Military veterans begin new careers as watchmakers

By Olivia Montes
Posted 7/4/21

ODESSA — Three local military veterans are back on the clock as watchmakers following their graduation from the Veterans Watchmaker Initiative in May.

The three men — Michael DeWane of …

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Military veterans begin new careers as watchmakers


ODESSA — Three local military veterans are back on the clock as watchmakers following their graduation from the Veterans Watchmaker Initiative in May.

The three men — Michael DeWane of the Navy; Gordon Hyde, an Air Force retiree; and Dereck Kelley, formerly of the Army — finished up their training May 21.

According to a VWI press release, these individuals — “coincidentally representing three branches of the military” — received their diplomas “after more than 2320 intensive hours of training” and are now officially certified to make “any repair to mechanical or quartz watches.”

Founded in 2017 by retired Swiss-trained master watchmaker Sam Cannan and inspired by the mission of the Joseph Bulova School of Watchmaking in New York City — which itself, said the statement, was “borne of gratitude for the sacrifices of injured American veterans” post-World War II — VWI, headquartered in Odessa, trains disabled U.S. military veterans in the time-honored practice of watchmaking.

“(Companies) need thousands of watchmakers in the U.S. and tens of thousands globally, and disabilities are of no consequence to those who can do the work,” said Mr. Cannan.

Through this practice, the initiative seeks to help 15 students a year to not only support themselves and their families but also grant them the self-respect they deserve for their service.

“This school is unique in the nation, … (and) it’s amazing what Sam has accomplished because of his belief in what one man and a couple of helpers can do,” said Dave Skocik, president of the Delaware Veterans Coalition and VWI collaborator. “To reach out to those people who have served our nation so selflessly and who have returned with stresses, strains, … the sacrifices they have made to protect this country — (this program) is changing lives.”

For Donald “Don” Morton, 47, of Dover, who is a U.S. Air Force veteran and 2019 VWI graduate, enrolling in the program not only further fueled his desire to learn how to make watches, but it was also a way to create or restore treasured timepieces.

“Once you get into the watchmaker’s course, it takes such a high level of concentration that all those problems that you had before (you) started working on that watch, are, at a minimum, put on hold ... because it takes all your attention,” Mr. Morton said. “If you have patience and an ability to listen and comprehend, then everything else will come.”

Now a sanctioned Bulova Service Center, VWI volunteer instructors train individuals with donated advanced watchmaking equipment. Students are given additional assistance and encouragement from community members and businesses in the Odessa area, including veterans specializing in carpentry and electrical expertise.

The VWI building has multiple specialized classrooms, horology labs and museums, allowing for a well-rounded education and experiences for all its students.

This cooperation between the program and the town has “(made) it possible for students to attend tuition-free and (be) housed locally,” VWI said.

The VWI Watchmaker Program requires students to complete 16 months, or 2,320 hours, of intensive training. Students take competency tests after the completion of each segment and must pass the final exam to graduate. Each will thoroughly complete a watch by graduation.

The program includes a wide range of detailed courses, such as jeweling, lathe and turning, service and repair, staffing and business practices.

In addition, VWI offers a Watch Technician Program, which is six weeks (240 hours) of intensive training and acts as a mandated final test for the Mechanical Watchmaker Program. Upon successfully completing the six weeks — which requires sufficiently repairing five practice models — students can make customary repairs on quartz watches. Areas covered in the course include introduction to tools and quartz theory, basic movement cleaning, cell replacement and case and brand refinishing.

According to the VWI website, it plans to initiate a jewelry-repair course on campus and is actively looking for a disabled veteran instructor to teach it.

VWI also plans on opening an additional location in Middletown, with land donated by New Castle County. This facility, Mr. Skocik said, will house incoming students free of charge.

For past, present and future classes, VWI not only provides disabled veterans the tools and instruction to master a time-honored tradition but also builds upon the veterans’ strength to continue forward and to make a difference for others along the way.

“When most people hear about the school initially, their first reaction is, ‘Well, that’s kind of silly,’ (or) ‘They might as well be teaching them how to fix wagon wheels or buggy whips because there’s no market for this,’ and that cannot be further from the truth,” Mr. Cannan said. “There are thousands of job openings for watchmakers in the field, ... and all we’re doing is basically mimicking what (schools) did back in World War II.”

Mr. Morton said he enjoys the detail-oriented industry.

“The great thing about watchmaking is ... know(ing) that I have something complicated to do,” he said. “There’s always some other process that you can do; if you’re having trouble with one thing, there’s another part of the watch that you can refurbish, polish, clean (or) resurface, ... and then, you feel more comfortable to come back to what you were avoiding earlier.

“You don’t have to be a major museum, great watch restorer. ... There’s a large array of possibilities that can come from just going to this class,” he said.

Veterans interested in enrolling in courses — as well as those who wish to volunteer or donate — can visit here.