Naysayers said the Veterans Watchmaker Initiative would never open its doors, but after seven years of hard work, founder Sam Cannan proved them wrong.
About a hundred people endured Wednesday’s rain to witness the ribbon-cutting ceremony of the Odessa Center for Horological Exellence. Classes are underway teaching veterans the highly-skilled art of watch repair.
“I’m thrilled to death,” Cannan said. “Glad to be able to change gears finally from doing all of this construction work, to actually making all this happen for these guys and gals. That’s the important thing.”
The Swiss-trained master watchmaker and trained instructor was inspired by the Bulova School of Watchmaking in New York. The school trained an entire generation of disabled World War II veterans before it closed in 1983.
Currently, VWI is the only watchmaking school exclusively for veterans, disabled vets in particular, in the entire country.
According to the American Watchmakers-Clockmakers Institute in Ohio, the demand for watchmaking is incredible, as watchmakers are retiring or dying faster than schools can graduate them.
“Each year about 400 watchmakers retire from the industry and fewer than a hundred new watchmakers are being trained,” said Jordan Ficklin, executive director. “There’s already a huge deficit. I would say we have half the watchmakers of the demand currently, and it’s just growing worse and worse each year.”
Cannan said watchmaking is also therapeutic, especially for veterans recovering from the effects of PTSD, like 39-year-old Jonathan Dunn, who is one of six students in Cannan’s first class.
“The attention you have to put into repairing a watch is so large that it shuts out the outside world,” said Dunn, who served in the Coast Guard for almost six years before being discharged for PTSD. A fatal car accident in 2008 that killed his first daughter exacerbated those effects. “This is a lone person job and I can listen to my music and shut of the outside world and concentrate on just my job.”
The Newark native has not worked since 2008 and is looking forward to regaining his independence and contributing once again. “I’m more than happy to go as far as this will take me. Literally in miles. I would move to Switzerland to have my dream job if I can get it.”
Lynn Gipson, served in Vietnam in 1970. While others his age might be looking forward to retirement, the 66-year-old is looking forward to learning a new skillset.
“This affords me the flexibility to work at my own pace, at my own leisure, like I’m retired. And that’s the beauty of watchmaking. You can demand your own salary, you can work at your own pace, you can work for your own company,” Gipson said. “I’m the type of guy, I like to stay in shape, I like to keep my mind functioning and this is a challenge.”
Cannan said more than 300 vets are on a waiting list to get into the next class.
“I’m just thankful that we’re at least through phase one. We got it open, it’s for real. People will say, ‘Okay, he did it.'” said Cannan, who has already set his sights on phase two, a 28,000 sq. ft. main campus in Middletown, where he intends to house and teach 54 students.
Once the school is built in Middletown, the Odessa site will become a full-time service center where graduates and service and fix watches for profit, Cannan said.
New Castle County Executive Matt Meyer proclaimed September 13 as “Veterans Watchmaker Initiative Day,” in New Castle County. In addition, the Bulova Corporation contributed $10,000, the first of many contributions towards the school. The American Watchmakers-Clockmakers Institute and the Delaware VFW also presented financial gifts.