By Andrew Bradbury
Photography by Chris Coe
“Only time can tell how much I love you.”
Inscribed on a simple wood watch, those loving words jarred Eric Preciado (pictured below) out of the depression that had taken over his life.
Having served honorably in the U.S. Navy as a medical corpsman, including an intense tour in support of a Marine sniper unit, Eric found himself adrift after an injury he’d received in the line of duty left him unable to work. Seeing the watch—given to him by his wife before deployment to the Middle East in 2016—prompted a search that led him to the Veterans Watchmaker Initiative, a non-profit dedicated to training veterans in the highly technical art of watchmaking and repair, free of charge.
Supported by The Bulova Stetson Fund, all programs (which include housing) are free of charge.
“It’s a great opportunity for people who’ve been lost from the system”
“It’s a great opportunity for people who’ve been lost from the system,” says chairman Sam Cannan. Discovering that the school was to start a new session and there was one open spot, but that in order to claim it, he would have to fly across the country the very next day just for the chance to be considered…well, Eric did just that. Booking a plane ticket with $900 in savings—money reserved for Christmas with the family—Eric took a chance on himself, showed up, and met a surprised and duly impressed Cannan.
Now thriving, Eric is mastering a highly technical and unforgiving art on a minute scale few of us could imagine. At the end of his first year, he says working with other veterans is “like a brotherhood.” He even managed to get his ever-supportive wife to go along with the whole “take all the Christmas money and fly across the country to see a program he just saw on the internet” thing. Which, in the end, turned out to be a sort of holiday miracle. Or just a case of perfect timing.
Of course, as incredible as Eric’s story is, he is just one of the many veterans who have enjoyed access to education, training, and especially, fellowship that is fostered daily by the Veterans Watchmaker Initiative. The idea behind the school dates back to 1945 as soldiers were returning from WWII. Arde Bulova, heir to the Bulova watchmaking fortune, created the tuition-free Joseph Bulova Watchmaking School in honor of his father, to teach disabled servicemen the skills of watchmaking “under the most expert supervision and with an all-inclusive curriculum in a pleasant environment where similar interests and problems developed a close-knit, affable group of men working toward common goals.”
Though the Bulova school—which featured an early use of wheelchair ramps in its design—closed in 1993, its core ideals eventually evolved into the Veterans Watchmaker initiative, which today exists as just that: a pleasant environment where a close-knit, affable group of men work toward common goals. No small thing. The focused tasks, guided instruction, and regular schedule are well-suited to men with military experience. At the same time, the steady hum of tools and daily banter allows a decompression from that life into the civilian world. For Eric, it provided him the push he needed to talk to someone about some of his more traumatic experiences.
The added benefit, of course, is that the program is creating a new generation of craftspeople who are receiving knowledge that is in danger of being lost. Watchmaking isn’t just an employable skill, it’s a legitimately beautiful art. It’s one thing to hear Eric talk about how much the program has been a blessing in his life, but another to hear him describe how he worked the design of a columbine—the state flower of his home in Colorado—into an escapement platform for a clock.
For his part, Eric still has some disbelief at the way the program caters to the needs, large and small, of the veterans. But of course, according to Cannan, that’s by design. “Arde Bulova’s original mission was to serve those who have served us, and that’s what we do.”