Yukon clockmaker’s rare skills in demand across continent

Stephen Carter knows the importance of precision.

When you are repairing a watch, you always make sure that all its parts are greased and that all the gears fit perfectly.

“Clocks have to be perfect all the time, otherwise it doesn’t make sense for the clock,” said Carter, 55.

Carter is a goldsmith and watchmaker by trade. It specializes in cuckoo clocks from the Black Forest region of Germany.

As far as he knows, he is the only watchmaker in the Yukon. But it is in great demand across the continent.

He frequently travels around Alaska repairing old clocks in museums and government buildings. He moved to Vermont and St. John’s, Nfdl., Where people with his skills were lacking. He even helped repair the clock on the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill in Ottawa.

A man looks at cuckoo clocks in a shop in Titisee-Neustadt, Germany. Watchmaker Stephen Carter specializes in repairing these types of locks. (Martin Bureau / AFP via Getty Images)

You have to have something audacity’

Carter began training as a goldsmith when he was 16 years old in Kemptville, Ontario, a city of about 9,000 people about 30 miles south of Ottawa. One day, while buying watch parts to repair a jewelry store, he met a master watchmaker.

“He was a German guy from the old country, the Black Forest, where most of the real cuckoo clocks come from,” Carter said.

“Anyway, I had no children and wanted [pass on] The ability. So I showed interest and the rest was history. “

Carter trained with him for four years before completing his watchmaking certification in Germany, where he worked with local merchants.

“I’m talking about the old men, the ones who made their own tools,” Carter said. “This was before power tools, so they hand-carved the little clock sprockets and they would file them all by hand. These are very skilled traders.”

One of the cuckoo clocks that Carter has repaired. (Submitted by Stephen Carter)

Technically, anyone can call themselves a watchmaker (there is no official Canadian government-recognized watchmaker certification), but Carter says you have to “have some audacity in the industry “to be respected.

“It’s a very closed industry,” Carter said. “They don’t let just anyone work on watches.”

When Carter is called in to have a watch repaired, he meticulously inspects each part and, when necessary, manufactures new parts by hand.

“You can’t just order parts for these things because they weren’t made with power tools,” Carter said. “So if there’s a bent wheel or a bearing missing or something like that, you have to do it by hand and it has to be perfect.”

He says that he has earned a great reputation in the world of watchmaking.

This is how he got his watch maintenance and repair job in Alaska for many years.

“They were telling me how hard they were trying to find [a clockmaker] and the only one they could find that even had remote certifications for me was somewhere in California, “Carter said.

Watch repair in high demand

Carter hasn’t been repairing watches as much in recent years due to his declining eyesight. He has been working for Canada Post and Selkirk Grocery in Pelly Crossing, where he lives, and opened his own food stand, Hotdogginit, to make ends meet. But he recently underwent laser eye surgery and is returning to the trade.

People are already lining up for their services.

After posting about his watch repair services on Facebook, he says he received calls “from Watson Lake to Carcross, even to Inuvik.”

He says he has about 60 people on the waiting list in the Yukon, and about 80 watches are waiting to be repaired in Alaska.

The Peace Tower is displayed on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Monday, April 12, 2021. Carter says one of his proudest moments was helping to repair the clock on the Peace Tower. (Sean Kilpatrick / The Canadian Press)

Repairing ‘memories’

Carter points out that when you work on watches, you are actually “working on memories.” Cuckoo clocks are often passed down from generation to generation, and people tend to get very nostalgic for them.

“Every watch, every jewel has a story,” Carter said. “It is very emotional.”

Carter said one of his favorite moments was repairing an old table clock for an older couple living in May.

“They had this watch that their parents brought from England when they came [to Canada] with practically nothing except this watch and a dream. “

A friend of the couple had tried to fix the watch himself – “a watchmaker’s worst nightmare” according to Carter – and its internal parts were in complete disarray.

After spending more than a week putting all the pieces together and making sure the gear timing was accurate, Carter returned the couple a perfectly restored watch.

“Seeing the smile on his face was worth every ounce of work I put in.”

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