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Canberra man builds a mechanical watch by hand, after a deadly illness forced him to reinvent his life

#Reuben #Schoots sits barely visible behind a wall of antique clocks — heavy longcase pendulum pieces, ornate #French marble clocks adorned with baroque sculptures and naked timepieces without cases or dials, their movements exposed.

#None of the clocks are ticking.

The 27-year-old works in silence because he is working by hand, at a scale of microns, on the pieces of a mechanical watch he began two-and-a-half years ago.

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#When he made its first part, he knew almost nothing about horology, the study of timekeeping.

#It was an arcane craft he had just begun to delve into, after becoming seriously ill.

#Once an athletic man working as a barista and studying nutrition at university, #Reuben became sick from an unknown illness he contracted during an eight-month backpacking journey through #Latin #America.

#Reuben caught several illnesses backpacking through #Latin #America as a 22-year-old.(#Supplied: #Reuben #Schoots)

“I went to the doctor and they found I had glandular fever, but the glandular fever was actually the result of my immune system being so suppressed as I had contracted three tropical viruses, as well as a parasite I had in my gut,” #Reuben said.

“I became really unwell, I lost 16 kilos, I couldn’t leave the bed, I had this huge mental depression as well as this physical depression.”

#Rarely able to leave his bed or his home, #Reuben lost his job, his sporting ability, and ultimately quit his studies.

#He also became addicted to the opiates he was prescribed to treat his chronic pain.

Then something unusual on the wrist of a friend caught #Reuben’s eye.

“#It was a mechanical watch, and you could see the movement through the back of the watch … and I remember seeing that movement and just thinking ‘wow, who makes this? #How does this work? There’s hundreds of components all ticking away, working together to tell you the time’.”

“I really wanted to be doing something with my hands, making, but I didn’t realise that’s what I wanted to do until I actually became sick and everything that I was doing or had was stripped away.”

A mechanical clock without its case reveals the tiny whirring cogs beneath.
#Reuben was inspired by the fine movements of a mechanical timepiece.(ABC #News: #Jake #Evans)

#Rediscovering a relic of time

#But you cannot just start making a watch with 200-year-old techniques on the fly.

There are no online tutorials or group classes for making a mechanical watch from scratch — even modern handmade watches are usually built by a team of up to 32 craftsmen, each with a specialisation in a particular part honed over a lifetime.

#And the old books that could teach #Reuben were intentionally obtuse.

#His guide, a late master named #George #Daniels — famed for making complete watches by hand — would sometimes write a single instruction (like “make a flywheel”) for a part that required more than 100 steps and three months of work to make.

Dirty hands hold a finely crafted brass timepiece.
#Reuben had to make many of the tools to craft the watch himself, because they do not exist in #Australia.(ABC #News: #Jake #Evans)

The dexterity and focus required also means #Reuben must test his body daily, pushing himself to his limits inside a sauna before swimming laps in an #Olympic pool to condition himself.

#Following the methods employed by #Daniels, he is dedicated to initiating himself into an intimate fraternity.

“I know of two people that have completed a #George #Daniels watch outside of #Daniels himself,” #Reuben said.

#After 2,500 hours of work, #Reuben has just two pieces left to make before his watch will finally tick.

A finely crafted timepiece, without hands or a dial, rests on a table.
#Reuben’s watch is made of hundreds of parts, many of which took months to make.(#Instagram: reubenschoots)

“#It’s a strange thing for me to look at, for me to hold and to touch — of course it’s very precious,” he said.

“#It embodies an incredible amount of, basically, perseverance. There’s a lot of frustration, there’s a lot of pain, there’s a lot of mistakes. #Some components I’ve made over 20 times before one works.

“#You lose them, you drop them, they fly across the room.”

#Reuben wants to make a mark for #Australia in the history of handmade watchmaking.

#And there are collectors out there ready to buy a watch like his — #Daniels’ greatest watch sold at auction in 2019 for more than $6 million.

#Though #Reuben has learned more than just to make a watch in his thousands of hours of toil.

A young man wearing an eyepiece sits at a workshop desk, obscured by tall clocks.
#Reuben says the resilience he has developed watchmaking helps him outside the workshop, too.(ABC #News: #Jake #Evans)

#He has also built a tool to overcome the isolation, illness and loneliness he was plunged into — something he says many others could benefit from as they face the ongoing pandemic.

“I think that a lot of people are feeling very negative and don’t like this isolation, or this time to yourself. #Change hurts,” he said.

“#But they undervalue, or underestimate the value of, down time and I think people are scared to be with themselves. #Evolution comes out of down time.”

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