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Interview & Playlist: LA Horologist J.N. Shapiro

Joshua Shapiro is the talented Californian horologist behind the luxury watches of J.N. Shapiro featured in our introduction to L.A. We spoke to Josh to gain some further insight into his work.

Taking inspiration from the great British watchmaker, George Daniels, who was considered the best in the world, Joshua became captivated by the art of engine-turning in 2013.

“Engine-turning, or Guilloche, is a type of engraving on metal,” he explained, “specifically, it creates geometric patterns that reflect light in a beautiful way. The most famous pieces decorated using Guilloche are the Faberge eggs – one of the reasons they are so expensive is because of the beautiful engine-turning on them. So, for three years I practised engine-turning and machining.”

An extremely rare skill, engine-turning is used less and less in favour of easier-to-make, mass-produced styles. Josh, however, is sticking to his self-taught craft. “Hand-made watches are often of a higher quality than mass-produced, machine-made watches. With engine-turning, there are an infinite number of patterns that can be created. It also lets the owner know there was a large human element that went into a watch.” He also believes the importance of good craftsmanship means the watch will survive the ages. “I want my watches to last for hundreds of years.”

There is no denying the work that goes into Joshua’s watches – his Infinity Series has a unique pattern, and his clients include the rich and famous (although he won’t mention any names). “Right now, I have a Hollywood star client who wants a complete watch made from scratch.” And how long would that take to finish? “I’m still working out the details. But to make a complete watch it takes over 100 hours. I consider each piece a work of art that I have put my blood, sweat and tears into.”

His dedication to perfection is incredible. If a mistake happens, he begins again. “A single level engine turning dial is so difficult because the cuts have to start and stop within a border. It is literally like putting a square into a circle at the microscopic level – for the first cut of the basket weave I must put a .488mm-sided square into a .5mm border. Once I spent a month on a dial only to throw it away!”  Such is his admiration for the horologist George Daniels, Joshua reached out to the only apprentice George ever took on – Roger Smith. He asked him what steel he used to make his watch-hands. What he received back was a handwritten letter with a stack of 1075 spring steel. The two have been corresponding since. “He is my inspiration.”

Having turned his garage into a full machine shop, forfeiting some classic cars on the way in order to buy rare equipment, Joshua splits his time between watch-making and working as a high-school principal. Despite this, he still sees his craft as a career, rather than a hobby. “This is definitely a career – my hobby is rock climbing! From the beginning I thought of watchmaking as a way to generate income. One job in Los Angeles is not enough!”

During term time, Joshua can be found in his workshop between the hours of 8am and 2pm (and then he’s at school until 7pm). “During the summer I spend about 10 hours a day working in the shop.”

Josh has a masters degree in History, a qualification which helps him create the timeless masterpieces that are his luxury watches. “My interest in history has led me to choose a more classic design – an ode to the great watchmakers of the past,” he explained. “I’m really not into ultra-modern watch designs. For me, I see a watch as a practical heirloom; something the wearer can enjoy their whole life then pass onto their kids.”

With two young children – a five-year-old daughter and a son at two-and-a-half, Joshua is passing on more than a watch; he’s finding time to pass on the skills he has learnt. “They both love coming into the workshop, and my daughter is old enough now for me to start teaching her a few things!”

Joshua’s creations are definitely paving a way in American horology, and his name is becoming well-known. Each of his watches have ‘California’ on the front. “I am proud that I did this in California. It just hasn’t ever been done here before.”

Joshua supplied us with his workshop playlist; “I am an eclectic music fan!”