Time is right for the Irishman making watches in Switzerland
‘I was useless at languages in school but here I had no option but to learn French’
Stephen McGonigle at work in Switzerland where he has set up his own brand
Each week, Irish Times Abroad meets an Irish person working in an interesting job overseas. This week, Stephen McGonigle, originally from Athlone, shares his experience of working as a watchmaker in Neuchatel in Switzerland.
When did you leave Ireland?
I studied at the Irish/Swiss Institute of Horology in Blanchardstown, Dublin. Unfortunately, the college is closed now. It was highly respected in Switzerland and considered one of the best.
I left Ireland in 1997 for a job at Somlo Antiques in London, and I worked there on the restoration of antique timepieces. My aim was always to work in Switzerland, as it is the centre of the watchmaking industry, and there wasn’t really a lot of options in Ireland for me anyway. I saw Somlo Antiques, which had an excellent reputation, as a good stepping stone, but also a great experience. At the time, it was very difficult to obtain a Swiss work visa, so the work experience in London was also very helpful in that respect.
Have you done any training or studying in Switzerland?
I won a scholarship to Switzerland which involved further training with watch companies such as Longines and Omega, but this was only a for month and was more of a holiday to be honest. The real training came from the work itself. For example, the first watch I made when I moved to Switzerland was a Minute Repeater (with automaton) for Ulysse Nardin (although I was working for Christophe Claret). This is one of the single most complicated mechanisms in watchmaking, and it took me almost two months to complete. This was a very steep learning curve, but a great experience and, in retrospect, a privilege too as very few watchmakers ever get to work on watches of that complexity. As I changed jobs and moved to different watch brands, there was always a lot to learn and plenty of challenges. Of course, I’m still learning today.
How did your career develop?
After Somlo’s, I went to Christophe Claret in Switzerland. Claret specialised in “complications”, which are highly complicated mechanical timepieces - mechanisms such as Tourbillons, Chronographs, Minute Repeaters and many more. This is really where I cut my teeth and it’s in the realm of “complications” that I’ve continued my career.
After that I joined Frank Muller where I worked in the production and after sales service of complications and gained experience with the Grand Sonnerie wristwatch (arguably the most complicated mechanism). After Frank Muller, I moved to Breguet and was involved in the training of watchmakers. I had the opportunity to work on the restoration of the famous Sympathique clocks there too - there were only every 20 of these made. I then joined The British Masters before I opened my own independent atelier two years later, in 2003,creating complications for some of the most prestigious names in watchmaking. In 2006, McGonigle Watches was created.
What does your day-to-day work involve?
My days can be long and hectic (which doesn’t sound like watchmaking). I’m always working on a few projects and each of these could be in a different stage of development, so one day is never the same as the next. I could work on the design of a new watch in the morning and then, in the afternoon, get on with building a watch that’s already been ordered. I might go back to the design in the evening, but there are always emails concerning production and sales to be answered too. Often I could spend a whole day on the road visiting suppliers (I also travel abroad to promote my work). As you can imagine, there are dozens of individual disciplines involved in creating a watch, and there is a huge team behind every McGonigle Watch. When I get home, I answer emails and make calls. The next day could be spent on prototyping, and then maybe doing some work on a new website or catalogue, not to mention all the emails that need to be addressed. Did I mention the emails?
Are there any particular challenges you face in your work?
I started out as a watchmaker but now, running my own watch brand, I have to do everything from design, to construction, to prototyping, to logistics, to marketing and sales, to finance. I find sales and finance extremely tough. I didn’t study sales or finance but equally, I don’t do enough of either to master them. They also take me away from the work I enjoy which is the design and production.
Do the Irish fit in well in Switzerland?
I think the Irish fit in extremely well here. I have Irish friends and colleagues working in all kinds of different industries and they all excel at their work. Apart from the knowledge base, I think the Irish are very open and great communicators, something the Swiss, as a very reserved people, welcome. It’s funny but very often, when introducing myself to a native, on hearing my accent, I’m asked with a certain degree of caution where I’m from. When I say Ireland, there is a clear sense of relief and then a smile, with the remark “I thought you were English”.
I have some very close Irish friends here, although there aren’t that many in Neuchatel, where I live. Actually, there is an Irish watchmaker teaching at Wostep, the watch school in Neuchatel. I think we make up half the Irish watchmakers in Switzerland.
What is it like living in Neuchatel?
The lifestyle, as you can imagine, is fantastic. The weather’s great, with the hot summers and snow-filled winters. If you enjoy the outdoor life and sport, then there’re countless thing to do. It is very quiet though and I always love going home. Even getting on the plane and the first "hello" from the Aer Lingus staff or the "welcome home Stephen" from the Garda at passport control is a tonic I could never do without.
What is it like living there in terms of accommodation, transport, social life and so on? What are the costs like?
When I came to Switzerland first, I would have said it’s very expensive compared Ireland, and indeed it still is, but not nearly as much as it used to be. I don’t need to mention the housing problem to anyone in Ireland, but that has brought prices for rent very close to the Swiss prices. I also think bus and rail costs are similar to Ireland, although taxis are too be avoided here. Recently I took a train from Cork to Dublin, one way, which cost over € 60.That’s actually more than a similar journey would cost in Switzerland. Bars and restaurants are much cheaper in Ireland and typically have better quality and service.
Have you any future plans?
Work is mental at the moment, I can’t think past the next few weeks and months, but that in itself is something I’d really love to remedy. I’d like to slow down and enjoy life. I feel as though I’m working for the sake of work and that’s just stupid. As I said, I enjoy the watchmaking itself, but when you don’t even have time for holidays, what’s the point?
Do you think working abroad has offered you greater opportunities?
It changed my life completely and for the better. I couldn’t possibly have gained the experience I have in watchmaking unless I moved to Switzerland. I got to meet people I’m sure I couldn’t have had I stayed at home. I was useless at languages in school, but here I had no option but to learn French.
What advice would you give to someone interested in pursuing a career abroad?
At least give it a go. Ultimately, it may not be what you imagined or even wanted, but there’s no harm in trying it. Of course, it could be the best thing you ever do.
Is there anything you miss about living and working in Ireland?
There are lots of things I miss, especially some of the obvious ones, like the country itself, especially the coast (that one’s a biggie living in Switzerland) and social aspect. Irish people are for the most part really friendly and easy to get on with. Of course, most of all, I miss my family, most of whom are still at home although they’re dotted all over the country. Trying to visit them all in one trip back to Ireland is a logistical nightmare. I’ve actually managed it a few times though.
If you were to ask me what I don’t miss, that’s easy. . . the weather.
If you work in an interesting career overseas and would like to share your experience with Irish Times Abroad, email email@example.com with a little information about you and what you do.