Proposal to Train Disabled Vets as Watchmakers

The new “War Veterans Watchmaker Initiative” of the American Watch Guild, a group of a fine watch retailers and suppliers, aims to help veterans of America’s wars see watchmaking as a productive career, and to persuade the U.S. watch and jewely trades to provide apprenticeships, scholarships, and jobs for them.

The VWI seeks to benefit both disabled U.S. vets and the U.S. watch trade, which has seen trained watchmakers shrink from 30,000 only three decades ago to less than 4,400 now, an all-time low. Half of those will retire within a few years.

Yet, with U.S. watch sales at an all-time high, boosted by exceptional growth in mechanical watches, there’s rising demand from retailers, watch suppliers and service centers for qualified watch professionals to service timepieces bought by U.S. consumers.

“Since we now have many returning and existing war veterans, this program could especially benefit those who are disabled or need a new career path that could be both emotionally and financially rewarding,” says Susan Musman, executive administrator of the project and AWG director of business development. It could also “help replenish the serious shortage of watchmakers and watch technicians.”
 
Based on Bulova. The idea for the VWI project is based on the Joseph Bulova School, founded in the 1940s by the Bulova family (which owned and operated Bulova Watch Corp. for its first 100 years), says Bert Kalisher, AWG executive director. The Bulova School was created specifically to train returning World War II servicemen as watchmakers. Its graduates (and others from later wars) provided many of America’s independent jewelers and watchmakers in the 1950s and ’60s.

Now, the AMG wants to provide similar opportunites for tens of thousands of wounded and disabled heros of America’s more recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The project has been in the planning since October. A major step will be the scheduled launch in late April of its Web site. “This will be the focal point for interested veterans, watch schools, manufacturers, retailers and donors, where they can go to participate,” says Musman. “Veterans will be able to sign up for the program and get information. Each watch school will have a summary page, with a link to its own Web site. It will tell what’s happening in the program, and provide links to industry news and events.”

Any veteran or retailer interested now in the VWI program can contact Musman (516-316-6443) or Robert Filotei, the project’s national director (203-520-8799).
 
Industry-wide. The AWG hopes this will become an industry-wide initiative, says Musman. Watch industry veteran Filotei, the former president of Piaget Inc., Musman, and Kalisher have been actively contacting watch companies, watch service/repair centers, jewelers, watch schools, and industry groups, asking for their support and involvement. They’re also meeting with various veteran groups, a number of which have offered to disseminate material and advise the project on the best ways to reach vets, Musman told JCK.

Now, she says, AWG is enlisting support of watch retailers and service centers to train interested veterans. Several hundred letters are going out this spring, explaining the program and asking for their involvement. The AWG will also launch a public relations campaign in May, aimed at trade publications, and news and government organizations.

No prior experience in watchmaking is necessary, says Musman. Vets will be put with retailers or watch service centers to work with experienced watch technicians in a mini-apprenticeship of two to four weeks “to see if this is the career for them,” says Musman. “They’ll learn basic skills, get individual attention and to be evaluated on dexterity, desire [to be a watchmaker] and patience.”

At the end, the vets can decide whether to go on, either enrolling in a watch school or staying with that e-retailer or service center for further training and possible employment.

Those who go to watch school are almost certainly guaranteed a job when they graduate. Due to the severe shortage of trained watchmakers, “watch schools tell us that for every graduate, there are many job offers,” says Musman.

The VWI’s goal is to initially train 100 to 200 veterans. “We need at least that amount, if we are to have an impact on replenishing the watchmaker profession,” says Musman. At press time, the program already had three veterans (all from the first Iraqi war), being trained at three watch servcie centers.
 
Seeking support. The estimated annual budget for the program, says Musman, is between $500,000 and $1 million. That will pay for possible scholarships, tools not covered by scholarships, or VA funding travel costs for vets who go to be tested or trained; salaries for some veterans during their apprenticeships at retailers who can’t afford the extra pay; tuition when a watch school doesn’t have VA tuition approval; some living expenses for vets who must relocate to a watch school; and the PR program.

The AWG hopes most of the budget’s money, if not all, will come from the watch industry—watch companies, watch groups, watch/repair centers.

“Most major watch companies have been contacted,” says Musman. “We’re hoping for their financial support and overall assistance in whatever capacity needed, including to job placement.

“We’ll also be soliciting funds from many jewelry industry associations, such as Jewelers of America.”

At press time, no company had yet made a financial commitment. However, The American Watch Association (the U.S. lobbying group for watch brands and suppliers) has offered to help, and will discuss the project at its May meeting.

There have also been initial pledges of support from Seiko Corp. of America; the Richemont Group (its Dallas, Tex., repair facility); Movado Group; Swatch Group;  Bulova Corp.; Alan Grunwald, president of the Belair Watch Co.; Tourneau (its Long Island City, N.Y. repair facility); and Harvey Rovinsky, owner of Bernie Robbins Fine Jewelry in Philadelphia.

“All have offered to help evaluate and train people,” says Musman.