The Watchmaker’s Apprentice: How Waldan Watches Embraces Its Legacy
The story of Waldan Watches is one of passion and, initially, survival. Oscar Waldan was a Polish boy in his late teens when World War II broke out. When the war began, Oscar was arrested and sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany, where he ended up meeting a watchmaker named Manek who took him under his wing and made Oscar an apprentice. As Andrew Waldan, son of Oscar Waldan and CEO and Head of Design at Waldan Watches, tells it, Manek taught Oscar the basics of watchmaking—a skill that deemed Oscar useful at the camp and ultimately allowed him to survive the war.
“[Manek] was a favorite of the Nazi guards due to his ability to repair their luxury timepieces, and by apprenticing Oscar, the soldiers allowed him better treatment as well, which was one of the factors that aided in his survival from the horrors inflicted upon him on a daily basis,” the Waldan Watches website states.
“Whenever trains arrived at the camps, [the guards] would take all the belongings from the prisoners who arrived and if there are any watches there then, this person—Manek and my father—were the ones to go and work on and repair the watches before the guards then took them away to be used and given at their own discretion,” Andrew (pictured below) says.
Oscar saw liberation in 1945 upon World War II’s end, and subsequently traveled to the U.S. via refugee boat, arriving at Ellis Island in 1946. Andrew says his father had a rough start, as he didn’t know really anyone and didn’t speak much English. So he did what he knew—Oscar went to work at a small Polish watchmaking shop in Manhattan. He did basic service work in the basement at the shop and then at night, he attended school to learn to read and write and speak English better.
Years later, Oscar would set off to Switzerland, where Andrew says he made a name for himself. It was in Switzerland that Oscar studied horology, and from there he went on to work for some of Europe’s renowned watchmakers.
“The reason why he started a watch company…was because at that point in his career he had so much seniority and tenure in his industry,” Andrew tells Worth. “He had started off in sales at the Tissot company in the early ‘50s. Dad eventually grew to become one of the lead designers. And went from there to work for the Universal Geneve company, where at Universal Geneve, he was the vice president of merchandising and styling. At the time, Universal Geneve was actually owned by the Holzer watch company. And my father worked very closely with the Holzer family and the Holzer watch company to expand several of the jewelry stores that they were working with, which were Tiffany and Van Cleef stores here in the northeast territories of the United States. After that, he had basically been a consultant and decided to do consulting work for many brands and executive level members of the watch industry—members from Omega, from IWC. He worked closely with the Wilsdorf family from Rolex and with the Stern family from Patek Philippe, and [my dad] was known to be very, very opinionated and had a lot of ideas, and eventually he decided to put those ideas and opinions to work for himself.”
According to Andrew, Oscar saw an opportunity to start his own business during the quartz crisis in the ‘70s, when many Swiss watch companies were going out of business and selling their stock of movements and watches at incredibly low rates. “My father saw it as an opportunity to buy stock for himself, and he went and bought everything he could,” Andrew says.
As for Andrew, he took over the family business after his father passed away in 2018, but he says he was groomed for this business his entire life.
Andrew grew up in New York, but attended a French school, so that he could learn French well enough to be able to start translating correspondences from Switzerland. Before he was 10, he was attending trade shows with his dad and learning about the manufacturing side of the industry. However, it wasn’t until 2014, when Oscar’s health began deteriorating, that Andrew began assisting his father in the business. And now, it is up to Andrew to carry on his father’s legacy.
“Family is the most important thing to me,” Andrew says. “So to pay homage to my dad’s life work, knowing everything that he did and the amount of work and sacrifice that he put in and everything that he did raising me, you know, with my mother, carrying it on me means everything. I have his amazing heritage and story to carry on, but I also have my own plan and ideas for the Waldan brand in the 21st century, and as his son, I’m proud to carry on that family name and his business and evolve it in a way that will be unique to me but also carry on everything that he did [and] pay homage to his life.”
One of the ways Andrew has done this is through launching a scholarship in his father’s name.
“His story was something that he kept secret. And so I’m making sure to pay homage to that in the right ways,” he says. “Now one thing we did recently was start a scholarship in my father’s name with the Horological Society of New York. It’s the Oscar Waldan Scholarship for Jewish watchmaking students. So even though we’re moving forward and producing quartz watches that are made in the U.S. at a more commercial level, we’re still supporting initiatives for traditional watchmaking, and this scholarship is one of those steps that brings us back to the traditional watch world.”
This scholarship allows them to award a yearly grant to a Jewish watchmaker or watchmaking student, which can then be used toward watchmaking school and furthering their skills and education.
Waldan Watches relaunched in 2020 during the pandemic, which Andrew says came with its own set of challenges, but was something they had been planning for quite some time.
“This had actually been multiple years of planning and conceptualization,” Andrew explains. “After my father passed, I wanted some time to reset and to sort of meditate on what would be the right way to carry the brand forward because one of the difficulties when you have a brand tied to a name or person, and you lose that person, sometimes it’s hard to carry on a natural organic evolution. But I wanted to find a real organic way to evolve the brand after his passing, and I realized that the way to do that was to pay homage to his life and restart the brand here in the United States, because previously we were known as a Swiss brand producing Swiss watches. Really at the core of all that, my father’s story is the story of the American dream. And he built his life and business here in the States. And so I thought to continue the Waldan brand would be to evolve that, and making watches here in the United States would be a natural way to evolve that and move forward there.”
It was in 2018 that Andrew started playing around with different watch designs until he found something that stuck. What ended up sticking were movement-focused designs—something Oscar was known for. Apart from the designs, Andrew also brought in some new staff members, including an operations manager and an art director.
“One of the biggest changes of all too was our sort of our shift in presence. Before, you know, my father was very old school in terms of our presence. He had a small office. His website literally looked like a Wikipedia page, and there was really no other way of contact besides from calling the landline or sending in a fax. But what’s changed now is our strong online presence. We’re focusing on a really strong web and social media and digital presence. And it gives us a refreshing, vibrant new energy. Between that and the manufacturer and product and building in this new direction, we have a new end goal in sight for where we want to go in terms of our production, but it’s ultimately going to circle back to what we have traditionally made…We have some really, really cool things in the works down the line that goes into basically everything about the company being different now, but still keeping that traditional ethos of our story and how we make watches.”
In the short-term, Waldan Watches has began offering international shipping to 40+ countries with plans to continue that expansion, as well as potentially doing some brand collaborations within the art world and plans to expand their watch collection by the end of the year.
“I think the future, the long-term future looks bright, and I’m looking forward to growing this brand, telling a story and introducing my own chapter,” Andrew says. “What I really want from this brand is to be able to tell my father’s story, while creating a standard in the entry level field of watches amongst American brands and changing the stigma around quartz watches. I want to introduce great watches that ooze cool, retro minimalism and are reasonable and accessible in price point. Our watches have an authentic story, rooted in both watch and world history, are innovative and are built well. So it’s that manufacturing integrity and careful design that draws people in. They are able to put on our watches and enjoy having a conversation about them. That spirit of nostalgia draws people to us. All of that really encapsulates the Waldan experience, and I want everybody to be able to experience that”