Perspectives in Place: Norbert Zerbes, aka The German Watchmaker, is always on time

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      I’m on my way to visit Norbert Zerbes, otherwise known as The German Watchmaker, at his shop in Yaletown. On the passenger seat of my car sits a small black box; in it, a Marc Jacobs watch that I’ve had since the early 2010s and that doesn’t work anymore. I can’t even remember how it came into my possession. Was it a gift from my ex-boyfriend? “Thrift Shop” comes on my Spotify playlist. I put the volume up as I zip by Hastings Street past the PNE Forum, where the aforementioned ex and I saw Macklemore and Ryan Lewis perform live what feels like a million years ago.

      Zerbes has been operating his compact but highly efficient shop in Yaletown since 2005. I pull out my black box and excitedly put it in front of him. 

      Not even three minutes later, he hands the watch back to me, fixed. I haven’t even asked him my first question yet.

      “You have to be fairly fast in this business,” quips Zerbes. “But it’s kind of artistic, too, you know?”

      He’s been working with watches for over four decades, spanning from his apprenticeship in Transylvania in 1982 and his move to Vancouver in 1990, to his current life as the go-to watchmaker and repair expert in the city.

      “I’ve seen thousands and thousands of watches,” Zerbes says. “Some people I haven’t seen in years, and some people I see three times a week.”

      Jamie Burke.

      One customer drops off a watch for repair. Zerbes exuberantly describes the difference between a diver’s timepiece and a pilot's version. Is there a “millennial with crippling anxiety” variety available?

      Another customer comes in with a beautiful and delicate watch that is part of a collection she’s just started. 

      A third customer carries a sentimental item into the shop: an old watch (made between July to September 1953, according to Zerbes’ precise appraisal) inherited from his great-grandfather. I quietly wonder what version of Vancouver that man saw during that time; he lived in a city that only exists now in memory and in old, grainy photographs.

      Jamie Burke.

      I went into this visit with an idea of time as a theoretical concept. But for Zerbes, it’s all in a day’s work. He is technical, methodical, and referential. For him, it’s about the watch. A watch is history. A watch is art. A watch is engineering. And time is relative.

      “I’ll tell you one thing,” he says. “When I went to watchmaking school in 1982, the first thing the teacher said to the whole class was: ‘Most of you will not end up being a watchmaker for a living.’ That’s the first thing he told us. And out of that whole class, I think only one or two are still doing it.” 

      He was 17 in 1982. I was around that same age when I first started dating my aforementioned ex. With my 34th birthday fast approaching, that was literally half my lifetime ago.

      I say goodbye to Zerbes as I flip the “Open” sign to “Closed” for him on my way out the door. With my newly repaired watch on my wrist, I look at the time: 6:15pm. I head back to my car—my husband and I have a dinner reservation at 6:30, and I don’t want to be late.