The World Needs More Diverse Watchmakers

The World Needs More Diverse Watchmakers

Watch enthusiasts and collectors have lamented the need for more qualified watchmakers for some time. We feel this need most acutely when we send our watch in for service and a long period of waiting commences.

Some in the watch community are taking a closer look at a connected issue. Discovering the next generation of watchmakers in new places is an important way to add much-needed talent and new creative viewpoints to the field. The Horological Society of New York, America’s oldest watchmaking guild, is adding to its program of financial aid for those who want to study the craft. 

“Benjamin Banneker: Surveyor-Inventor-Astronomer,” mural by Maxime Seelbinder (From photograph by Carol M. Highsmith)

HSNY recently named two new scholarships in its growing roster: The Benjamin Banneker Scholarship for Black Watchmaking Students and the Oscar Waldan Scholarship for Jewish Watchmaking Students. Each scholarship, which includes awards to $ 5,000, is for students from these communities who have been accepted to watchmaking school or are currently studying watchmaking full-time in the United States. 

HODINKEE recently spoke with Aldis Hodge and Andrew Waldan, two industry leaders behind the scholarships. Hodge is an actor, horologist, and watch designer who has since July 2020 served as a trustee of the Horological Society of New York. Most recently, he contributed to the HODINKEE Magazine, Volume 7. Waldan is the CEO of Waldan watches and the son of Oscar Waldan, a Holocaust survivor and the late founder of the Waldan International brand of watches.

Below, Hodge and Waldan tell the stories behind the two men whose names grace these scholarships – and explain how new educational opportunities will bring some needed diversity to watches.

Aldis Hodge (Photograph by Mark Mann)

Aldis Hodge:

“Benjamin Banneker, who was born in 1731, was many things. He was a self-taught horologist, having developed one of the first striking clocks in America, which kept accurate time until it was destroyed in a fire. He was an author and publisher, having published an almanac. He was a scientist, a mathematician, a farmer, and an astronomer. He was, in my opinion, the living embodiment of what it means to be a person who lives up to his potential. Quite a feat in a time of enslavement, when being Black meant that you were thought of as less than human with no capacity for intelligence.

“In my opinion and experience, this unfortunately still rings true for how many people choose to see Black people today. However, Mr. Banneker disproved any and all idiotic presumptions laid upon him.

“Mr. Banneker even wrote a letter to Thomas Jefferson, who personally enslaved 600 Black people in his lifetime, including the children he fathered with one of the young women who was forced to serve him. Mr. Banneker challenged Jefferson to dispel his theories and ideologies about seeing Black people as inferior. He pleaded with him to become an ally and an aid in the fight against racism and enslavement. I truly implore everyone to research him and read the letter he wrote to Thomas Jefferson. Mr. Banneker, this incredible human being, deserves as much acknowledgment as possible.”

Andrew Waldan

Andrew Waldan:

“Oscar Waldan was my father, and watchmaking saved his life. Born in Poland, he was a Jewish prisoner at the Buchenwald concentration camp when he met Manek, a fellow prisoner and a watchmaker. 

“Manek took my dad under his wing, offered him an apprenticeship in watchmaking, and taught my father everything he knew about watchmaking, from the basics of how to identify parts, to what a watch was and how it worked, and to how to take one apart and put it back together. Prior to this, my dad’s only experience with watches or watchmaking was when he found a pocket watch as a kid and took it apart – a story I have always loved because it showed how much innate curiosity my father had for watchmaking, even at a young age.  

“This apprenticeship was truly a crash course in watchmaking 101, further intensified by the fact that my father’s expertise in repairing watches for the guards protected him – it made him a person with a valuable skill. After the war, he came to New York as a refugee in search of his only surviving, albeit distant, family that lived in New Jersey. 

