When Ernesto Rolo was 9, he started learning the craft of watchmaking at his father’s watch repair shop, La Habana, in Havana.
The repair shop, formerly a small cafeteria, was a 5-by-7 room with a glass display case stuffed with watches, leather watchbands and bracelets. Old clocks lined the pale green walls.
“My dad’s shop was quite small with just enough room for one watchmaking table,” Rolo said. “Eventually he improvised an attic, which I would access through a metal ladder. That space became my work station.”
Today, Rolo, 62, manages a team of 20 watchmakers and technicians at the Swiss watchmaker’s Breitling repair shop in Miami’s Blue Lagoon office park. Eighteen are Cuban.
“Some of the people that I have hired were my students in Cuba or are the children of people who were my students,” said Rolo.
Rolo has found a niche, along with several other Cuban watchmakers, working for the major luxury watch brands in South Florida: Cartier, Chopard, Bell & Ross and Breitling.
Hermes Bas, 51, has been a watchmaker at Chopard in Miami for 10 years. He and his brother, Ulises, inherited the craft from their Cuban father, Fernando, who owned a watch shop, La Suiza, in Havana.
Today, Ulises, 53, and his son, Andy, 27, work for TechnoMarine, the Swiss watchmaker.
“My father was a watchmaker and so is my brother and my nephew,” said Hermes Bas. “We learned a lot from him.”
After he studied at La Escuela Provincial in Havana, where he obtained a watch-making specialization certificate, Hermes Bas moved to Miami in 1980. In addition to working at Chopard, he is one of the few watchmakers authorized to repair Rolex watches in Miami. Rolex has retail shops and licenses individual watchmakers to handle repairs.
Adel Hernandez is part of a new generation of Cuban watchmakers. He works at the Richemont Group, the Swiss firm that owns such luxury brands as Cartier, Piaget, Vacheron Constantin and Panerai. The firm has a Miami office overseeing its Latin America and Caribbean operations.
“The work of a watchmaker requires a lot of precision, a calm atmosphere and good lighting,” said Hernandez, 34. “It requires good eyesight as you are working with hundreds of little parts.”
Besides his studies in Cuba, Hernandez has trained in Switzerland.
As one of the youngest watchmakers in Miami, Hernandez worries about the future of the profession.
“I don’t know what will happen with watchmakers in the future. There are not many schools that I know of to learn the craft,” said Hernandez.
In Cuba, watchmakers had worked at independent shops prior to Castro.
Shortly after the Cuban leader came to power, however, the Cuban government nationalized many private businesses. For watchmakers, that meant working in Taller Universal, a center that housed about 300 watchmakers in Havana.
“The building where Taller Universal was located was originally an old theater,” said Rolo, who went to work there in 1967. “It was later adapted as a repair center to relocate watchmakers whose shops had been expropriated by the government.”
The repair center had two stories and a basement. On the first floor, they would repair wristwatches, on the second, alarm clocks. The basement was used as storage to keep wall clocks and antique large clocks that had been confiscated by the government.
“At some point, Soviet watches started coming in, and we ran out of parts to repair the Swiss watches,” said Rolo. “We had to learn how to make the parts.”
In 1982, Rolo moved to the United States, first to New York, where he worked at the North American Watch Company for 21 years – now Movado Group. Later, he moved to Miami, where he joined Breitling.
“For 31 years, I have only worked in two companies in this country, where I received a lot of training. I am very fortunate to have learned a lot,” said Rolo. “Having worked with limited supply of parts and tools for many years made Cuban watchmakers very resourceful.”
Juan Lopez Davies, 40, regional director of Latin America and the Caribbean for Movado, recognizes the Cuban watch making know-how.
“With the rebirth of mechanical watches in the 80’s, the need for highly skilled watchmakers to repair these complicated mechanical movements has increased,” said Lopez Davies. “Cuban watchmakers are extremely dedicated, capable, resourceful and precise at their craft, just as time is precise.”