Writer / Christy Heitger-Ewing
Born in the small village of Linden, Germany, in 1941, Rudy Hoellein had a difficult life during the upheaval that followed World War II. His family was left penniless due to communism, causing him to endure much emotional turmoil before escaping to southern Germany. At that time, Germany was rebuilding itself and every young man learned a trade. Rudy moved to stay with his uncle and at age 13 began his watch making apprenticeship.
“The way he learned was by mastering one skill at a time,” says his daughter Nicole Hoellein. “For instance, he would file for hours every day for weeks at a time until he learned to file straight. Then he would be taught the next skill like hammering and it was the same thing. Each skill set he learned to perfection before moving on to the next thing.”
For his final exam, he was given a block of steel and told to fashion a watch out of it.
“I don’t know how he did it, but he did,” Nicole says.
By age 16, Rudy was working full-time. In 1961, he applied to immigrate to the United States. Because he had a skilled trade, he was sponsored by Bethlehem Lutheran Church and began his career at Rost Jewelers in Indianapolis where he stayed until 1987 when he and his wife, Jutta, opened their own store, Rudy’s Watch & Jewelry Repair, in Lafayette Square.
Horology (the art and science of measuring time) is crucial to function in society. Beyond that, though, watches themselves commemorate life’s milestones.
“I’ve never had a person walk into our store and say, ‘Boy, I remember the first cell phone my parents gave me,” Nicole says. “But I regularly have people in their 70s and 80s who tear up as they tell me they still have the Bulova watch they got for their high school graduation or the Elgin watch given to them by their grandfather when they turned 16.”
These days Rudy’s daughters, Nicole and Monique Baez, co-own and run the shop with a team of seven sales associates, jewelers and watchmakers. Monique, who apprenticed under her father, carries on the family tradition of watch repair, focusing primarily on Quartz watches and does a lot of shortening or lengthening necklaces, bracelets and watches and sizing up or down rings so that they are functional for the customer. She also gets a great deal of satisfaction from restoring jewelry that’s been given hard wear.
“The look on a person’s face when I’ve restored their precious piece of jewelry is the best,” Nicole says. “I remember this one woman who brought in her husband’s wedding band, all scuffed and dull. I made it look brand new and when she saw it, she burst into tears.”
Nicole also loves to redesign jewelry — particularly generational pieces.
“Sometimes I have a customer who comes in with a diamond from their grandma, a bracelet from their mom and an earring from their aunt, and they ask me to put it all together into one new piece of jewelry,” says Nicole, who calls every jeweler a cross between an engineer and an artist.
And then there’s the elite artists like Rudy (now 77), who still does the high-end watch work for the shop, tackling the complicated repairs. For instance, a customer with a Patek Philippe pocket watch from the late 1700s sent the watch to the service center in Switzerland because it had a missing stem. It was estimated at $5K-$10K to fix so the man asked Rudy if he could help.
“My dad had never seen this exact winding set-up in a stem and crown. It had a hole there and a part that needed to go in it so he had to imagine what that part was like and how it would function,” Nicole says.
Rudy joined forces with a “Patek Philippe” expert located in another state to ask him to fashion the stem. Rudy then assembled it, charging the customer a fraction of the cost of the original quote.
Rudy’s Watch & Jewelry Repair relocated to Brownsburg in the summer of 2015, partly because the owners loved the community but also because they wanted to remain close to their customer base since many of their clients had moved to Brownsburg. The shop had a long history of doing business on the west side of Indy, and, through the years, the family has established close relationships with customers.
They also share the difficult transitions. One Saturday a flustered woman rushed into the shop just before closing. She explained how her mother-in-law, who was in hospice, was beside herself that her watch battery was dead. Monique stayed late and replaced the battery. A week later, the woman returned to the store with tears in her eyes.
“I want to thank you for what you did for my mother-in-law,” the woman said. “She was so agitated not being able to wear her watch, but when I took it back to her fixed, she put it on her wrist and a peace immediately settled over her. Hours later, she passed away.”
According to Nicole, when Bulova came out with the first quartz movement, everyone thought that automatic and mechanical watch sales were going to plummet. People worried again when pagers were invented. And again in the advent of cell phones. In all instances, the watch persevered.
“Watches are fashion. They represent personal style. Plus, they’re functional,” says Nicole, who has not seen a decrease in watch-wearing. In fact, quite the opposite.
With the Internet, watches are so easy and cheap for people to order that she sees more of them than ever before. It’s part of the reason she encourages young people to learn the trade of watchmaking.
“Craftsmanship is slowly dying out, but you can earn a very good living in these careers if you like to work with your hands,” Nicole says.
Rudy’s Watch & Jewelry Repair is located at 124 E. Northfield Drive, Suite G, in Brownsburg. For more information call 317-293-6698 or visit them online at rudyswatchandjewelryrepair.com.
Racing for Time
Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, racetracks used manual stopwatches to time laps. Since Rudy’s Watch & Jewelry Repair was located in close proximity to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, drivers and pit crew often sought Rudy’s help when a stopwatch went bad. Many IndyCar teams are located in Brownsburg, so racers still come to Rudy’s when watches go wonky.