“After Service” Takes On A Whole New Meaning At The Veterans Watchmaker Institut

“After Service” Takes On A Whole New Meaning At The Veterans Watchmaker Institute

Something rather magical is happening at an old ambulance station in Newcastle County, and it is changing lives.

By Sophie Furley

To say watchmaking can change lives is perhaps a bit dramatic. But this story proves that it can, as Sam Cannan, founder and chairman of the Veterans Watchmaker Initiative (VWI) and a retired Baltimore police officer, knows only too well.

A Story Worthy Of A Movie

Cannan was a sniper in one of the United States’ first-ever SWAT teams. During a mission to stop an active shooter, he went up onto a roof to take up his position when he was shot and fell from the top of the building, miraculously surviving thanks to an open awning that broke his fall. Seriously injured, his career as a police officer was brought to a sudden end.

When I interviewed Cannan for this story, he didn’t mention any of this. “He is a very modest guy,” explained Michael Benavente, U.S. Managing Director at Bulova. “But the story is important to understand how he ends up at the Joseph Bulova School of Watchmaking.”

The Joseph Bulova School Of Watchmaking

After rehabilitation – and thanks to his veteran status – Cannan enrolled at the Joseph Bulova School of Watchmaking, a tuition-free school set up after WWII to support disabled veterans by teaching them the fine art of watchmaking.

Even before his accident, he had worked part-time at Bulova, repairing the brand’s 214 and 218 Accutron movements to help finance his college studies. Even though he wasn’t a trained watchmaker, the signs of a natural gift for watchmaking were already showing.

He successfully graduated from the Joseph Bulova School of Watchmaking. And he went on to become a master watchmaker, continuing his studies in Switzerland at WOSPTEP and working for several different Swiss watch brands until he retired.

An Idea Whose Time Has Come

The Joseph Bulova School of Watchmaking closed in the 1980s when the Bulova company traded hands, but Cannan never forgot how it had helped him get back to work.

Then, one day, many years later, he was talking to a magazine publisher who had this idea to connect veterans with jewelers to train them as apprentice watchmakers. “He asked me what I thought,” remembered Cannan. “I told him that I didn’t think it would work as there was nothing in it for the jewelers. I told him that the only thing that could work would be to reinvigorate the Bulova school concept. And his response was, ‘Well, why don’t you do it?’ ” This conversation was a decade ago, and that question marked the beginning of an extraordinary adventure.

The Veterans Watchmaking Institute

Cannan opened the Veterans Watchmaking Institute in 2017 after legally setting up the organization and finding a little former ambulance station in Newcastle County, Delaware. The station sat on four acres of land, was all boarded up, and scheduled to be torn down. He talked the owners into letting him have it for $1 a year for 20 years and turned it into a small school that could train up to nine students.

The students have all kinds of disabilities, from physical challenges to PTSD. “I tell everyone that comes to the school that there are really no disabilities, only things we have to overcome,” said Cannan. Students start by going through a battery of dexterity tests and oral interviews. If they are accepted, they begin a six-week training program that teaches them how to repair quartz watches, replace straps and bracelets, and more. Some then go to work in the jewelry industry, while the ones who show the most promise stay on to complete the full 18-month program.

“If there is a gift that I consider myself to have, it is my ability to see talent in these kids,” noted Cannan. “I have trained some very gifted soldiers. I have one working for the largest jewelry chain in America right now, and I have a Navy veteran who is the most natural watchmaker I have ever seen. He can sit there and do complex work like he is filing his nails. He is just drawn to this; it is amazing!”

“I also have a young marine who didn’t speak when he arrived, because of his PTSD,” he continued. “He was actually offered and turned down a job at NASA because of his watchmaker skills, but he wanted to stay at the school, and he is still here.”

Financing The VWI

Thanks to the $1 annual rent for the school building and a host of volunteers, Cannan runns the school as cost-efficiently as possible. He has also been blessed with donations from big watch companies, which have donated cash, equipment, and movement parts. The Swatch Group, in particular, has been very generous, as has the Vortic Watch Company, and of course, Bulova.

“When I started, some people said that Bulova might be upset that I was taking their idea, but Bulova was not upset. They were thrilled with the idea. They have donated money, made us an official Bulova authorized service center, and donated 43 tons of watch parts,” shared Cannan.

The Bulova VWI Special Edition HACK Watch

In addition to its donations of money, equipment, and parts, Bulova also recently unveiled a VWI Special Edition HACK watch with 10% of proceeds going directly to the VWI. This military-inspired model is a re-edition of the brand’s reference 3818, a timepiece produced in the 1950s and ‘60s for the Air Force, Army, and Navy.

This exclusive 38mm timepiece is powered by a Miyota 82S0 automatic movement with a 42-hour power reserve and a stop-second function. A domed mineral crystal showcases luminescent hands and markers, while the screwed-in caseback displays the VWI logo painted on the glass insert. The timepiece comes on a supple green nylon strap and is available for $395.

“I get really emotional when I think about this initiative,” shared Benavente. “It is important on so many levels, not only for the Bulova brand because of all the history that we have around the military and watchmaking, but also it is a paramount responsibility for us to give back to the industry by being able to train more watchmakers. So we are very happy to do this. It is rare that we get to do something totally selfless. It is not for us to make more money, it is not a corporate initiative, it is really an initiative to help.”

Cannan still can’t believe how far he has come in such a short time. He is currently finishing the construction of a new service center next door to the ambulance station, whose progress you can follow on the VWI’s Facebook page.

Reflecting on his journey so far, Cannan told Watchonista, “I say that I am not the story; it is these guys. You know, the VWI is the place for second chances. You are here; you are among friends, you don’t need to feel uncomfortable about anything because everyone here has been through what you have been through, and that makes all the difference in the world.”

“Sometimes there are just no words. It is just incredible for me to do this, and like I say, I just want to get it all done and quietly go away and rest and let someone else run it,” Cannan concluded with a smile.

(Images © Bulova & The Veterans Watchmaker Initiative Inc.)

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