In a corner of Colombo, time has caught up with a renowned gatekeeper of time. Just opposite Majestic City in Bambalapitiya is a row of small shops which line Galle Road. Sandwiched between computer and electronic stores is a shop you’re likely to miss unless you’re looking out for it. The orange text on the [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Tick tock, tick tock; 76 years without slumbering

Unnoticed by many an era is winding down, as K. Don Willie & Sons, horologists who have been repairing, restoring and conserving timepieces for decades, closes down at the end of this month. Adilah Ismail turns back the clock as she talks to its owners

A vintage clock

In a corner of Colombo, time has caught up with a renowned gatekeeper of time. Just opposite Majestic City in Bambalapitiya is a row of small shops which line Galle Road. Sandwiched between computer and electronic stores is a shop you’re likely to miss unless you’re looking out for it. The orange text on the white signage is new and bears the words ‘K. Don Willie & Sons’. The shop blends a little too well with its neighbours and its facade little betrays its age unless you peer closely and notice the words ‘since 1941’ in smaller text.

It’s the end of an epoch for K. Don Willie & Sons, horologists who have been in the business of repairing, restoring and conserving timepieces for 76 years. The once popular establishment will close at the end of the month.

In the showroom inside, the cases have been cleared and only a few watches remain. A notice is up on their website informing customers that they are ‘winding down’ with a reminder to collect their items before the end of March.  A small ad in the papers about their closure has sent a trickle of curious visitors to their shop to inquire and express their sadness at the shop’s demise. In the workshop at the back, it is business as usual for now. Technicians are finishing the last of the repairs undertaken. Old, ornate timekeeping devices (‘clocks’ seem a hollow word for devices so elaborate) are tagged and marked, repaired and ready for their rightful owners to take them back home. In a corner, two skeletal grandfather clock mechanisms, stripped of their wooden exteriors, stand still, waiting for the workshop to breathe life into them before the 76-year-old shop closes down.

K. Don Willie & Sons was established in 1941 by Kaluarachchige Don Willie and his two sons K. Don Leonard and K. Don Patrick specifically to repair and maintain the optical and navigational instruments of the Royal Navy whose Eastern Fleet was stationed in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon). K. Don Willie, who was also once head of the instruments section of the Colombo Observatory, did not receive any formal education in horology but honed his skills through hands-on work and an intuitive knack for the craft. The business moved from Piliyandala to Bambalapitiya and soon began undertaking repairs of time and optical instruments for the public.

After K. Don Leonard migrated to Australia in 1970 and K. Don Willie passed away in 1976, the ownership of the shop was passed onto K. Don Patrick.K. Don Patrick’s sons, Gihan and Rohan Jayatilleke, were in and out of the shop since childhood, absorbed in the activity and immersed in the workings of the shop. Both Gihan and his uncle obtained training from the British Horological Institute and the family business continued over the years. The Jayatilleke brothers started off as apprentices in the business and currently own and manage the shop, engaging in restoration, repair and conservation of clocks and watches.

They explain that the business has been associated with several public clocks in Sri Lanka built before the 1970s. Their most significant contract was the restoration of the Chatham Street tower clock in the early 1980s while their most recent tower clock restoration project was the clock at St. Mary’s Church, Bambalapitiya in 2004. In previous years, the shop has also been associated with clock towers in Jaffna, Trincomalee, Batticaloa, Ratnapura, Kuliyapitiya, Galle, Matara and Piliyandala.They emphasize that the company sticks true to the cardinal rule of conservation when embarking on all projects– every change that is done must be reversible.

The way it was: The shop on Galle Road Bambalapitiya

The decision to close down has not been easy. One of the biggest challenges the business has had to contend with is the lack of skilled technicians and a dwindling interest in the industry. On  December  31, 2015, a dominant Swiss watch manufacturer announced that it was withdrawing the global supply of spare parts to independent watch repairers. The move had been slowly in process for some years and its implementation was a death knell to independent watchmakers around the world, crippling an already dwindling industry.  “As a company we found it very difficult to maintain our standards because of the lack of those spares. That was the beginning of how things started narrowing down on our front here,” noted Rohan.

For now, the value of the shop’s property and its potential to generate an income in other ways, outweigh the cost of doing business in the same industry. “If we thought this could continue, we’d probably use less space or move to a smaller place or out of Colombo,” says Gihan.

There’s a bittersweet resignation about the end of this chapter but there is also a chance that the brothers may take on specialized projects on a personal capacity. From British made Myfordlathe, Swiss high precision watch makers’ lathes and Witschi mechanical watch diagnostics machines, their workshop is in possession of specialized equipment and tooling of British and Swiss origin which would be costly to replace. Although the shop may not be in existence, the brothers’ passion for the craft still remains – they bring out the dashboard of a 1937 vintage Wolsley, rescued from rust and decay and carefully restored over a period of two years. The pleasure in seeing the pieces of the mechanical puzzle fit and finally work out is a feeling that is irreplaceable and what drew them to the business, Gihan notes.

Longstanding customers are regretful over the closure. Chanaka Jinasena is an enthusiast of classic objects and the owner of a collection of 100 vintage clocks. He has been going to K. Don Willie  & Sons for decades and before him, his mother was a patron of the shop, taking their ancestral clocks to them. “Don Willie’s is a one of a kind facility.  To find such a place where the owner comes out, talks to you and hears your story is rare,” he muses. He adds that the sole reason his collection is so large is because of his confidence in the brothers to repair and restore any clock he brings to them. “When they close their doors, that’s an entire era gone by — that’s something that can’t be replaced.”

Gihan Jayatilleke

Under the gaze of old ornate time devices: A technician finishes the last of the repairs undertaken. Pix by Indika Handuwala and Shehal Joseph

Rohan Jayatilleke

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