The WOW Conversation: Only Watch

WOW Singapore and Thailand editors voice their thoughts on the long-running biennial charity watch auction programme.

Oct 08, 2021 | By Ruckdee Chotjinda
luc pettavino only watch
Image: Only Watch

Fine watchmaking marketing usually includes some cheerful message about rarity and exclusivity. The tagline one of not many comes to mind, but this is certainly not the only one. Only Watch takes that narrative and ups the ante, with brands offering unique pieces, hence the name of the auction.

Of course, brands have been making one-of-a-kind pieces since the very beginning so this is not that special, in and of itself. Only Watch though is a story, with each watch in that story a unique character. In very real ways, it is a tragic tale, but it might yet have a happy ending sometime in the future.

The amazing watches to have graced Only Watch over its 16-year history should not distract from their singular purpose: striving towards a cure for Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD). The disease, which primarily affects boys, causes muscle atrophy from the age of four. It is currently incurable.

Most who suffer from DMD are unable to walk by age 12, effectively paralyzed from the neck down by 21; life expectancy is estimated to be between 25-26. Luc Pettavino started Only Watch as a way to help those diagnosed with DMD, like his own son. 

In 2003, Pettavino established the Monaco Association against Muscular Dystrophy to find a cure for DMD. A veteran of the yachting scene, he not only won over His Serene Highness Prince Albert II of Monaco, but also performed the neat trick of getting 34 watch brands to come together for this cause. For some context, there is nothing even remotely close to Only Watch in fine watchmaking, and this is not because the auction has been unsuccessful in its mission.

In total, the previous eight editions of Only Watch have raised more than €70 million for DMD research. This year, Only Watch announced that some of its efforts are paying off, with clinical trials for new DMD therapies planned for 2022. Especially now, it is worth remembering that the fight against a disease is a long-term struggle that requires diligence, patience and resolve. 

WOW has of course been covering Only Watch from the start, and the editors are certainly pleased that it has been an example of a sustainable charitable venture in watchmaking. It is also uniquely timely, given that this issue contends with the issue of sustainability in watchmaking. The editors of WOW Singapore and Thailand compare notes about the new watches, and crack a few jokes at each other’s expense.

Ruckdee Chotjinda: Looking back now, I consider myself fortunate to have known Only Watch since its premier edition in 2005, before I became a full-time watch journalist. At that time, a good friend of mine (who has since retired from watch collecting) asked me to join him for the Bangkok stop of the Only Watch world tour. I’ve been actively following the auction ever since. 

Ashok Soman: Me too, although I didn’t really cover Only Watch until 2007. I confess though that I do not follow that closely. What I find most exciting about the Only Watch project, aside from its transparent and long-term commitment to a single cause, is how the different watchmaking brands address the challenge of making something unique that is entirely not for profit. I mean, you have such a strong diversity of brands — from Maurice Lacroix and Tudor to Breguet and Patek Philippe. I guess the brand mix is also interesting, depending on the year.

Anyway, since you have been on the Only Watch story in such a personal way, what do you think of its origins? 

breguet type xx
Image: Breguet

RC: I’m not sure if “romantic” is an appropriate word for this whole endeavour. But like the movies or series you watch growing up, you develop some sense of bond, you see how they evolve and you appreciate the outcome over time. In this case, with the goal of research into Duchenne muscular dystrophy, I read that they are moving to the trial phase already in 2022. I did think at one point that over a decade has passed and nothing concrete happened. 

AS: Right you are about the start of the trial phase… it was a bit poignant to be honest because I read that founder Luc Pettavino’s son actually passed away a few years ago. Pettavino’s son’s diagnosis spurred him to create Only Watch, and it is sad that any benefit to all of this will not have helped him. 

Did you actually meet Pettavino? Never had the pleasure myself. All I know is that he was not in the watch trade, rather in the yachting business; this is actually how I learned of Only Watch, because Pettavino was President of the Monaco Yacht Show. Since I covered general luxury, some associates asked me what the connection was between the yacht show and this (at the time) developing auction story. It turned out to be much more interesting than just an auction story of course. 

luc pettavino
Image: Only Watch

RC: To answer your first question, no, I have not had the chance to meet Pettavino. But deep down I believe he established this program with the long-term goal, for the better chances of other children. As you said, he was in the right position to bring the auction to the attention of affluent people. And I was very happy to see that so many brands took the time to create unique pieces as contributions. I think they serve many purposes at once. It is a win-win-win situation for the cause, the makers and the buyers. I mean, there are not so many ways watch collectors can get their hands on a unique piece, right? 