“After landing at Ellis Island, my father decided to look for an opportunity to secure his future here in New York City. He was lucky to find work in a small Polish watchmaking shop in lower Manhattan, but his early days as an immigrant in New York were difficult. Education was always incredibly important to him, so he would often clock out of work and head straight to night school to further his education. Often, that meant it was too late to return to his relative’s home in New Jersey, forcing him to spend many nights sleeping under the George Washington Bridge.”

Oscar Waldan

Aldis Hodge:

“As to why there’s a lack of Black representation in the watch world, my personal theory is simply because I believe we haven’t been acknowledged as an important and/or necessary part of the infrastructure of the horological world. Any potential awareness that would point towards the Black consumer or the Black horologist, salesperson, watchmaker, etc., is nearly nonexistent. With the exception of the occasional campaign featuring a Black athlete, there is little to no representation in the media, no representation in the ads, and no representation in the factories whenever a photo is shown of the working team. Before the establishment of the Benjamin Banneker scholarship, I myself hadn’t seen any efforts made that would speak to me or my culture specifically as an invite into the horological world in any capacity – and I’ve been working in this field for over 10 years.

“I would be remiss not to mention the role systemic racism has had in shaping the views on the Black innovator, worker, and/or consumer, as I believe that also plays a large part in the “why” of it all. And it is a conversation that should be addressed internally and communally amongst the teams that make the decisions on how to include or exclude the culture, i.e. “Why don’t we think about the Black consumer in a more profound way? Are we allowing the stigma of racism – both the overt and the subtle micro-aggressions we may be guilty of – to dictate our views, and therefore our efforts, regarding the Black community?”

“In order to change that, I think it starts with acknowledgment and the desire from the horological world to want a change – to want their factories and executive rooms to reflect the consumer markets that support them. Once the acknowledgment is there, and the attention is given, and Black and brown youth see attention paid to them, the interest will automatically flow through naturally for them to want to engage with this world because their motivation to innovate is already there (as is proven with the multitude of young Black and brown scientists, engineers, doctors, etc., we see flooding those fields with their brilliance). It’s natural to negate seeing an industry or environment that has not proven to see you.

“I believe the Banneker scholarship will help by directly acknowledging Black and brown youth, acknowledging these young kids, these young brilliant minds, and recognizing within them what they already see in themselves. A lot of these kids know the potential of who they are and what they want to achieve, but they just need an extra helping hand to help get them to the finish line. That is what we aim to do with HSNY.  We know that there is a fire, and we want to light that fire a little bit brighter. At the end of the day, it is about helping people reach their potential and meet their highest self when it comes to achieving what they can in life.

“The Benjamin Banneker Scholarship is funded with HSNY’s board-designated endowment. This endowment is made possible by the generous support of HSNY’s individual members, benefactors, and sponsors, whom we are very grateful to. The expectation concerning applicants and recipients is to simply do as much good as possible. We are looking forward to considering many applicants and awarding many scholarships.”

Andrew Waldan:

“This scholarship will honor my father’s legacy, unbelievable story, and unerring commitment to hard work and education. We want to encourage people from all backgrounds to be more invested in watchmaking, to see that there are new opportunities to get involved, and to learn more about an industry that has traditionally been seen as a bit secretive and hard to break into. 

“Certain stereotypes about watchmaking have furthered that feeling of unwelcome exclusivity. For example, while I don’t think that Jewish watchmakers are necessarily underrepresented in the industry, I do think that they are a group whose accomplishments aren’t often spoken about in the way that they deserve. When you think about watchmaking, your thoughts turn to Switzerland or Germany. But there are so many people in the industry – including some fantastic watchmakers I am lucky to know as friends of my father – who are of Jewish background. It is my hope that this scholarship honoring my father’s legacy will not only encourage further diversity in watchmaking, but help to raise the profile of Jewish watchmakers already in the business and give them the attention and credit they deserve.”

To learn more about the Benjamin Banneker and Oscar Waldan Scholarships, visit HSNY.

HODINKEE

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