Mr. André Farine
It has been close to 50 years since yours truly attended a rather special watch school in Switzerland, a beautiful country indeed. It was a full-time course lasting one year, a scholarship funded by the Ebauche SA and the Federation Horology.
I was honoured to be chosen as one of 11 students across the globe. Jim Anderson, Lane Logsdon and Derry Brozonski came from USA, Danny Hooper from Canada, Keith Russell from New Zealand, Neyland Beech from UK, Ramon from South Africa, Thomaz Vehvec and Milkovidch from the former Yugoslavia, and myself from Sri Lanka.
There was a total of 10 males and one female, unfortunately the only female decided not to continue with the course and returned home. It might have been luck more than anything else as I applied from Sri Lanka. It was then named Ceylon best known for its tea rather than watches, and in fact is possible I was the only one who applied for this course from Ceylon.
It was hard to believe that I was going to Switzerland to train at the famous watch school, WOSTEP ((Watch makers Of Switzerland Training and Educational Programme). An institution set up back in 1966 in the idyllic lakeside town Neuchatel which is famous for its annual wine festival and of course, watches. The first Director was Mr. André Farine, who spent a lot of his working life in India.
The scholarship was a comprehensive Diploma course, highly respected in the watch industry. I still remember that I was interviewed at Swiss Centre in the west end of London back in 1971. I had just completed my 3-year full-time course in Horology at the Hackney technical College here in East London.
The first day we met our course director Mr Andre Farine, we knew the W.O.S.T.E.P course was going to be very tough. A larger than life gentleman with his big American Cadillac car. Mr Farine was very upfront and told us ‘You are not here to enjoy yourself at our expense; you are here to be trained to become competent watchmakers. What I will to teach you is hard and may even make you angry with me at times.
Some of the things I will be teaching, you may never need to use in your working life, however it is essential you understand the technology behind the lever escapement. (In 1972 this applied to almost 99% of the mechanical watches). So, Gentleman I will see you on Monday morning sharp at 8am, oh and by the way we finish the day at 6 PM’. He then smiled, which is the only time I ever saw his teeth, of which one was gold too I believe!
By now we were all questioning what we had got ourselves into. Monday morning came and the first day was like taking orders from the army commander, it was simply awful. To cut a long story short we all despised it. Our highlight of the day was to go to the Neuchatel town centre to have dinner. We discovered an English Pub named Shakespeare, which quite quickly became our regular. After a nice evening we would head back to our rooms almost dreading the next day.
The next morning Mr Farine was waiting to greet us in his office, and he began to call each of us separately. We all started to get concerned about what he was up to, but thankfully it was pay day. He gave each of us 150 Swiss Francs and told us that it should keep us going for the week. He seemed to be in a happy friendly mood, and we couldn’t believe this was the same man we saw yesterday! It was good to see that he had a human side after all. We were pleasantly surprised when he told us where to go in Neuchatel to get the best deals for food etc. One such place was the City University canteen, very cheap for Swiss standards by any means. I still remember paying 2 Francs 90 Cents for a 3-course dinner, and at that time it was 10 Swiss Francs to a pound so was a true bargain! The canteen became our regular meeting place and we got to know other University students. Things were starting to look up, however we knew it is only temporary, and as the next morning it was back to the grindstone again.
Days went by and one day Mr Farine looked outside and said, it is a sunny afternoon, we will finish a little early today at 5 PM. Go home and get freshened up and meet me in the Neuchatel town near the Fleur de Lee at 7.30 PM. We all wondered what he was up to, but to our surprise he had booked a big long table at the most fantastic Raclette restaurant. We had a fabulous time with wine and cheese, and truly saw a different side to Mr Farine that night.
Quite quickly we started to see what this man really stood for, and we developed an appreciation of what he was trying to do with us. Before you knew it three months went by. One Monday morning he informed us that we were going to embark on a project, and that he was going to use our group to achieve something we could take home. We were tasked with transforming a manually wound mechanical chronograph watch into a Chronometer. He gave us all movement plates and parts of the now collected iconic cal. Valjoux 72. We were told that the project would take about 3 months to complete. To our dismay, the balance staff, wheel, hairspring were all raw parts.
We didn’t waste a moment and progressed with graining the plates, which Mr Farine then got gold plated, which made us feel excited about making our mark on these movements. However, when it came to the escapement, it was a different story. After showing us how to do it, we had to collet and stud the hairspring only to be rejected by him over and over again. He lost his temper when we kept failing and shared his thoughts quite openly! Some of his famous phrases included “hairspring dancing up and down”, “too close to the pinning point”. He also told us, if you don’t want to get it right, you know where the door is. Finally, we got it right and we knew we had pleased him when his gold tooth became visible.