And sometimes it is more than material ownership — you may recall the Tudor Black Bay Bronze One watch offered at Only Watch 2017 officially with an invitation for the winning bidder to come visit the Tudor manufacture in Geneva. That privilege made the piece even more appealing. 

AS: I do recall that Tudor manufacture invite, and of course the bronze model. I think that by that time, fatigue was setting in and the brands wanted to spice up the offer and perk things up by adding more goodies. Tudor was not the only one with such an offer, and I do recall stories at the time about the relevance of Only Watch. Well, I think it worked, and unlike most circumstances where we have to take brands at their word, here the numbers speak for themselves.

RC: It’s good you mentioned fatigue. Yes, auctions like this do need an element of excitement to keep people interested, which in turn keep the brands interested. That is probably why we see 53 pieces from 54 brands for the 2021 edition. 

AS: The growth in the number of participating brands, from 34 at the start to the 54 right now, is amazing! Watch brands can be surprisingly fickle, and it is genuinely a pleasure to see Only Watch go from strength to strength. On that note though, now that it is not about the novelty of unique watches, we will have to see how the current and future editions hold up. I used to be very excited to see what crazy things the watch brands would put up for Only Watch, but such feelings only take a charity auction so far. What have been some of your favourites so far? 

RC: Hmmm… Okay… Let me think… In the more recent years, I was impressed mostly by pieces that saw collaboration between two brands. The first one that comes to mind is that curved rectangular watch with a case by Laurent Ferrier and satellite time indication movement by Urwerk from Only Watch 2017. I would not have been as excited if it was the Urwerk in just another case material, for example. And it also played to the tune of unity (and hope) if I am not reaching too much here. On that account, I was also mightily impressed by the WOSTEP pocket watch from the same year because it was graced by so many legendary watchmakers, and because I did a story on WOSTEP around that time. What about you? 

AS: Well, you mentioned materials there and I tend to be swayed by this. I think the Grandmaster Chime in steel was one of the most significant moments, and the phenomenon of Patek Philippe watches in steel definitely gained a lot of traction from Only Watch. I grant you that this sort of thing can feel gimmicky, and I do prefer when there is an unusual complication on show.

Funnily enough, these sometimes disappear and make no impact in general. Certainly, the Laurent Ferrier and Urwerk collaboration was impressive, and was perhaps an early example of such a collaboration at Only Watch. I must say the Urwerk offer this year is also impressive, and gives me a lot to be excited over given its use of platinum and aluminium. Here I would argue that the orbital display, with its roots in Urwerk history is the real story. 

RC: I knew it! I knew you were going to mention the stainless steel Grandmaster Chime. I knew you have a special place in your heart for that watch. 

AS: Well, not only that one but you are right to expect some sort of material skew from me. Hopefully my point about the Urwerk above will prove that I’m not a one-trick pony… 

RC: No, I know that you are pretty consistent with your ideals and tastes. And it is the fine details like this Urwerk watch’s combination of noble and common metals, or Audemars Piguet’s combination of titanium and bulk metallic glass in the 2021 Royal Oak Jumbo Extra-Thin Only Watch, that define the program as one for true connoisseurs. It would not have lasted more than three editions if all we had were watches with some promotional writing on the dial. 

AS: To me, new metal combinations are exciting because we have a reasonable shot of seeing something like that in the regular collection. We have already seen bulk metallic glass at Panerai, so I think we can surely expect this elsewhere too. As a trade observer, the broader possibilities always excite me. Speaking of that, I know we’re getting into this later but I have to preface my comments, this time from the perspective of a guy who loves watchmaking. Only Watch is about ideals so something like the FP Journe piece this year is remarkable. I mean, you can tell it is remarkable just by looking at it. But I will save this for later… 

louis vuitton only watch
Image: Louis Vuitton

RC: So, what else can we talk about the 2021 offerings? I noticed there are several pieces with an orange accent on them. I believe this is a first for Only Watch? Communication visuals for some past editions of Only Watch were themed in blue, yellow and maybe one or two other colours. But the watches that year did not feature those colours at all. It looks like this year is an exception? 

