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Watchmaker’s art sustained by veterans in Odessa

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Kevin Knaus, a U.S. Navy veteran, works on a Seiko watch timing mechanism at the Veterans Watchmaker Initiative in Odessa. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS

ODESSA – The 43 tons of watch parts recently delivered to the Veterans Watchmaker Initiative (VWI) validate Sam Cannan’s passion to train the next generation of watch technicians, watchmakers, and jewelry repair experts. It accompanied the initiative being named famed New York City watchmaker Bulova’s only authorized service center in America.

Sam Cannan, founder of the Veterans Watchmaker Initiative in Odessa, poses inside the expansion space that will soon house a service center. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS

“I’ve liked tiny mechanical pieces all my life,” said Cannan, a retired Baltimore police officer.

The passion began after a Bulova expert told him three decades ago that he was “too old, too stupid and his hands were too big” for watch repair. He accepted the challenge first to learn about it and now to pass the lore on.

In 2011, he founded the initiative and its unique school in downtown Odessa, based upon the model of the famed Bulova school that trained wounded World War II veterans in the work but closed decades ago. VWI only accepts military veterans, and particularly seeks out disabled ones. Tuition is free, the staff is all-volunteer and its profile is quickly growing.

VWI’s home was a former New Castle County paramedic building that the county is renting out for 20 years, at $1 a year. Right now, its second one is under construction next door and is planned to house a service center to employ graduated students to do commercial repair jobs.

Its third building is planned for a 4-acre tract on the outskirts of Middletown, right against the Maryland line, donated by Geri and Dickey Money, owners of Money’s Farm Market. Cannan is planning a $4.7 million, 28,000-square-foot building that will feature residential units for students.

(L-R) Kevin Knaus, Dereck Kelly and Gordon Hyde work on watches at the Veterans Watchmaker Initiative headquarters in Odessa on Nov. 4. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS

“We’re currently the largest watchmaker school in the United States, but once we complete this building, we’ll be the largest such school in the world,” Cannan said proudly looking at a rendering of the building.

Sales of new high-end watches are going up and interest in vintage watches from generations ago is too, but the number of people certified to work on them is rapidly declining.

“This is a profession they could do for the rest of their lives,” VWI board member Dave Skocik said.

It’s also a profession that can be done from home, and one that looks to be “robot-proof” for a long time, believes the American Watchmakers-Clockmakers Institute.

Cannan co-founded VWI with Susan Musman, who brought decades of experience in the watch industry and marketing to the nonprofit, which Cannan proudly said is now debt-free.

Cannan owns a few hundred watches, stashed at his home in downstate Delaware. Though “I consider every watch I work on to be mine for a moment,” he said.

Three or four hundred veterans are on the waiting list for the school, which handles nine students at a time. The most committed quickly arrange for their one-day entrance exam. Once accepted, there’s a six-week watch technician program and a 16-month watchmaker program.

He bases his nonprofit on how the Bulova Foundation in 1924 began to train watchmakers, also emulating the Joseph Bulova School of Watchmaking, founded in 1945, and how Swiss watchmakers repaid American service members for Europe’s freedom by training them after World War II.

Cannan teaches with Rick Aubin, who moved from New York to volunteer at the school, and school alumnus Don Morton. Expanding to jewelry awaits another teacher.

“Not only are you learning together, but you are helping each other with frustrations and problem solving,” Morton said in a testimonial video.

Michael DeWane, a U.S. Navy veteran, places a tiny jewel that balances a pin inside of a wristwatch using a microscope. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS

For the school’s latest class including U.S. Army veteran Dereck Kelly, Air Force veteran Gordon Hyde and Navy veterans Kevin Knaus and Michael DeWane, the opportunity was a chance to learn a valuable skill with little competition. Some of the school’s graduates have gone on to six-figure salaries at multinational jewelry companies while another was even offered a position at NASA.

DeWane left a career in cybersecurity that he didn’t find fulfilling – a feeling that Knaus, who left a culinary arts career path for the watchmaker training, could relate to.

The meticulous work ranges from assembling and repairing watches with as few as a dozen parts or as many as 300 practically microscopic gears, screws, pins, and springs. Each of the pieces has a role in the mechanisms of the watch that are carefully assembled to limit a hand’s natural motion from throwing off the watch’s ability to tell time to the exact second.

“The school now represents ground zero for my new life, many future watchmakers, and will always be a place to call home,” Jason Adams, a student in the school’s first class, said in another video.

“They like to perpetuate this craft because it is so special,” Cannan said, referring to his fellow instructors and the finesse of handling watches treasured for generations. “We deliver what this piece of art deserves.”

Or as the school motto puts it: “Strive for perfection and settle for excellence.”  

By Ken Mammarella
Contributing Writer

Editor Jacob Owens contributed to this story.

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