Working Life is a monthly column in which Texans talk about their jobs.

Stanley McMahan, who is 62, lives in Blossom, near the North Texas town of Paris. He earned his watchmaking credentials in Switzerland and has taught horology at Paris Junior College since 2018.

About five weeks after I got my first job changing batteries and selling watches on the retail side of a watch shop in Colorado, in 1983, one of the watchmakers had a heart attack and the other watchmaker left. That left me and the owner and two other employees. I sat down one evening and looked at the watches on the bench and realized we had to put them all back together and get them to the customers. So I assembled my first watch. Once I had it running, I realized that’s what God put me on Earth to do. 

This profession pushes me every day to be better mentally—just to be able to concentrate for eight hours—and to push my hand skills to a higher level. It’s really about pursuing excellence, not perfection. I think perfection is almost negative. Perfectionism causes you to not accomplish things, because you’re not going to accept the results until they’re perfect, which means you just end up tinkering. 

In watchmaking, the first step in hand skills is being able to see reflections and shadows when you’re looking at tiny pieces with a diameter smaller than that of a human hair. Then you have to learn how to breathe, because you’ve got these tiny pieces right up to your face. You have to deflect the air away from the part you’re working on. Watchmakers have a tendency to hold their breath, but when you hold your breath, your steadiness decreases. 

The excellence that I’ve always striven for as a watchmaker—I apply those same parameters to my teaching. There’s a difference between education and training. Many schools were providing training; I wanted to educate. I want my students to learn punctuality and how to attire themselves in a fashion that will most likely be required in a workplace, such as a luxury jewelry store. When you have been on the receiving end of blessing after blessing, as I continue to be, I think it’s mandatory to share that with others. 

The students are getting hired at very comfortable salaries right out of school. In the forty years I’ve been a watchmaker, I’ve never seen the demand for watchmakers as high as it is right now. 

Timekeeping and astronomy have been linked throughout history. Astronomers used to tell the world what time it was by viewing a star as a planet passed in front of it and finding what’s called the sidereal rate and then using that to find the solar time, which is what we use. That’s what I think about when I look through a telescope. It’s just beautiful.

I was 22 back in 1983. I can still picture that first watch running on my bench. It was a Morioka Tokei 432A. I still have one, and I still like to service one from time to time, just as a reminder of that day.  

This article originally appeared in the October 2023 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Stanley McMahan, Watchmaking Instructor.” Subscribe today.