Blancpain, Bovet, Jacob & Co, Hublot, Louis Vuitton, Ludovic Ballouard, Maurice Lacroix, Perrelet, TAG Heuer and Ulysse Nardin all have an orange accent to varying degrees. The same goes for Hermès but one may easily misjudge the detail, given that the brand’s close link to the orange colour. The Bell & Ross has an orange skull and there is no mistaking that. I think this thematic colour approach is good and fun if done once in maybe three editions but gimmicky if more often.  

Image: Blancpain

AS: It is all too easy to cheat with some colours, like blue, but I digress. I have strong opinions about colours in watchmaking. Orange is indeed very bold, and probably best suited to the likes of Hublot, but Blancpain shows class here by using orange in a way that totally makes sense. The No Radiation model is perfectly suited here, and is also a winning commercial proposition. Let me add that unlike some writers who wax lyrical about colours, I do not tend to plan my purchases based on this. But a No Radiation watch with orange accents — yes please!

RC: Louis Vuitton and TAG Heuer did well themselves. The Monaco has three orange chronograph hands against the forged carbon backdrop. Very cool. And its rotor rim is, I quote, “hand painted in the gradient shades of Only Watch 2021”. 

AS: I feel like the colour messaging has been received over at Paris for LVMH, given the heavy presence of orange at least in all LVMH brand offerings at Only Watch. Even Bvlgari gets in on the action, but in a subtle way. And no, I do not plan to sing the praises of tantalum today… Seriously, Bvlgari is not what you would call a subtle brand, but a little dash like this is very tasteful indeed. 

As for that TAG Heuer model, we are in agreement. In fact, it seems most of the Internet (the watch nerd space at least) is really taking to that watch. I wonder if that carbon hairspring is the same that was meant for the Isograph… 

RC: With that topic of orange colour discussed, one of the pieces that took me by surprise the most is the Girard-Perregaux Casquette watch. Don’t tell anyone this but I didn’t know the Casquette until now. I don’t know how it went below my radar. But the moment I saw the watch as a part of Only Watch 2021, I suspected there was some kind of history so I read up on the watch. So we can say the auction provides learning opportunities as well. 

AS: I’ll join you, albeit my confession has a bit of a twist: I only ever heard of this Girard-Perregaux model, and I thought it was called Cassette! 

RC: Excellent. It’s a tie then. We should find something intelligent to say next before our bosses realise they did not vet our background well enough. And the next topic is…

AS: I guess that is my cue to bring up one of my favourite pieces this year at Only Watch: the Patek Philippe table clock! This timepiece floored me, and a quick check with my buddy Google tells me that the Internet agrees. In my case it helps that this is a perpetual calendar, a complication I have a weakness for. All I can say is thank goodness Patek Philippe did not go with a Nautilus of some kind.

RC: This one checks all the boxes. It’s more than owning a unique version of a model. It’s owning something totally outside of the current production line of a brand no less coveted than Patek Philippe. I remember seeing the original clock at the Patek Philippe Museum all those years ago, before the pandemic, and I thought it was such a cool and useful creation. The estimated price for this Only Watch 2021 table clock is CHF 400,000 – 500,000. Let’s see how much it will fetch in the end. I’m sure the bidding battle will be a great one to watch. 

AS: I really like that there are estimates included here, because it shows that not every piece is out-of-reach. After all, collectors at different levels might want to do their part, which is a nice segue into what is my likely favourite thing about Only Watch: the excitement factor. Now, I do not only mean big complications here but also something like the Breguet Type XX, which showcases the brand as it once was, which is something Breguet does not typically do. A simple execution, for sure, but one that is meaningful to those who track the brand. And the estimate there is also great!

