VIDEO & STORY -- Swatch Group gives equipment to Veterans Watchmaker Initiative in Odessa, run by Sam Canaan of Dover, training students like Jason Adams of Millsboro

From Sussex County to New York and as far afield as Dubai, the Veterans Watchmaker Initiative in Odessa has attracted global attention.

The school is tuition-free but requires grants and donations to operate.

That's why the founders were pleasantly surprised when the Swatch Group recently donated $140,000 worth of watchmaking equipment and materials.

“We are extremely proud that they called us and donated,” said VWI board chairman and instructor Sam Cannan, of Dover. “We became first-class in just one day.”

Cannan led the effort to help honorably discharged veterans find a career after returning home, with an emphasis on those with a disability. He was a police officer before he began his watchmaking career, after training in Switzerland.

After he retired, his goal was to revive the philosophy of the Joseph Bulova School of Watchmaking and teach it to a new generation. The Bulova school, since shut down, was the first to train disabled veterans in watchmaking just after World War II.

After a few years of searching for a location, Cannan opened the Veterans Watchmakers Initiative at a former New Castle County paramedic building in Odessa with the help of veterans groups, grants, donations and government assistance. The New Castle County government allows the VWI to rent the building for $1 per year.

“The initial way I thought to set up the school has worked so far,” Cannan said. “I was always looking for ‘cheap or free.’”

Soldiers’ stories

Six students and two instructors gathered for the grand opening in September 2017, and five of the original six students are still enrolled as a group in the second program. An extensive waiting list -- 237 potential candidates -- reaches as far as Dubai, Cannan said.

Jason Adams, 37, from Millsboro, was a small arms repairman for eight years in the Army. He discovered Cannan’s program in a brochure during a medical appointment while waiting for his bloodwork results. Having a background in dealing with mechanical parts helped spark Adams’ interest in watchmaking.

“I was lucky. I already dealt with small parts and mechanisms before I came to the school,” Adams said.

He greatly appreciates what Cannan and VWI’s contributors have provided for him and his peers.

“He does everything,” Adams said. “He goes out, pounds the pavement and isn’t afraid to knock on your door 900 times if you agreed to help. It shows the passion and dedication he has for disabled veterans.”

James Gardner, a student from Binghamton, New York, was a paramedic in the Coast Guard and then worked as a machinist for most of his life. But he was searching for a new opportunity and found VWI through dozens of internet searches.

“I can do it now as a senior citizen,” joked Gardner, who’s 59. Gardner struggled to find a place to stay while in school, so Cannan offered to set him up at Port Penn’s Victory Village, a transitional housing community for veterans. Gardner praised Cannan for his hard work and dedication to disabled veterans, all the while smiling at the possibilities watchmaking offers.

“I don’t have to slug my way through a menial job, and I can go anywhere I want to go because of the opportunities in watchmaking,” Gardner said. “I’d like to see some places in Europe.”

Before admission, an applicant has to take a comprehensive skills and dexterity test to measure skills and patience and resilience for tasks requiring precision with small objects and tools. Cannan said the test is vital in determining each student’s compatibility with the curriculum and the intricacies of watchmaking. Once admitted, students can take two courses, the fundamental watch technician program and the more intricate watchmaker program.

The first course, titled the Quartz Tech course, lasts six weeks and acts as a steppingstone into watchmaking, familiarizing the students with the processes and mindset needed for lessons taught later on. The second course, the Watchmaker course, lasts 15 months and teaches students how to create watch components entirely from scratch. After completing this course, the students can be “basically qualified” as “micro-machinists,” Cannan said.

Abundance of jobs

Watchmaking job opportunities for graduates exceed 4,000 in the U.S., and more than 40,000 internationally, Cannan said.

The Swatch Group and the Richemont Group have offered openings to VWI’s students. According to a Swatch Group press release, “Watch production has once again increased in recent years and we need these highly skilled people to be able to service the watches of today’s clients and for the generations to come.”

Some students have expressed interest in traveling to work at companies or jewelry stores in Switzerland and New Zealand. “There are jobs all over the world for these guys,” Cannon said. “If you want to work in Perth, Australia, you can. If you want to work in London, you can.”

If a student wishes to start a business, VWI offers assistance with small business development through SCORE, a network of volunteer business experts and mentors. VWI also provides support in website and contact development, and accounting. “Once they graduate, they are always welcome to return for whatever advice and counseling they may require,” Cannan said. “The student will always be a part of the VWI family and can return for help at any time.”

Contributing partners and donors include colleges and universities, like George Washington University and Temple University, companies such as Delaware Millwork, and organizations like the Hogs and Heroes’ Middletown chapter. Mike Wipf, chapter president of Hogs and Heroes and Cannan’s close friend, visits and helps whenever he can.

“[This program] supports the military, and it gives respect to those who served,” Wipf said. “It feels good to give back.”

Dave Skocik, a board member and president of the Delaware Veterans Coalition, said he strongly believes in Cannan’s dream and wants to see it become fully realized.

“What he offered wasn’t money; he’s a retiree, a former police officer who by good fortune was introduced into the world of watchmaking and made a successful second career that ultimately inspired him to reach out to his fellow veterans of all generations,” Skocik said. “It’s a phenomenal accomplishment that will go down in history.”

What’s next?

At the Odessa school, construction has begun on additional classrooms, where Cannan plans to start a third, more advanced course detailing the creation and maintenance of a chronograph for interested graduating students when space and time permits. He also hopes to start a free weekend course for anyone wanting to learn more about watchmaking. By the end of the summer, a lesson taught by a VWI student, with help from an automated program, will guide interested students through the process of cleaning and repairing his or her own watch.

Cannan’s long-term plans are for expansion on donated land at the Middletown Technical Center campus to accommodate up to 53 resident students, and salaries for support and teaching staff, a bump up from the unpaid volunteers at the Odessa campus.

For more information on the Veterans Watchmaker Initiative, see the Facebook page at facebook.com/veteranswatchmakerinitiative or the school’s website, veteranswatchmakerinitiative.org.