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Delaware watchmaking school provides an outlet for veterans, and delivers a good time

School watches were part of the final exam for a group of recent graduates from the Veterans Watchmaker Initiative in Odessa, Delaware.

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By AMANDA PARRISH | Dover Post | Published: November 7, 2019

ODESSA, Del. (Tribune NewsService) — After Bruce Schmelz left the Navy, he struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder.

He spent a lot of time in the Veterans Affairs hospital and struggled with day-to-day life.

"PTSD ruined me as a person," he said. "I couldn't function very well in society."

But when Schmelz found a flyer for the Veterans Watchmaker Initiative in 2017, he saw it as an opportunity. He emailed founder and chairman Sam Cannan, and the Swiss-trained master watchmaker said it seemed like a perfect fit.

Schmelz was ready to join the inaugural class, but then his father died, so he was no longer in a good emotional place to start his training.

Two years later, he finally started, and he said it was worth the wait.

"It's very peaceful to do this," Schmelz said. "It helps you focus and stop worrying about everything else."

Instructor Rick Aubin said there is a shortage of watchmakers in the U.S., it is not physically demanding and it makes it a great way to integrate disabled veterans back into society.

"It is fun getting someone trained in a profession that is very relaxing," he said.

According to the American Watchmakers-Clockmakers Institute, there are 40,000 job openings worldwide.

After the 14-month training course, the graduates can make about $80,000 to $100,000 a year right away. Some have been recruited by NASA and Tiffany & Co. in New York, Cannan said.

Although some might want to work for corporations, Navy veteran Mike Dewane said he hopes to own his own watchmaking and repair shop someday.

The program

The Veterans Watchmaker Initiative is based in Odessa. It provides training in watch repair with support and referral services for disabled military veterans throughout the state.

The program is in two phases. The initial course lasts six weeks and requires students to service 40 different quartz watches, certifying them to work at a jewelry counter.

The second is an additional 14 months of on-the-job training, in which students learn jewelry repair in the first three weeks followed by a watch-repair program.

The first group of students started in September 2017 and finished in April 2019. The second started Sept. 12 and graduated from the six-week portion Oct. 24.

Cannan said they typically have about nine students to start, but a couple will drop out before the end of the first six weeks. The recent group had six graduates.

In additional to fixing watches, each person has to make their own watch, size bracelets and replace circuit boards to complete the full program.

Uses military skills

Although the initiative has only been in the area for two years, veteran watchmaking schools in the U.S. date to 1946. Many skills veterans learned during military service are applicable to watchmaking.

Gordon Hyde, an Air Force veteran, said it requires a lot of determination and there isn't room for error. He worked with the micro machining and metallurgy — studying the physical and chemical behavior of metallic elements — in the Air Force, and those skills transferred over.

"Watch repair takes aspects that we know from the military," Hyde said. "We have to be focused."

He never really thought about watchmaking before, but he instantly fell in love with it because he gets to use skills he already knows and enjoys.

Kevin Knaus was an ejection seat technician during his time in the Navy. He said there are civilian no jobs for that, but with watchmaking he gets use what he learned .

"I wouldn't know what to do if this place wasn't here," Knaus said.

Kevin Connolly, an Air Force veteran, said he knew watchmaking was what he wanted to do for most of his life because he loves how the craft mixes technique and art.

"I've had it in the back of my mind for quite a while," he said. "It is really beautiful. You have the technical skills, but you can take an artistic perspective."

The initiative is privately funded and most of the equipment and storage space was donated, Cannan said. The Swatch Group and George Washington University donated cabinets and laboratory equipment. Retired watchmakers volunteer their time to teach the classes, helping make tuition free.

New Castle County leases a former EMT building to them for $1 a year.

The Veterans Watchmaker Initiative is at 307 Sixth Street in Odessa. Email scannan@veteranswatchmakerinitiative.org or call 302-378-7088 for more.

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