Swiss Watch Firms Give $500,000 to U.S. School

Three 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 2002, 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 many watch brands include Cartier, Piaget, Jaeger-LeCoultre, and A. Lange & Söhne) signed the agreement with school officials at Okmulgee, Okla., in August. Also present was Antoine Simonin, director of the Watchmakers of Switzerland Training and Education Program (WOSTEP) in Neuchâtel, Switzerland. WOSTEP is an international watchmaker education center whose members include leading Swiss watch brands and organizations. Okmulgee is one of only three U.S. “partner schools” authorized to use WOSTEP’s two-year curriculum, the accepted standard for watch training.

Lucrative careers. “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 Dr. Robert Klabenes, president of OSU-Okmulgee. The school is a leading U.S. technical college and the only one with an Associate in Applied Science degree in Watchmaking and Microtechnology.

The Okmulgee watchmaking program began in 1946. Its advisory board includes jewelers, watchmakers, and representatives of Rolex, The Swatch Group, and WOSTEP.

Okmulgee has wanted to expand its program to help counter the sharp decline in U.S. watchmakers, but because of ongoing cutbacks in state and federal funding for education, “the only way is with assistance from the private sector,” says Anita Watkins, chairman of the university’s engineering technologies division, which includes watchmaking and microtechnology. Okmulgee last year sent its expansion proposal to WOSTEP, which “put out a call for support” among Swiss watch companies. The three watch firms were the first to respond.

More students. The $500,000 grant enables Okmulgee’s watchmaking program not only to expand its facilities and equipment and provide scholarships but also to expand its faculty and increase enrollment. In 2000, the Okmulgee program had eight students and one teacher; this year, it has 20 students and two teachers. Watkins expects to have 36 students and three teachers in 2004.

This isn’t the first major grant to a U.S. school by a Swiss watch firm. In 2000, Rolex Watch U.S.A. gave $1 million to the watchmaking program of North Seattle Community College, Seattle, Wash.