those who earn certifications in watchmaking have three main avenues to use the skills:

Work for a major service center, likely for a major watch brand.

Work in a retail setting, hired by a jewelry store.

Own a repair shop.

“Very rarely is it as an owner/operator of a jewelry store,” Ficklin said.

Like father, like son

What now is rare used to be common, and Casey didn’t have to look far to see that. His father, Jim Casey Sr., owned H.L. Rost & Son, a jewelry store at 434 Washington St., starting in 1946.Casey began working for his father in 1965, after working a few years at a manufacturing factory.

“I knew I didn’t want to do that,” he said of the factory work.

Casey learned watchmaking skills from being at the store but also by taking classes from an instructor in Seymour, at a time when watchmakers had to earn a license from the state.

Ficklin said Indiana was the last state in the country to eliminate the licensing requirement for watchmakers, in the late 1980s or early 1990s, he said. However, watch companies require watchmakers to have certifications in order to get their parts, he said.

Watchmaking is something Casey likes because tinkering is part of his nature. In his spare time he repairs old cars.

“I like the mechanical part (of watches). The reason I like it especially is because you feel like you accomplished something when you get done,” Casey said.

Because of the patience and attention to detail required, watchmaking isn’t for everyone.

Casey said he can easily spend hours or up to a day repairing a single watch.

Cheri Hart, a saleswoman who has worked with Casey for two years and previously worked for his father and mother, Nelma, when they later owned J&N Jewelers, said their son has the right temperament to be a watchmaker.

“He’s very laid back and easygoing. He doesn’t boast, but he is good,” she said.

Hart also said it’s amazing how Casey has maintained a steady hand.

Casey became a jewelry store owner/operator in 1972, at age 29, when he bought the former Hendershot Jewelry store at 434 Fourth St. and renamed it Casey Jewelers. Casey moved to his present location in 1977.

Family ties

He and his wife, Marjorie, have two daughters, Nanette Gill and Trianna Fisher. Neither showed interest in pursuing the family business, Casey said, but a 21-year-old grandson, Logan Gill, helps at the store on Saturdays.Casey said he has never pushed any of them to maintain the family business.

“Small business is not the same as when I started,” he said.

The emergence of large retail stores that sold many items, including jewelry, and online sales have impacted sales at small businesses such as his, Casey said.

Short term, the watchmaker said, he plans to keep the business going.

“It gives me something to do. I don’t believe I could sit home in a chair,” he said.

And longer term?

“As long as my health holds out,” he said, “I’ll be here at least another year.”

The watchmaker made that time commitment to his landlord.

“I signed my lease,” he explained.

Jim Casey

Who: Owner of Casey Jewelers, 326 Fourth St., Columbus

What: Watchmaker for 50 years

Age: 73

Family: Wife, Marjorie; daughters, Nanette Gill, Trianna Fisher

Author photo
Kirk Johannesen is assistant managing editor of The Republic. He can be reached at johannesen@therepublic.com or (812) 379-5639.