Giving the Gift of Time

Story by Holly Ruppel

Local watchmaker Richard Minick fondly remembers the Christmas when he presented a special gift to his father. Inside the package was a vintage Gruen watch the elder Minick had purchased in Anchorage, Alaska, in the 1950s.

When his father sprayed WD-40 on the watch in the early 1970s, Minick said, it stopped working. The defunct timepiece was packed away, where it remained for many years until Minick himself disassembled, cleaned and repaired his father’s prized possession.

“He was speechless,” Minick said, smiling broadly as he recalled his father’s reaction to the gift.

Minick, the new watchmaker at Joshua’s Fine Jewelry, said like his father, many people become attached to their watches not only because they come to rely on them to get to places on time, but because they are decorative.

“It serves dual function,” he said. “Not only does it tell you the time of day, but it’s a piece of jewelry.”

But, as Minick observes, “It’s not worth anything unless it works.”

Minick, who recently moved back to Russellville with Ruth, his wife of 27 years, said he didn’t always want to be a watchmaker. He wasn’t too interested in machines as a kid, but he was good at tinkering with them and fixing them, so he stuck with it and came to like mechanics.

“I’ve always been a mechanical guy,” he said. “If it’s mechanical, I can fix it.”

His father was a welder and worked for nuclear power plants around the country, so the family moved a lot.

When his father took a job at Arkansas Nuclear One, the family settled in Russellville in the spring of 1974, at the end of Minick’s junior year in high school.

Mechanics wasn’t Minick’s only interest. He played bassoon and promptly joined the Russellville High School Band. He was also active in the school’s theater program and graduated in 1976.

In 1978, he took a job at Doubleday Publishing as an experimental machinist, where on a single shift they would print as many as 80,000 books. After some time, Minick noted that many people he worked with were joining the Navy or other branches of the military.

Minick’s interest was piqued, so he joined the Navy with the wish to be a machinist. He soon learned though, life had other plans and he was set to work as an Instrument man, repairing and calibrating typewriters and other small machines.

I got into this (watch making) kind of by accident,” he said.

From 1979-1983, he was stationed on a submarine tender, repairing subs and tending weapons and clocks while he was stationed in Scotland. Minick said he was promoted from a Seaman Apprentice to Petty Officer Third Class in a relatively short period.

In 1979, Minick went to watch making school and became a resident watchmaker. He worked as an auditor for the Navy for one year as well.

After his four-year stint in the Navy, in 1984 Rich went to work for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) as a watchmaker on the Space Shuttle Program, utilizing his skills making watches and calibrating and repairing other machinery. He and the other workers on his team tested everything from stopwatches to calibration instruments that measure oxygen, nitrogen, carbon dioxide, methane and hydrogen.

“If it tested something, we tested it,” he said.

While living in Cape Canaveral, Florida, Minick also worked for as many as nine jewelers, repairing watches and clocks.

For five years he and Ruth also lived in Lima, Ohio, where Minick worked as a Rolex repairman.

One big challenge in watch making is repairing Rolexes, Minick said. He indicated a typical Rolex has about 200 miniscule parts.

Repairing old pieces can also be difficult, as manufacturers don’t always hold onto parts and sometimes cease making certain parts. Tracking down hard-to-find parts can make repairing a vintage piece especially challenging.

Minick said if he’s searching for a hard- to-find piece, he’ll look up serial numbers, read about the pieces and do research. Sometimes, to fix his customers’ pieces, he makes parts from scratch using a jeweler’s lathe.

A customer comes into the store wondering whether or not Minick has been able to track down a piece for his vintage 1968 Zodiac. The watch was with him in Vietnam and is important to him. He’s concerned Minick will not be able to find the tiny part, one which holds the date wheel in place, but Minick assures him he’ll be able to locate the part and get his beloved piece in working condition again.

Minick takes pride in his work and treats his customers’ pieces as his own.

“If it means something to you,” he said, “it means something to me.”

On top of Minick’s workbench at Joshua’s, pocket watches, tools, a clock and a device called a Vibrograf (a watch timing and testing machine) sit alongside little glass domes, meant to protect the micro watch parts inside them from dust and moisture. Dozens of different tools – each meant for a different purpose – fill the drawers of the bench.

Minick feels he doesn’t fit into the stereotypical idea of a watchmaker sitting alone, toiling over his meticulous work. It’s obvious he loves connecting with his customers.

When customers come in, whether they are searching for a specialty piece or simply need to have links removed from their watchband, Minick exchanges conversation, stories and laughs.

“I’m not your typical watchmaker because I love the interaction with the people,” he said. “I like seeing their faces light up when you get their stuff done.”

He added, “That’s my magic piece of it (the story and history of the timepiece.)”

Minick feels custom engraving added to his customers’ pieces increases their sentimental value and creates an heirloom to hand down to the next generation.

“I think people like the idea of having something unique,” he said.

Minick said in his line of work, he has to keep up with technology, as watch functions, and, therefore, the watch’s mechanics are constantly evolving. Many watches now contain altimeters, barometers and compasses.

To illustrate the variety of watches he must know how to repair, he indicates that on his bench, there is a pocket watch from the 1920s, a watch from the 1960s and a watch made last year.

Minick loves making people happy, whether he has repaired a timepiece they thought might never again work, or he is performing for an audience onstage, which he loves to do in his spare time.

The performer in Rich is evident. He is animated and congenial, talking with his hands and leaning forward.

While living in Lima, he was a part of 23 different theater productions and worked in television broadcast for FOX/CBS/ABC, writing commercials and doing character voices. In fact, Minick made his living in broadcast while working as a watchmaker on the side.

Prior to moving back to Russellville, the Minicks would visit every three or four years, as they have family in town. Minick said he never thought he’d be living here again and said he feels blessed to be back. In Russellville, he said, there is an attitude that people like where they are living.

“It’s good to be around,” he said. “I think coming here to Russellville is going to be a good adventure for us.”

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