U.S. Watch Industry Recruits Veterans

That’s the premise of the new War Veterans Watchmaker Initiative of the American Watch Guild, a group of a fine-watch retailers and suppliers.

The aim is to persuade veterans of America’s wars to consider watchmaking as a career, and for the U.S. watch and jewelry trades to provide apprenticeships, scholarships, and jobs for them. The program also would benefit the U.S. watch trade, which has seen trained watchmakers shrink from more than 30,000 three decades ago to less than 4,400 now, an all-time low. Half of those will retire within a few years.

Yet U.S. watch sales are at an all-time high, boosted by exceptional growth in mechanical watches. That has generated rising demand for qualified watch professionals to service timepieces bought by U.S. consumers. However, North America’s 11 watch training schools graduate only a few dozen people annually, half their enrollment capacity. Trade experts say up to six times that many are needed yearly just to replace watchmakers who retire or die.

“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 director of the project and AMG director of business development. It could also “help replenish the serious shortage of watchmakers and watch technicians.”

The idea for the VWI project comes from Bert Kalisher, AMG executive director, who based his concept 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. The Bulova School was created specifically to train returning World War II servicemen to become watchmakers. Those who graduated (and others from later wars) were the core of America’s independent jewelers and watchmakers in the 1950s and ’60s.

Now Kalisher and AWG want to provide the same opportunities for the tens of thousands of disabled soldiers from America’s more recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The project—its official name is The Watchmaker and Technician Training Program for Disabled War Veterans and War Veterans—has been in the works since October.

A major step was the launch of its Web site at www.vetwatchtraining.org. “This is the focal point for interested veterans, watch schools, manufacturers, retailers, and donors, where they can go to participate,” says Musman. “Veterans can 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 with the program and provide links to relevant industry news and events.”

AWG hopes this will become an industrywide initiative, says Musman. She and Kalisher, along with watch industry veteran Robert Filotei, the former president of Piaget Inc. and the project’s national director, have been contacting veterans groups, watch companies, watch service and repair centers, jewelers, watch schools, and industry groups.

Filotei spoke this spring to officials of the 11 watch schools. He followed up with a formal letter to them announcing the launch and asking for details about their schools, curricula, and possible scholarships for veterans. The schools have been very supportive, says Musman, offering some scholarships, tools, and materials.

Filotei, Kalisher, and Musman also have been meeting with various veterans groups. A number have offered to disseminate material and advise the project on the best ways to reach veterans, Musman tells JCK. The Fisher House Foundation (which operates homes for relatives of injured service people at major military and Veterans Administration hospitals), for example, has agreed to provide information about the project to families of wounded veterans that use its services.

Now, says Musman, AWG is enlisting the support of watch retailers and service centers to train interested veterans for two to four weeks. Several-hundred letters went out this spring, explaining the program and asking for their involvement.

AWG also is launching a public relations campaign aimed at trade publications and news and government organizations, developed by freelance journalist Roberta Nass, a jewelry industry writer.

Any veteran interested in the VWI program can call Musman at (516) 316-6443 or Filotei at (203) 520-8799 or visit www.vetwatchtraining.org.

No prior experience in watchmaking is necessary, says Musman. Vets will be placed 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,” explains Musman. “They’ll learn basic skills, get individual attention, and be evaluated on dexterity, desire [to be a watchmaker], and patience.”

At the end of four weeks, the veterans can decide whether to continue, either by enrolling in a watch school or staying with the retailer or service center for further training and possible employment.

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

The VWI project goal is to train 100 to 200 veterans initially. That’s a “hopeful” number, Musman concedes. “We need at least that amount if we are to have an impact on replenishing the watchmaker profession,” she says. At press time the program had three veterans (all from the first Gulf War) being trained at three watch service centers.

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 must travel for testing or training, salaries for some veterans during apprenticeships at retailers who can’t afford the extra pay, tuition for watch schools that don’t have VA tuition approval, and some living expenses for vets who must relocate. Part of the budget will go toward the public relations program and advertising. “We plan to run on a tight budget and try to help veterans apply for any aid that they’re entitled to,” says Musman.

AWG hopes most of the budget’s money, if not all, will come from the watch industry—primarily watch companies, watch groups, and watch repair centers. “Most major watch companies have been contacted,” says Musman. “Around 100 notices were sent out. We’re hoping to have their financial support and overall assistance in whatever capacity needed. We’ll work together, too, when it comes to job placement.” Musman adds that AWG also will solicit funds from jewelry industry associations such as Jewelers of America.

At press time, no company had yet made a specific financial commitment. However, The American Watch Association (the U.S. lobbying group for watch brands and suppliers) has offered to help and has put the project on its May meeting agenda, says Musman. There were also initial pledges of support from Seiko Corp. of America; the Richemont Group; Movado Group; Swatch Group; Bulova Corp.; Alan Grunwald, president of the Belair Watch Co.; Tourneau; and Harvey Rovinsky, owner of Bernie Robbins Fine Jewelry in Philadelphia. “All have offered to help evaluate and train, and we already have three service centers who are participating,” says Musman.

The Veterans as Watchmakers project is the latest link in a number of efforts by various U.S. watch industry groups and companies to replenish America’s shrinking number of watchmakers. Swiss luxury watch brands have given millions of dollars in this decade to various U.S. watch schools. Rolex started a school (the Technicum) in Pennsylvania to train its watchmakers. AWA, early in this decade, launched a project to support and promote watchmaker education in the United States. The American Watchmakers-Clockmakers Institute, aided by retail and watch trade advisors, recently created two new watch job categories to train people to service fine watches, and it has a trade show exhibit to promote watchmaking education.