“We came to Baltimore in 1991—Jan. 21. I remember that date [when] I stepped on American soil,” said Simon Abramov, Ukrainian master watchmaker for 42 years.
Abramov brought his family from the small town of Skvyra outside of Kiev to escape the aftermath of Chernobyl (just 12 miles away) and make a better life for his wife Sofiya, son Alex, now 36, and daughter Marina, now 35. Abramov, in his deep, rich Ukrainian accent, explained there were other reasons too.
“Jewish people weren’t really welcome to live in the Soviet Union,” said Abramov. “There were a lot of anti-Semitic things. Yes, I was working. I was very successful watchmaker there. But life … you know, sometimes you have to leave something behind you and go and start a new life.”
There were limited Jewish entrance quotas for acceptance into universities and colleges at the time, explained Abramov. It was not uncommon for Ukrainians or Russians with the same or even lesser entrance exam scores to be accepted over a Jewish student. Though he was very good in academics (he completed high school at 16), that was one reason Abramov chose a trade profession.
“I was always a very handy kid,” said Abramov, 59. “I liked to work with my hands, I damaged a lot of watches, I remember that — when I was a kid,” he said with a laugh. “My stepmother said to me, ‘Maybe you’re going to watchmaker’s school,’ and I tried it. I had really good teachers, and it turns out I love to do that, plus it makes me my living.”
When Abramov arrived in Baltimore with his family, it was challenging to find work. He didn’t know anyone other than a relative of his wife, and he was just learning English. Nobody knew of his talents and experience in watchmaking and repair. Then he met Joe Dabha.
“When we came here, we lived in Milbrook,” said Abramov. “It was a lot of Russian people living there, and he (Joe Dhaba) was living on our street. We got to talking, and he said, ‘You know, I’m a watchmaker.’ It’s like God led us to meet. So he started to take me to his shop. Also at that time, I was accepted to CCBC [Community College of Baltimore County], and I was learning ESL (English as a second language) in classes at the Jewish Community Center. His shop was two blocks from there, so after school I went there and helped him fix watches. … I don’t know how it happened; it was a magical meeting.”
Abramov, alternating between a monocle jeweler’s scope and head-visor magnifiers, is surrounded by thousands of tiny parts and precision instruments at his small work bench, which is located in the rear of Mitchell’s Jewelers at 1500 Reisterstown Road in Pikesville. Fourteen drawers are filled with more tweezers, pliers, hundreds of tiny watch hands, watch faces, winding crowns and watch keys. A dozen watches are lined up on top awaiting his attention and care.
“Watchmaking consists of a lot of things; it’s not only when you work with your hands,” said Abramov. “Before you work you have to know physics, you have to know chemistry, science, electronics, you have to know how to work with the metals. It’s a lot of things you have to know before you get into the practice. If you don’t know in your head what you’re doing, your hands are not going to work properly.”
Several jewelers use Abramov for repairing and restoring watches, pocket watches and small clocks, he’s even repaired watches for Cal Ripken. He keeps his knowledge up to date by attending trade shows, reading industry literature and talking with watch manufacturers. Sometimes, he even makes suggestions for improvements. Watching him work, the miniscule pieces and tools move deftly in his hands as if natural extensions of his fingers.
“Watches are like people,” said Abramov. “You’re like a doctor, you have to fix them, you have to heal them, you know.”
Melissa Gerr is JT digital media editor/senior reporter