Image: Tudor

RC: When you put it that way, well, the Tudor Black Bay GMT One is given a rather affordable estimate of CHF 4,000 – 8,000. That piece unique in aged stainless steel is something Batman can wear. Pretty dark, pretty brooding. But, of course, Bruce Wayne may go for something more sophisticated. Maybe the duality of the yet to be revealed Voutilainen x De Bethune watch will suit his double personas just fine. 

AS: I guess Batman would go for something black that seems indestructible… like the Casquette. But yes, I see your point about the Voutilainen x De Bethune, which is a collaboration the watch community will find really exciting and inspiring, I think. The mystery factor is also cool, much like the Czapek offering. Then again, Czapek is consistently enigmatic for me as we do not have this brand in Singapore.

RC: How could I have forgotten about the Casquette? Okay, I change my mind. The Casquette in forged carbon and titanium is the Batman watch. That is officially settled. The Black Bay GMT One is not fantastical enough for Batman — it is more a watch for Ruckdee. 

AS: My friend, that seems a watch for almost everyone with a taste for collecting watches, which is completely in keeping with the Tudor character. Just to pile in on the Tudor a little more, this is a look that I think will find its way into the regular collection somehow. The aged stainless steel, I mean. Now that I see it, I cannot believe no one tried this.

RC: So, we can safely say also that, by offering a piece as a one-off, the brands can kind of test the water and see what the public can be interested in? 

AS: Well, I think some brands use it that way — on purpose or by accident I cannot say. Tudor is definitely one that has followed up on Only Watch pieces by bringing something related to the market. But in terms of general marketing, Only Watch definitely fits the bill. For brands such as Trilobe, Baltic and Charles Girardier, participating in this auction surely elevates their respective brand positioning. It is also gutsy because these brands are really putting their nascent reputations on the line. Personally, I am not that keen on the marketing experiments at Only Watch, or at least that perspective. 

RC: Even at the upper echelon, Arnold & Son, Ateliers de Monaco, Christophe Claret, De Witt, Ferdinand Berthoud and Ressence did not reach the estimated price in 2019. Only Ressence is back for the 2021 edition. Those other brands are absent. 

AS: I suspect quite a number of brands are mindful of performance; it can really hurt the image when the results do not match the hype. The fact that this auction is for charity only adds insult to injury. This is why I both admire the niche brands taking a chance, while also being skeptical about whether it is a good idea. I mean, some of your examples there are not exactly brands without clout, so if they did not do well then other players at that level might want to pay attention. Still, I would not like to see Only Watch dominated by those who can command any price at auction, from Tudor to Patek Philippe. That would be boring. 

You know what’s not boring and also from a watchmaker taking a chance? That FP Journe. Ok, so the brand has been rising in prominence as far as auctions go, but this interpretation of time is just amazing. They have to include a graphic on how to tell the time! Crazy! And it is a collaboration with an august personage in the form of Francis Ford Coppola. I am looking forward to seeing this watch in person, and maybe even congratulating Mr Journe for being so audacious. It genuinely made me smile, and I think everyone will remember the watch forever.

fp journe ffc
Image: FP Journe

RC: Honestly, I really want to see those fingers in action. You are lucky the world tour is heading your way. The Singapore stop is between 15 and 20 October, after Monaco, Dubai and Tokyo. The watches will head to Hong Kong next, then Macau and Geneva where the auction will also take place on 6 November at Four Seasons Hôtel des Bergues. I miss Geneva!

AS: We all miss Geneva; at this point, I am just thankful to be able to leave my home, enjoy a meal in a nice restaurant now and then, and see watches in person of course. You know, I did wonder how Only Watch would handle the pandemic, given that the world has demonstrated that it can innovate solutions to terrible problems very quickly if it needs to. We are learning a lot, together, and I am curious how the Only Watch organisers feel about their own cause at this time. My sense is that this year’s auction will yield record results.

RC: I sense the same. This looks to be an exciting year for the program. My best wishes to the organisers, the brands and the bidders in November! Catch you later krub, Khun Ashok. Take care of your health and we meet again on Google Docs in three months. 

AS: You too! Don’t give away all of our secrets mate! We might meet over some special secret channel — maybe a subReddit or something. I know, let’s try the Dark Web. I hear terrible things are afoot.

RC: I think I need to go buy a new watch to be prepared for that scenario. Oops!

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