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If you traveled back in time to the year 30 B.I. (before the iPhone), you would find most adults on the street sporting a small mechanical apparatus on their wrist — a wristwatch. The ornate outer case of these devices housed an intricate mechanism that, by animating an outer display to keep time, allowed the bearer of the gadget to coordinate activities with the rest of the world. Unfortunately, the complexity of these contraptions, which contained hundreds of minuscule parts, made them susceptible to malfunction, something that could throw entire lives into disarray. Luckily, a specialized profession arose to address this problem, and its practitioners were widely available.
Those days, however, are far behind us. Mechanical watches, along with pagers and voice recorders, are among the product categories rendered superfluous by the iPhone. Consequently, watch repairers have almost gone the way of switchboard operators, video store clerks, and leech collectors.
Almost… but not quite.
Our June 2023 Business of the Month, Ipswich Watch, Clock & Jewelry Repair (109 East 12th Street) is one of a handful of remaining watch repairers in the city. And not only can they repair your broken timepiece; they also offer a selection of vintage watches, clocks, and watchbands for sale, as well as an eclectic selection of artwork, housing wares, and jewelry.
Mechanical watches have been around since the 1600s. Their overwhelming dominance as the portable time-keeper of choice lasted until the 1970s, when it was challenged by the invention and growing popularity of quartz watches, the so-called quartz revolution. Ironically, it was around this time that Ipswich got into the watch repair business. This is not, however, how it started out. Founded in 1973 by Paul Pisano on Second Ave and 11th Street right below his apartment, Ipswich was initially a frame shop. But Paul, who shopped at auctions upstate, started to also sell antiques, including old watches, at his store. One day, an older gentleman by the name of Bernie, noticing the store’s display, asked Paul whether he could repair watches. Upon learning that Paul couldn’t, Bernie explained that he was a retired watchmaker and offered to fix broken vintage watches in exchange for 50% of the proceeds of their eventual sale. Paul agreed, but only if Bernie taught him the craft. It was a deal.
The arrangement with Bernie brought Ipswich more than just technical know-how. It introduced Paul to Bernie’s contacts within the industry, from material houses to specialized parts makers. During the 1980s, rising rents forced Paul to move Ipswich to a storefront on Fourth Ave and 12th Street that he shared with another frame shop. This led Paul to drop that part of the business and concentrate primarily on watches, clocks, and antiques.
Paul’s son Philip did not work for his father growing up. But he learned watch repair from him, ultimately exceeding his father in skill. And he enjoyed the work.
When his father retired, Philip took over the business and, as rents increased, moved it within the neighborhood, first to 9th street between First and Second Avenue, then to 11th St between First Avenue and Avenue A, and finally to its current location on 12th Street just east of Fourth Avenue in an 1854 building at no. 109 (see also here) in the historic but endangered area South of Union Square. In addition to the shop, Philip operates an off-site workshop where the repairmen he employs can ply their trade undisturbed, and Philip and the business keep up with demand. This demand has resulted from the fortunate fact that watch repair shops have shut down more quickly than wrist watch wearing has declined (the latter, in fact, has been enjoying a minor resurgence). This has allowed Ipswich to survive in an exceedingly tough market for over fifty years.
Asked to explain the reasons for his store’s longevity, Philip responds without hesitation, “reputation.” Word-of-mouth and online reviews have made it known that Ipswich offers honest assessments and fairly priced repairs. Phillip guarantees his work for a year. Most places only do so for ninety days, if that. Unlike many establishments, which can charge hundreds of dollars just to diagnose the problem, Philip offers his assessment free of charge. And he will let you know if he thinks the repair is not worth it or if he feels incapable of performing it. Not that the latter is all that likely. If the mechanism is accessible, Philip is confident that he can replace the broken part and fix the problem.
Beyond Ipswich’s reputation, the secret to the store’s success has been its diversification. Philip has always been careful to protect himself against fluctuations in watch repair demand by holding on to the antique side of the business and being attentive to what happens to be selling in the neighborhood. In addition to watches and clocks, Ipswich always has vases on hand for those wondering down from the Union Square with flowers purchased at the farmers’ market; it stocked decanters, when those became a thing; and it has revolving incongruous assortment of basics and oddities sure to meet a wide range of needs and desires.
The store’s diversification also extends to its repair services. Customers, perhaps figuring that if you can repair a watch, you can repair everything, come to Philip with all kinds of broken things. And often enough, if he has the time, he’s up for the challenge. He has repaired everything from eyewear to pocketbooks, and from picture frames to furniture.
And if he can’t fix it himself, Philip is more than happy to draw from his extensive knowledge of the local repair services world and point you in the right direction.
In a time when consumer products feel increasingly disposable, and when even luxury ones are designed with their obsolescence in mind, Ipswich offers a means to appreciate craftsmanship, tradition, and ingenuity. For over half a century of helping us know the time of day, and to do so in style, we’re happy to name Ipswich Watch, Clock & Jewelry Repair our June 2023 Business of the Month.
What special small business would you like to see featured next? Just click here to nominate our next one. Thank you! #shoplocalnyc
Here is a map of all our Businesses of the Month: