Nfld. & Labrador

What makes the watchmaker tick? 20 years of Grand Time

Barry Strickland and Rachel Jenni-Strickland are celebrating two decades behind the counter at Grand Time, their tiny watch-shop in downtown St. John's. But with Apple Watches and Fitbits competing for our wrists, is time running out on old fashioned watches?

Barry Strickland and Rachel Jenni-Strickland have kept their St. John's watch business ticking for two decades

Barry Strickland knows how much a watch can mean to his customers. Some pieces are family heirlooms, handed down through generations. (Zach Goudie, CBC)

Barry Strickland peers through his magnifying glass at the tiny metal contraption arrayed before him. With his Swiss-trained hands, he uses a pair of tweezers to position a minuscule gearwheel at the centre, like a surgeon performing a heart transplant. And with a final flick of his fingers, the patient springs to life. 

"And there he goes," says Strickland softly. Inside the machine, wheels begin turning. A ticking sound that hasn't been heard in this century fills the air. "That watch hasn't worked properly in probably 40, 50 years. And that's the first life it's had in so long."

Watchmaking is more like surgery than traditional repair work. Some of the watches that Strickland repairs have more than three hundred components inside a space little bigger than a toonie. (Sherry Vivian, CBC)

When he says life, he means it. Strickland knows what this watch means to the man who brought it in. It's not just some gadget. It's a part of that man's life story. A small piece of himself.

"He's had that watch his whole life, and it means everything to him," says Strickland. "Everything he's been through, when he got married, when his kids were born, his career, et cetera. That watch has been with him, that's his buddy. And it's up to me to make sure that the old friend is with him for the long haul."

On Monday, Barry Strickland and Rachel Jenni-Strickland are celebrating a long haul of their own: 20 years behind the counter at Grand Time, their tiny watch shop in downtown St. John's. The husband and wife duo specialize in fine Swiss watches, but if it ticks, Barry can fix it. And all those years in business have taught them a little about what makes people tick, too.

Peering inside a classic Swiss watch with a 12X magnifying lens. (Zach Goudie/CBC)

"I think it's been such a privilege to look after everybody's watch in this city," says Strickland. "They say you'll tell the bartender stuff you wouldn't tell your doctor. Well, watchmaker gets all that as well."

The Swiss connection

Born a tinkerer, Barry Strickland was on the verge of becoming an auto mechanic when he decided to pursue watchmaking instead. He trained in Switzerland, where watches are to local culture what hockey and doughnuts are in Canada. It was there that he met the love of his life, and eventual business partner, Rachel Jenni. Like many people in Switzerland, Jenni had her own connection to the watchmaking craft; her father was a mechanical engineer who worked on quartz systems for Swatch.

"Farmers in Switzerland, years, years ago, had nothing to do in the winter," Jenni-Strickland explained. "And bit by bit they picked up watchmaking from England, actually. And they travelled back to Switzerland to learn to repair and make these watches."

As coffee and donuts are to Canada, watches are to Switzerland, where Rachel Jenni-Strickland was raised. At Grand Time, she specializes in tracking down parts for mechanical watches from warehouses and factories all over the world. (Sherry Vivian/CBC)

With watchmaking in their DNA, Strickland and Jenni moved to St. John's and spent their savings on a small suite of tools. On Dec. 2, 1999, they opened for business in the same corner of the Murray Premises where the shop still sits today. They stayed true to their roots, retailing Swiss brands Swatch and Tissot. But Grand Time soon became known as a place to not only pick up a new watch, but to fix up an old one. 

"I work on some watches up to 330 parts in an instrument the size of a toonie. And there's a whole lot going on in there." says Strickland. "When you hand it back to the customer, they're like, 'OK, great! My calendar works, my stopwatch works, that's great.' But if they had any idea what's going on on the inside it would probably scare them."

From behind his watchmaker's counter at Grand Time, Strickland has become a fixture of downtown St. John's business community. (Sherry Vivian, CBC)

For Barry to keep these old watches in service, Rachel spends part of each day tracking down the tiny parts from factories and watchmakers all over the world. She also helps the shop's steady march of customers to choose their own perfect fit.

"A lot of time, what I notice is that the first watch that attracts your attention, very often is the watch you're going to get." she says. "So go with your gut feeling."

Is a wearable a watch?

Lately, the watch business has seen some big changes. A whole new class of gizmos are competing for space in our lives, and on our wrists. 

"This watch tells time," exclaims the narrator in the latest commercial for Apple Watch. "And turns on lights, and opens up doors … and communicates with satellites … it wakes you up, and gets you onto subways, and plays every Elton John studio album ever recorded."

Will people hand down their Apple Watches and Fitbits to their kids? Don't make Strickland laugh. (Koji Sasahara/Associated Press)

Maybe you have a Fitbit wrapped around your own wrist, monitoring your every heartbeat and tabulating your steps, waking hours, sleep time, and well-being — hardwired into your very soul.

These wearable technology wonders are so much more than watches. But to Barry Strickland, they are so much less.

""They're just electronic instruments. There's nothing sentimental with an electronic instrument," he says. "Whereas a wristwatch, for example the one I was working on today, that's 60 years old. It's just been restored to the day as good as new. And that belonged to the father of the gentleman who owns it. And he can't wait to get that and wear it, and especially to be proud of it on Christmas Day."

Will people one day hand down their Apple Watches and Fitbits to their children and grandchildren? Strickland laughs. "Never," he says. 

In a digital world, Grand Time is defiantly analog, selling only mechanical watches. (Sherry Vivian, CBC)

"They have their place in the market, but they don't replace the wristwatch."

In a digital world, Grand Time has remained proudly analog, selling only mechanical watches. And Rachel says their customers prefer it that way. 

"If you look at a watch dial, you can see the time pass. So it's completely different from looking at digital time, where you just see numbers flashing." she says, pulling a classic Swiss watch from its display case. "Here you can see where you are. You know that when the hands are at the top, you know that it's lunchtime, or it's going to be midnight."

"You glance at it and you see it. You don't really need to know exactly what time it is, you get an idea, a feeling for what the time is."

After 20 years of watching our watches, Barry and Rachel Jenni-Strickland definitely have a feeling for time. If you wander into their shop, take a moment to stand and listen to the hundreds of tiny hands, ticking down the seconds, days and years. It's the sound of time being kept, and like a good wristwatch, it's timeless.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

About the Author

Zach Goudie is a journalist and video producer with CBC in St. John's, NL.

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