The watch movement was complete and numbered for the Neuchatel Observatory for certification.
He got some dials made for us with WOSTEP, which captured “WOSTEP-Centre De Perfectionomant Horologer” on a little dial and completed the watch. Eleven pieces underwent rigorous in-house tests and underwent different levels of temperature and pressures testing.
Mr Farine was happy to present them to Neuchatel Observatory for testing with the view to get them back with Chronometer certificates. This was truly a nail-biting time for us all. Eventually eight out of the eleven passed. I am happy to this day that No.6 belonged to myself and was among the ones passed with comments “especially good results”.
Andre Farine was pleased with the whole exercise and treated us with many more special outing and dinners. He also took us to a number of Swiss factories where quality watches such as Audermar Piquet, Rolex, Longines and Zodiac were manufactured. In all the Swiss factories we visited, his presence was acknowledged, and he was highly respected.
What we didn’t know was that this admirable man was hiding a big secret from us all. Andre Farine spent many years of his working life in India. One of the student of WOSTEP, Ramon and I had an Indian background which helped us get close to him. We spent a few weekends together and got to know him well and dined at many Indian restaurants due to his love for Indian food. He fondly shared many funny stories about his time in India with me and Ramon which I will always treasure.
Our course was nearing completion and we were all about to receive our diplomas from the Ebauches SA and Federation of Swiss Watch Manufacturers. This was a very high-profile event in the Neuchatel Castle among local government officials and senior Ebauches and Federation Horology managers. We had a fantastic evening and before we knew it, it was time for most of us return to our countries. I spent a further six months working for Longines in St Imier. It was crazy to think that the first few weeks in Neuchatel felt like hell and we couldn’t wait to get home. After a year at WOSTEP we had all grown fond of Neuchâtel and didn’t want to leave.
We all returned to our countries and began working. On reflection, my time at Neuchatel and the watch school was one of the best years of my life. Mr Farine almost became a friend, a man hard to get close to, however one of the bravest men I will ever meet. Towards the end of our time at Neuchatel he told Ramon and I about his fight with cancer.
Just two years after I returned from Switzerland, I had a joint letter from Ebauches SA and the Federation of Swiss Watch Manufacturers announcing the sad death of Mr Andre Farine. The text of the letter simply read.
“The presidents, managements and staffs of Ebauches SA and the Federation of Swiss Watch Manufacturers deeply regret to announce the death of their colleague Mr Andre Farine, Director of WOSTEP who passed away on the 25th AUGUST 1975, after a long and painful illness.
Since 1966, Mr Farine had demonstrated his ability and devotion as head of the WOSTEP under which you were able to profit from his guidance. From the start he kept touch with everyone one of you as was testified by the many letters he received from you and which he took pleasure in answering.
Mr Farine bore his sufferings with admirable courage. Both our organisations will cherish the memory of an exceptionally devoted colleague – EBOUCHE.SA FEDERATION OF SWISS WATCH MANUFACTURERS.”
To imagine he was suffering with this disease as he was teaching us leaves me humbled. A man who gave so much to the Swiss Watch Industry. A man who selflessly tried to pass on his talents to future watchmakers. It is a funny thing that a man who first appeared to me as a big bully turned out to be a real gentleman and a genius who had so much to give. A tragic loss of this great man taken away by his untimely death. Memories of Andre Farine will remain with me until the day I die. May his soul rest in peace. All of us who benefitted from Mr Farine and WOSTEP felt a little empty when the institution did away with the full year scholarship diploma course due to high costs involved. It is good to see that WOSTEP has started a new fulltime course which is a fitting tribute and providing many important shorter courses too.
Nowadays there is explosion of high-quality Swiss watches in the market. Beautiful time pieces sold at high prices to many customers. Most of these watches are serviced in house by the manufacturers. In fact, quite often they are shipped out to Switzerland for servicing from other countries. With the new courses WOSTEP offers, this situation will change. I am so pleased WOSTEP has also started a new course in professional polishing of watch cases.
Finally, it is sad that 3 of the 11 students from 1972 have passed away. Three more have lost touch with us; however the remaining five had a reunion in Canada last year which we all thoroughly enjoyed. We hope to have many more and possibly even visit WOSTEP and pay our respects by visiting Mr Andre Farine’s resting place.
Yours humbly, V.Ramakrishnan F.B.H.I Dep. W.O.S.T.E.