Photographs of a watchmaker at work

Phoenix Atelier
An essay by Sonja Ernst, 10 April 2005

A few weeks ago, I made a trip. It wasn’t an ordinary trip, but one to a small place out of a different era that has long been forgotten by the inhabitants of this hectic city. Strangely enough, this forgotten place is very close. Most of us walk by it several times a week, without realizing it. I know that very well, because I have walked by it a hundred times. That was until a few weeks ago, when I was offered access to this lost world – a world full of old wisdom and valuable knowledge of the true values of life which I was about to forget, or maybe had already forgotten.

When I met Mr Sharma, the owner of Phoenix Watch Works on MG Road, it felt as if I was being transported into a parallel universe, or rather a tiny microcosm that was so different from the bustling, hectic life outside the heavy wooden doors of his workshop. I almost felt like Alice, falling through a hole in my normal life and tumbling into another. Entering his shop made time stand still. Time itself and all noises from the heavy traffic outside suddenly seemed to be muffled by the thick layers of dust covering history. In that very shop, I rediscovered the importance of slowness. Because only slowness and patience enable us to take time for each other, to listen and to make space for that special human touch which can transform everything.

Mr Sharma is still one of the few people who value good, solid quality. His little workshop is filled to the brim with old, lovely machines, tools, watches, alarm clocks, suitcases, books and all sorts of memorabilia. Just drop a name or an instance in history and Mr Sharma will whirl around, rummage through piles of paper and suddenly produce an old picture, an ancient letter or a book which proves his point.

To me, he is the personification of a master of his trade: he knows everything about watches and clocks, even of old cameras. To him, old values still matter: he not only cherishes high quality standards and the high the secrets of his trade. He knows also the worth of a personal relationship: no matter how busy he may be, there’s always time to chat with an old friend or customer. People not only come to his shop when they need to get their watches fixed- why would they: I guess a watch repaired by Mr Sharma lasts another generation. What seems to matter to them is the exchange of a few words and a few memories.

Outside, the traffic rushes by and shoppers hasten from one store to the next. In Sharma’s workshop, however, time stands still. The dozens of old wall clocks, watches and alarm clocks seem to know that too. They stopped working long ago. Now they are lying asleep covered under blankets of dust, undisturbed. They appear to be relics from a time long past, when human relations were still worth that extra detour, where the good things in life were still granted the time they required, and when a short chat was still more important than that urgent business meeting.

The values that are symbolized by this place already seem to be forgotten by most of us. The laws of the market guide our modern lives, by the logic of demand and supply. Only the competitive survive. We don’t realize anymore that the good things have their price, that certain values cannot be replaced. Because who can replace the irreplaceable- that human touch, which not only brings broken watches back to life, but also gives human relations back their meeting? I don’t know.

Maybe the invisible hand that Adam Smith had so much confidence in will fill the gap. Maybe the mechanisms of demand and supply do in fact miraculously transform the market activities into everybody’s well-being and satisfaction. But I wonder if the invisible hands of those who have forced Mr Sharma to vacate his workshop after 56 years to make space for a new shopping complex can in fact substitute the human touch he has to offer. The only thing I know is this: in the long run we will all realize that the loss of this little place cannot be to everybody’s well-being. A handful of truths, wisdoms and values will be lost and can never be replaced.