Looking back on 2020: Phillip Bickle the Shoalhaven's only watch and clock repairer

Untold wisdom: The South Coast's only watch and clock repairer Phillip Bickle.
Untold wisdom: The South Coast's only watch and clock repairer Phillip Bickle.

Driving past Bickles Watch and Clock Repairs in Culburra Beach on the South Coast of NSW it just looks like another house.

But if you look closer you can spot Phillip Bickle diligently working away and, of course, surrounded by clocks.

You would expect to hear ticking in a clock shop, but the ticks, dings and chimes in the modest-size workshop are symphonic.

According to the Watch and Clockmakers of Australia association there are currently 34 clock and watch repairers in NSW.

At 78 years of age (although he would tell you 58 years old), Mr Bickle works seven days a week and has never been busier.

He moved down to the Shoalhaven with his wife in 2001.

"We moved from Sydney and came here because my wife's brother lived here and we used to come down on holidays," Mr Bickle said.

"Se we packed up everything and then not long after that [her brother] moved to Yamba."

He brought a number of clients down from Sydney and began doing work for local jewellers.

And his work just got bigger and bigger.

"So it's seven days a week, no rest, no holidays but, anyhow, you take on the work then your committed to it so you've got to be reliable enough to do it.

"I was busy in Sydney but I'm a hell of a lot more busy here.

"I get up everyday and I don't have to wonder, 'god, what will I do today'.

"I've got that all planned out a couple of months ahead."

Although he doesn't like to advertise this fact, he even repairs watches on Christmas Day.

"I've done a few watches right up on Christmas day.

"One poor fellow had a $60,000 Rolex and he fell in Lake Eucumbene with it on.

"So I overhauled it on Christmas Day in 2015 and saved a pretty expensive watch."

The work of a clock and watch repairer is often delicate and intricate and they can sure be complex.

Many watches have around 128 pieces and some have up to 328 depending of the type of watch.

"The job relies on a couple of things, the number one requirement is your eyesight - I've been pretty lucky with that so far.

"The second is the dexterity of your hands.

"A lot of people as they get older, their eyesight fails and they get the shakes.

"I'm very, very fortunate that I haven't been faced with the problem like that."

Even a 23-year-old with decent eyesight struggled to see some of Mr Bickles finer markings, such as the repair marks.

Repair marks are small, individual indents and used by horologists to identify what repairs they have done and when.

Fine work: Mr Bickle overhauling a clock.

Fine work: Mr Bickle overhauling a clock.

The marks are not any larger than a sugar granule.

Curiously, Mr Bickle's repair mark is SH not his initials PB, Phillip Bickle.

At beginning of his career as an apprentice he was working for a "terrific watchmaker" who was "bit of a grump".

"He said to me one time, 'you'll never be a watchmaker'."

He began repairing the watches by himself, and didn't want his supervisor to know.

"I had a girlfriend at the time and her name was Sandra Helm, SH and I still use that.

"Her initials are in millions of jobs. I still see her and I said, 'I bet you haven't written your initials as many times as I have'."

When you meet Mr Bickle, you may be surprised that a watch repairer doesn't wear a watch.

But there is a practical reason behind it.

"I've got a couple of watches up there and of course if I duck into town I've got my phone.

"I always used to wear a watch but it catches and gets caught up in the lathe so it can be a bit dangerous."

Taken apart: A clock pulled apart for an overhaul.

Taken apart: A clock pulled apart for an overhaul.

When he was a kid, there was always a few old clocks laying around the Bickle household.

"Our parents couldn't afford too many toys - so said 'this will shut him up, give him this thing to play with'.

"I can remember one time they gave me this old clock and I was winding it up and the spring broke and went bang, right through my index finger.

"Everybody gave me all their old clocks and I think I was attracted to it that way.

"But they could have given me old pushbikes and I think I would have been interested in that."

He was always curious about how things worked.

"I was probably a born sticky-beak.

"Mum and dad never bought me a wind-up toy because I'd pull it to pieces."

His first wind-up toy was a little Jeep he found and it didn't work.

He took it to the old man across the road who was known to fix everything.

"We took took it over to Mr. Dunn for him to put a spring in it.

"And I thought that was a miracle, funny thing about it is it's an everyday occurrence here now."

Regularly kids come in with mechanically driven toys, like music boxes, for Mr Bickle to fix.

