Dan Sabouni didn’t set out to be a watchmaker and repairman.
His shop, Clarendon’s Arlington Watch Works, never would have come to fruition if Sabouni had actually enjoyed working in an automotive engineering office after college.
Luckily for Sabouni, he had worked in a jewelry shop during college, and did repairs for antique shops in D.C.’s Georgetown neighborhood. Now, he occupies the tiny, 200-square-foot space, between Goody’s Pizza and Rien Tong, at 3127 Wilson Boulevard, repairing, buying, and selling watches.
He initially owned a similar store in Georgetown neighborhood — a spit of a shop with only 90-square-feet of space — and found success there.
“When I opened that shop, everyone thought I was crazy,” said Sabouni, recounting how people would ask him who even fixes watches anymore.
Eventually, he sold the shop in the early 2000s to a friend and began traveling the world with his watch repair money. That was before he was married, “of course,” he pointed out.
Once he “ran out of money,” Sabouni, originally from London, came back to the area. He opened up the new Arlington shop in January 2015. Per square foot, he says, he’s paying more than any other shop.
“For us watchmakers, we can’t afford high rent,” said Sabouni. “So this was small, but yet affordable.”
Though most would think that those seeking less expensive rent would stay away from one of the more bustling Arlington corridors, or even stay out of Arlington as a whole, Sabouni says that the demographic makeup of the county is necessary for his business to grow.
“I have to be in a place where people do have what I’m looking to repair,” he said. “If I were to go down to, you know, Detroit, Michigan — who’s going to spend a thousand dollars or more restoring their dad’s watch?”
“All said and done, I don’t think you’ll ever find a rich watchmaker,” he added. “But it pays the bills, and I do what I like.”
And his clientele seems to like what he does, as well. Looking at a Yelp review page for Arlington Watch Works, 28 of his 29 reviews are five stars.
It usually takes about a day for a repair, if all goes according to plan. But it’s not an easy task, and even just apprenticing with Sabouni takes several years before being allowed to work on a paying client’s piece.
Sabouni still says that he’s still learning himself, and meets almost every Saturday with his mentor to discuss what’s stumping them.
Though watch repairs are certainly at the heart of the business model, Sabouni has a number of expensive watches on his shelves. Some are priced as little as a few hundred dollars, while others on display push the $20,000-$25,000 mark.
One watch on display, which Sabouni unlockws from its case and brings to a work table, is infinitely more delicate than what you could find at department stores.
It’s an $8,900 Van Cleef and Arpels model, handmade, completely see through, and thoroughly filigreed with real gold.
It’s an expensive passion to pick up, and an equally difficult industry to get into. But in an age of industry disruptions and smartphone app development, Sabouni doesn’t see his industry, and his place in it, going away.
“As long as men are men, and want to have their toys — I guess [the industry] will be over when men want to stop playing with their toys.”