Wilbert Campos spends his days sweating the small stuff.
Through his magnifying monocle, he works a three-dimensional puzzle of tiny gears and springs, aligning them with tweezers into their intricate sequences.
It is work the sole proprietor of Campos Watch Repair Service at 3121 A Speight Ave. never finds tedious, even after four decades in the business.
“This is my passion,” he said. “I can work many, many hours and feel that I’m enjoying every hour. It’s a challenge. Each watch is like a person — different, even with the same model. There’s so many parts in a watch, it’s like the human body. Everything has to be synchronized to make it function correctly.”
You might think watch repair is a dying industry in the age of ubiquitous smartphones, but that’s only half right.
Plenty of people are still buying luxury watches and needing them serviced, but technicians like Campos are getting fewer and farther between, experts say.
“Currently the demand for servicing watches far exceeds the supply of watchmakers,” said Jordon Ficklan, executive director of the American Watchmakers-Clockmakers Institute, the country’s only certifying body for watch repair. “About 400 watchmakers retire every year, but only 75 to 100 enter the profession. That’s good news for watchmakers, but for consumers it means prices are going to keep going up.”
Campos is the only Waco watch technician certified by the institute, which trained and tested him in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 2012.
His only competition in town is Byron Bardales, who has operated Byron’s Watches & Accessories at 845 N. Valley Mills Drive for half a century. Campos is 67, and Bardales is almost 80.
“I have not seen anybody getting into it,” Bardales said of his trade. “If you go to a bigger city, the picture might be different, but in a town of this size, there’s not much more of a future in it.”
Bardales said most people are only interested in electronic watches, and the only mechanical watches worth repairing are the expensive ones.
“The labor costs don’t pay you to repair a $100 watch,” he said.
Ficklan said the market for mechanical timepieces fluctuates with the economy and other factors, and sales declined 3 to 4 percent last year. But he believes luxury mechanical watches are here to stay.
“I think in a digital world, people are intrigued by a tiny machine that transfers energy from your own body into your watch, and knowing tiny springs gears are making it happen,” Ficklan said. “There’s more craftsmanship and art in a mechanical watch.”
Campos said he gets plenty of business from walk-in customers and local jewelry stores. But he also focuses on the high end of watches, including Rolexes costing upward of $15,000.
“It’s one of the best watches in the world,” he said of Rolex. “Its system is very synchronized. … They have to be genuine parts, not aftermarket.”
A 1980s Rolex that sat on his desk Thursday was less than 3 millimeters thick, about the width of two stacked quarters.
“It will be like new when I finish,” he said.
Campos removed a “mainspring barrel,” or a cylindrical metal box with springs that power the watch. He said two different weights of lubricant are needed in the barrel alone, and three other weights for the rest of the watch.
He said there are no shortcuts in the kind of work he does.
“If you learn how to work properly and follow the steps in the instruction from the manufacturer, you have no problem, but some watchmakers want to cut corners,” Campos said. “That’s where the problems start. … Sometimes you think you can do it a different way, but you can make a mistake and damage some of the parts.”
Campos has watchmaking in his blood. His father in the city of Campeche, Mexico, repaired watches and taught Campos’ brother the trade.
“It always interested me. How did he make the watch work again? How did he resuscitate those broken watches?” he said.
But his father died when Campos was 10, and he would have to learn the craft as an apprentice to one of his father’s friends. He was a teenager then and going to school to become an accountant.
“I graduated, got my diploma, went to work for a bank, but it wasn’t my field,” he said of accounting. “My brother didn’t like (watch repair) at all. He said, ‘Dad obligated me to learn it. It was oppressive for me.’ I said, ‘Man, this is fun.’ He said, ‘Yes, for you, not for me.’ ”
In the end, Campos’ brother became an accountant, and Campos became a watch technician.
He came to Waco almost 40 years ago to join friends and family, and as an immigrant he had to take whatever jobs he could find. He worked in a furniture store but kept up his watch work on the side, earned his GED and improved his English.
“I saved money to buy my tools,” he said. “I said, ‘One day I’m going to set up shop.’ … I was always thinking ahead to get better.”
He worked for a while servicing watches for jewelry stores in the region, but by 1982, he had enough of a customer base to go solo.
Campos soon earned his U.S. citizenship and raised a family in Waco. Today, most of his extended family from Mexico has joined him in Waco, and though he visits Campeche from time to time, he has no regrets about immigrating here.
“There’s no question,” he said. “I told my friend, ‘Even if I had to live under a bridge in Waco, I’d rather be here.’ ”
Campos said his children weren’t interested in following him in the trade, but he hopes his grandsons, 2 and 8, will see that it’s rewarding work.
Ficklan, the watchmaking institute director, said his group is trying to recruit young people for watchmaking through “maker fairs.” He said it is a good job in an uncertain job market.
“The skill that repairing watches takes is robot-proof,” he said. “It’s detailed work that requires extreme focus and care.”
But even a perfectionist like Campos is not immune to the frustrations of stripping a screw or seeing a tiny part roll under a table.
“That does happen,” he said. “Luckily, I can get my magnet and recover it, then run the demagnetizer over it. Accidents happen. Nobody’s perfect.”