He likes to repay the favour.

"People say how much do I need to pay?

"The first time I had one of those fixed by somebody else they did it for me for nothing so the legacy carries over.

"It's not all about money, it's all about job satisfaction and making other people happy."

He started his clockmaking apprenticeship in Sydney at just 18 years old.

There's only one place in Australia which trained clockmakers and repairers which was at Ultimo TAFE in Sydney.

They ran a Certificate III in Watch and Clock Service and Repair although currently the course is suspended.

"A lot of people got out [of clockmaking] because, I mean, it was a six year mandatory course.

"But I was a bit of a dunce, possibly, because I was there for 15 years as there was a new course they introduced.

"On my last day at TAFE a few of the other students said 'oh, you've got to come back next year', I said 'you've got to be joking, I've spent six years trying to work out how I can get out of this'.

"I though, oh well... in for a penny in for a pound, so I came back and half way through that year I was the only one left."

While studying he served his time in a jewelers shop in Bankstown and then after graduating managed the shop, then managed a shop at Auburn for a few years.

But he didn't just limit himself to clocks and watches.

While he was always repairing, he had plenty of other jobs.

He took a course in entomology, joined the NSW Fire Brigade and also had a property maintenance business.

"But all the time I had a workshop at home.

"A lot of the jeweler shops didn't have enough room to employ a full time watchmaker because it took up too much room.

"But nevertheless, in some of the places I worked on site as a relief watchmaker and that happened here in Nowra."

For a while he also ran his own shop in Panania, Bickles Watchmaker Jeweller.

Shop owner: The shop Mr Bickle owned and ran in Panania, Sydney.

Shop owner: The shop Mr Bickle owned and ran in Panania, Sydney.

Amazingly, after all this time repairing watches, Mr Bickle maintains he learns something every day.

"And after 50 odd years in it I can still learn, so you can never learn too much.

"You can't be knowledgeable on everything.

"Sometimes [when repairing a clock] you've got to get in the mindset of the man that invented it.

"I remember one time I had a clock here and I took it up while I was having dinner at night and just had it there trying to work out its story and finally I gained enough confidence to pull it into pieces.

"Then I was looking at how to repair it for about about three weeks and then finally, success.

"I never get bored, I never get bored."

If you bring a clock or watch to Mr Bickle, it is almost certain he can fix it.

But sometimes he does have to be frank with people.

"We endeavour to take on all jobs but sometimes you have to advise people they can put their money to better use rather than spend it on this.

"You don't set out to be insulting but you set out to be honest.

"I've often said to people you can't let your heart rule your pocket."

And watch repairing isn't always quick work.

Often jobs are very old, with clocks and watches dating back 200-300 years.

"If you can't buy the parts you require then you've got to make them or you may have to buy them from overseas and it takes a long time to get them.

"Sometimes it might take a year or more but we usually solve the problem."

Unique antique: One of the many fascinating clocks Mr Bickle has repaired, this clock was a floodgate clock.

Unique antique: One of the many fascinating clocks Mr Bickle has repaired, this clock was a floodgate clock.

He is often asked if he is the only watchmaker in the family and at this stage he is.

"I've looked back through some of the old English records and there are two that I can see with my surname and they were mainly clockmakers.

"Those two listed in the books came from where my grandfather came from near Devon in Plymouth so it's possible they could be distant relatives of mine.

"One was from 1755 and the other fellow was operating in 1883."

Over his career Mr Bickle has seen a lot of watches and clocks.

"Some of the clocks here are pretty rare.

"There was a Rolex valued at $120,000 and they get up much higher, I overhauled that and repaired it."

But the items that stand out aren't the most expensive, oldest or rarest.

"The ones that really stick out to me are the people who are so thankful, it might not be worth too much at all but to them it meant the world and they're the ones that stand out."

So, what does a watch and clock repairer make of time?

"I think time is the most important asset we've got.

"Without time where are you?

"People say 'I've got no time' - you've got plenty of time, the only time you haven't got time is when your birth certificate expires."

Stuart Thomson

Stuart Thomson

It was wonderful to meet Mr Bickle. His passion, work ethic and generosity blew me away. It was a privilege to go inside his store and workshop and learn about his craft. I hope you enjoy hearing his story as much as I did.

This story Meet Mr Bickle, the Shoalhaven's only watch and clock repairer first appeared on South Coast Register.