Three Swiss watch firms give $500,000 to U.S. watchmaking school

Three prestigious Swiss watch firms have given a $500,000 grant to significantly expand the watchmaking program of Oklahoma State University-Okmulgee. The five-year grant, retroactive to January, covers expansion of the program’s facilities, new and additional equipment, scholarships, and faculty training.

Representatives of Audemars Piguet, Breitling, and The Richemont Group (whose watch brands include Cartier, Piaget, Jaeger-LeCoultre, and A. Lange & Sohne) signed the agreement with OSU officials at Okmulgee, Okla., on Aug. 20. Also present was Antoine Simonin, director of WOSTEP (Watchmakers of Switzerland Training and Education Program), in Neuchâtel, Switzerland, the international leader in watchmaker education, whose members, which include leading Swiss watch brands, organizations and related groups.

Okmulgee is only one of three “partner” schools in the U.S. authorized to use WOSTEP’s intensive two-year 3,000-hour curriculum, the accepted standard for watch training.

“This sponsorship strengthens OSU-Okmulgee’s 50-year heritage of watchmaking education and positions us to train students for lucrative careers in advanced watch repair,” said Robert Klabenes, OSU-Okmulgee President, OSU-Okmulgee, the technical education branch of OSC, is one of the nation`s leading technical colleges and the only one to offer the Associate in Applied Science degree in Watchmaking and Microtechnology.

The Okmulgee watchmaking program began in 1946 and is now the oldest in the country. Its advisory board includes jewelers, watchmakers, and representatives of Rolex, the Swatch Group, and WOSTEP. Okmulgee has wanted to expand its watchmaking program, but in view of ongoing cutbacks in state and federal funding for education, including state schools, “the only way to do so is with assistance form the private sector,” Anita Watkins, supervisor of the engineering department, which include the watchmaking and microtechnology program, told JCK.

Okmulgee last year submitted a proposal to expand to WOSTEP, which “put out a call for support” among Swiss watch companies. The three watch firms were the first to respond, though Watkins says the program has since been approached by other brands. The $500,000 grant not only enables Okmulgee’s watchmaking program to expand its facilities, acquire more and newer equipment, and provide scholarships, but also increase its teachers and the students. In 2000, before the grant, the Okmulgee program had eight students and one teacher. This year, it has 20 students and two teachers. Watkins expect to have 36 students and three teachers in 2004.

The grant to expand Okmulgee’s program comes at a time when the U.S. watch and jewelry industries are trying to deal with a critical shortage in skill watchmakers and repairers, especially whose skilled in maintenance and repair of intricate mechanical timepieces. The median age of watchmakers in the U.S. is now 61 years, and skilled watchmakers have been retiring faster than the few watch training programs in the U.S. can replace them.