Obituary: Antoine Simonin, WOSTEP Director, Educator, and Bookseller

A personality who left a legacy.

Antoine Simonin (1938-2024), who died on May 20 at the age of 84, left his mark on generations of watchmakers and watchmaking enthusiasts. He will be best remembered as the director of WOSTEP (Watches Of Switzerland Training Educational Program) from 1976 to 2003.

Simonin was a person obsessed with the transmission of watchmaking knowledge, and sought to make WOSTEP an instrument for the international dissemination of watchmaking mastery. Founded in 1966, WOSTEP sought to train watchmakers capable of maintaining and repairing Swiss-made watches according to the standards laid out by their makers, the Swiss watch industry. Over time, its courses have been taught in English, French, German, Japanese, Swedish, and Mandarin.

“I studied at WOSTEP under Antoine Simonin in 1987 and 1991,” says Peter Speake, the watchmaker best known for founding Speake-Marin, “He was instrumental in keeping WOSTEP going during that difficult industry period, subsequently influencing the careers and friendships of many watchmakers, directly and indirectly, playing a significant role in the lives of many crossing multiple generations.”

Recounts another student, Paul Francis Madden, now himself an instructor at WOSTEP, “I was a student in 1987, back when the staff at WOSTEP was only Mr Simonin and his wife Josiane… It came to showing him my first hairspring… He slowly spun my balance wheel in his callipers, scrutinising it for what seemed like an eternity, and all without saying a single word. It was agonising!”

“He placed the callipers gently on his bench, looked me in my eye and said: ‘I hope your life will be as well-centred as this hairspring Madden. It’s perfect’. To hear those words from Mr Simonin was, and still is, one of the great moments I look back on in my watchmaking career.”

The WOSTEP 50th anniversary celebration with Antoine Simonin at bottom centre in maroon jacket. Image – WOSTEP

Keeping the watches going

WOSTEP is now an institution which welcomes numerous students each year. During his tenure, the training offered by the school grew to become a 360-degree coverage of after-sales service, to the point that today WOSTEP trains watchmakers-repairers, trainers for brands and schools, retailers, customer service employees, case polishers, and also specialists in chronograph, regulation, movement finishing, and so on.

In the 1990s, I remember raising the subject of WOSTEP’s role and usefulness. Simonin told me, “Switzerland exports its watches to five continents. We must ensure that their sustainability is guaranteed by their knowledge.”

Nothing visionary, but the point showed a keen realism: how to ensure after-sales service for a watch, especially a complicated one, on the other side of the planet? This was his mission: to disseminate watchmaking skills in the main export markets for Swiss watchmaking.

“His expertise in the field of training was internationally recognised and unparalleled,” says François Bauder, International Customer Service Director at Patek Philippe and trustee of WOSTEP, “Working with Antoine Simonin has enriched me both professionally and personally for more than twenty years. My meeting with him in 2003, as part of WOSTEP projects, marked the beginning of an invaluable learning experience.”

“He had a knack for picking the right fights and leaving aside the ones that weren’t worthwhile, often illustrating his approach with the popular saying ‘let the sheep piss’,” continues Mr Bauder, “Antoine inspired many people… I feel a deep sadness to have lost a guide, but also a great pride to have had the chance to work with him and learn from him.”

WOSTEP in Neuchatel. Image – WOSTEP

Boards and books

A watchmaker himself, Simonin was passionate about chronographs and grand complications. The extent of his knowledge and his entrepreneurial spirit earned him the prestigious Gaïa Prize in 1995. He was similarly honoured with the Special Jury Prize of the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève (GPHG) in 2020.

His expertise also gained him positions in organisations governing the destiny of Swiss watches, amongst them president of the technical commission of Qualité Fleurier, the testing and certification body, and of Chronométrophilia, an association for the history of time measurement.

He was also a member of the commission of the Musée International d’Horlogerie (MIH) of La Chaux-de-Fonds, and collaborated with the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry (FHS) as an expert in the update of what remains the reference for any amateur or professional watchmaking, the Illustrated Professional Dictionary of Horology, more commonly known as the “Berner” after its author, G.-A. Berner.

In 1980, Simonin embarked on another route of transmitting knowledge, by opening a bookstore, Editions Simonin, offering all imaginable literature on watchmaking.

Pascal Brandt has been a freelance watch journalist for ten years. He started his career at watch magazines before joining Officine Panerai in Milan as head of communications, after which he held senior roles at Vacheron Constantin and Bulgari. He is now a consultant for public relations at Parmigiani Fleurier.

Correction May 29, 2024: The author of this article is Pascal Brandt; the story was earlier attributed to the wrong author.

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