Time is running out for watchmaker

Published 12:00 am Monday, January 9, 2006

It’s been 66 years since Randolph Copeland was told by his uncle Floyd, “You don’t have a job now, so come over here and we’ll give you something to do.”

At that time, Copeland was 19 years old. The grocery store he had been working in had closed down.

Two of his uncles, Floyd and Perry Turner, ran Brewer’s Jewelry Store, which used to be on the corner of Washington and Saratoga streets.


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“Floyd taught me how to set stones and Perry taught me how to fix watches,” Copeland said. “They started me off putting main springs in watches, which is the easiest thing to do, and they kept giving me jobs which were more and more delicate.

“When I got pretty good, they began giving me ladies’ wristwatches; those are the smallest things to work on.”

Two full generations later, in 1992, Brewer’s closed, and Copeland found a new place at Barr Brothers. Now it will be closing in February, and with it, Copeland’s 66 years as a Suffolk watchmaker.

At least for the next month, Copeland will still be found in the back of Barr’s in a room about six feet by six feet, which, if two people are standing in it, is overcrowded.

“People want to know where I’ll be working next,” said Copeland, “but I think I’m going to hang it up.”

Some longtime customers of Copeland’s watch and jewelry repair work suggested he open his own small store. Copeland is very grateful that many folks still want and appreciate his work, but he says there would not be enough profit in a new store to make it worth it.

Furthermore, “from 1940 to now, that’s long enough to mess with it,” he said.

About his “brief” 14 years at Barr’s, Copeland was told by store manager Margaret Holland when he came on that he could work whenever he wanted to and not work whenever he needed or wanted to.

“I want to thank all of them a lot; all the people I’ve worked with here have always been nice.”

Copeland is retiring, but what about his profession?

Of the Tidewater Watchmaker and Jewelers’ Guild, of which Copeland is a member, all the members are retired or close.

“We don’t see any young people coming in, and I don’t blame them,” said Copeland.

And while folks still regularly come to Copeland with their business, even he admits, “the time of watch repair is just about over.”

“When someone can go out and pay $10 or $20 for a new watch, it’s foolish to spend more than that just to get one fixed,” said Copeland. ”And they keep time just as well as the nice ones.”

For one thing, watches still need batteries to be replaced. Folks buy a battery at bigger places, such as Radio Shack or Wal-Mart, and then bring it to a watchmaker to be inserted.

Copeland has also worked on thousands of rings.

“I’ve sized so many rings and worked just as hard at that as with watches.

Watchmakers are doing more of that in recent years than working with watches anyway.”

At his home, which is in Oak Ridge, Copeland has a collection of pocket watches Suffolkians of the past three generations have given him.

He used to keep the display in the store by his workbench.

Retirement does not seem to include slowing down for Copeland. There’s a big lot with grass to cut, a big house which needs to be painted, yard work, and work on gutters and bushes.

“I’ll stay busy,” Copeland said. “I’m not going to sit around the house and just look at the TV.”

There will, however, be a lot more time devoted to fishing, says Copeland.

And about opening up his own small store or working out of home, there’s another reason why that won’t happen.

“My wife won’t let me.”

So that’s that.

When Barr Brothers closes up for good in February, so will the gentleman with the obviously, as his profession would require, gentle hands, who has worked on and repaired jewelry in Suffolk since before World War II.

Copeland understands that his profession is becoming a lost one, and he is prepared for the day when his time will be up.

“I’m grateful for the things I’ve learned and the fact I’ve had a job all these years; and it’s been a pleasure.”