The Sentimental Value of Language and Watches

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For those of us who are lucky, a task that’s born out of necessity sometimes turns into a passion. Mitchel Thompson started learning French in middle school because he knew it was required in order to get his dream job one day—working in the watchmaking industry. In the process, however, he fell in love with the language and it became an obsession of its own right. His interests continued to develop and complimented each other perfectly; while the connection between language learning and watchmaking may not be apparent to most, Mitchel sees parallels between the two in his life every day.

 Mitchel at the NYC Watch Show.

Mitchel at the NYC Watch Show.

Since getting his first watch while shopping for school clothes as a kid, Mitchel was fascinated by the machines, and propelled by a desire to learn how they worked. At a young age, he dreamed of working for a high-end watchmaking company. One of the first things he realized when he began seriously considering the career was that in order to be involved on an intimate level with the process, you have to speak the industry’s primary language, French. After studying the language for several years, he ended up at Michigan State as a French major. The language learning process was addicting and rewarding. His favorite instructors and professors were the ones he had in language classes—in them, he found some of the most passionate people he’d ever met. He also formed some of his dearest friendships along the way.

As a young language student, Mitchel decided he wanted to get more immersed in the language than he could through his classes. He found a pen pal organization that matched language students with similar ages and interests from across the world. Mitch’s pen pal was a student in Normandy, France. A few months into writing to each other, they started having conversations over FaceTime, something that’s continued for five years now. Over the phone, he’s met her parents, siblings, and extended family; they speak on a regular basis, as often as he talks to any of his friends from home. Along with being an incredible way to practice French, he’s formed a lasting friendship. Next summer, Mitchel’s taking his dream vacation to visit Switzerland and France. One of the highlights: after five years of talking to his pen pal, he’s going to meet her for the first time.

While Mitchel was enjoying his time at MSU, his life plan took an unexpected turn. After updating his LinkedIn profile for a class, he was surprised to connect with a watchmaking company in Detroit called Shinola. When they offered him a job as a watch repair technician, he decided to accept it. He says he misses his French classes but is happy to be doing what he loves—and that doesn’t just include repairing watches. “I use French every day…it’s necessary, and I’m so thankful for the education I’ve had up until this point.” Several coworkers speak French as their native language, and he loves to practice with them; some business deals are done in French, as he had learned long ago; even some of the instruction manuals he uses at work are written in French.

Beyond using the French language at work in a practical sense, Mitchel also sees a deeper connection between his two passions, watches and language. For him, watches are not just machines but pieces of art, and often form a very personal connection—whether a nice watch is given as a gift or handed down between family members, they have a sentimental value. By repairing these watches, he helps keep them running longer so their owners can retain that value. Mitchel sees his passion for learning languages as being born out of that same desire to foster connections: “It’s the sentimental attachment that comes with language, that comes with high-end jewelry, that comes with learning…there’s nothing more valuable than that connection to people.”

 The SHinola Headquarters in Detroit, MI.

The SHinola Headquarters in Detroit, MI.

Next fall, Mitchel plans to apply for a technical school which specializes in watchmaking, an intensive two-year program founded by Rolex. Ideally, it would open up doors for him to work on watches at other high-end companies—and as far as location, he’s open to wherever. But whether he gets a job at home or abroad, one thing is certain: that hunger for learning won’t go away. Mitchel will continue finding ways to use his language abilities to build connections, just as he has for the last several years by seeking out opportunities whether they’re with pen pals, coworkers, or classes.

Story b Katherine Stark.