In this series, I will be looking to give an insight into the watchmakers that call Australia home. There has never been a better time to support local Australian businesses, which are not only supporting our economy, but also providing top quality services and unique one-of-a-kind watches.
My first interview was in beautiful Adelaide with Richard McMahon of R. McMahon Watchmakers. It was my pleasure to take a tour of his humble workshop located in the CBD on King William Street. One doesn’t need to spend a long time in the workshop to be able to see Richard’s passion for vintage watches. Not only did he show me his workshop, which is filled with all manner of spare parts and tools, but also original vintage Rolex paraphernalia including a funeral card from Hans Wilsdorf’s wake! On the workshop tour, I saw the front-of-house retail sales area, two clean rooms for servicing, a workshop for manufacturing and a room, which sadly I could not be shown, containing proprietary technology. We later sat down for a chat over coffee to talk about his career in watchmaking and the industry today.
Richard McMahon knew that he wanted his first watch to be an Omega, and at 18 he saved up for a De Ville. Richard fell in love with watchmaking while studying marketing and working at Shiels part time. He would talk with the watchmakers who ran their vintage watch repair service and ogle over the cabinet of high-end watches. Richard’s lucky break came in 1989 when one such watchmaker was looking for an apprentice. The next four years provided him with the basics he needed to take the leap into restoration, and it wasn’t until Richard had several years behind him in restoration that he decided to officially call himself a watchmaker. While Richard was given the opportunity to work at WOSTEP, or with Peter Speake-Marin, he instead chose to work with arguably the best watchmaker in Australia, Carl Parker. Here Carl taught him more skills beyond servicing and restoration, and the real watchmaking began with cutting pinions and wheels.
Richard’s career led him to London and the company Somlo Antiques where he worked as an expert consultant and preferred restorer for Rolex, Cartier, JLC, and Breitling. However, Richard soon realised that be able to truly to follow his passions, and to be able to work across all brands, he needed more autonomy over his work and he returned to Adelaide to establish R. McMahon Watchmakers. While Richard notes that running a business does take him away from the act of watchmaking, he is happier than ever doing what he loves – restoring vintage watches and creating bespoke timepieces. He highlights the importance of having a strong network working with you, for duties such as accounting and administration. Richard McMahon has also found Adelaide’s watchmaking community to be extremely supportive and on call to help one another with parts and expertise. When asked if it was hard to start up in Australia, and Adelaide, without a network of clients, Richard confidently responded that he began his business with referrals from other watchmakers. His skill set was unique to the market and timepieces such as those with minute repeaters, quarter repeaters, and over coil hairsprings, were being neglected in the local market until he was able to restore and service them.
Having studied marketing, Richard is utilising social media as an effective method of getting his name out there and notes that while Google AdWords are useful early on for a business, they are very expensive, and Facebook is far more powerful for making retail sales. His servicing and restoration side of the business, however, needs no marketing, as there is always a waiting list of watch enthusiasts wanting Richard’s magic touch. For R. McMahon, it is all about creating an online presence and he has recently made a move into the world of Instagram. While demand is clearly high for his services, as Richard outlined in the Advertiser, the supply of parts from big brands is becoming increasingly difficult for independent watchmakers to source.
For up and coming watchmakers, there are more difficulties than watch parts. Richard highlighted that his pathway to watchmaking, through becoming an apprentice, is actually quite rare, as very few workshops will take people in with no prior knowledge. His tips for someone looking into getting started in watchmaking were to either get lucky with a traineeship, or to undertake the almost $60,000 WOSTEP “3,200 hours” course at any of the accredited schools worldwide. While he knows it can be very hard to get into these courses, it is seen in the industry as “the thing to do” and would make you instantly employable.
The next chapter for Richard McMahon is to shift his focus towards having half of his efforts focused on manufacturing his own watches. Richard hinted to me that a few projects are currently in the pipeline, and will be revealed to TVG in the next six months. Richard’s favourite watchmaker is Hajime Asaoka, who builds all of his components in house, and I’d be willing to bet that’s the direction he is looking to head in. One thing is for sure, given Richard’s expertise in minute repeaters, I’d be keeping a close eye on TVG for our next instalment on this remarkable Australian watchmaker.
You can follow Adam’s horological hypothesis’ on Instagram @watchrally.
Image sources: R. McMahon and Sven Kovacs.