Only watch with luc pettavino
Luc Pettavino at the 2021 Only Watch auction at Christie's in Geneva.

Watch industry secrecy is starting to do more harm than good

The interruption of charity auction Only Watch is, says Robin Swithinbank, an example of why in today’s absurdly secretive watch world, transparency is paramount.

The interruption of charity auction Only Watch is, says Robin Swithinbank, an example of why in today’s absurdly secretive watch world, transparency is paramount.

I was a terrible physics student. Truly dreadful. The closest I ever came to a ‘U’ in an exam was in my physics GCSE mock in which I scored 36 per cent, one above the unclassified mark, the one no doubt added to alleviate a growing sense of inadequacy while motivating me to revise a few formulae in time for the real thing.

But, while I’ve forgotten almost everything I never knew about physics in the three decades since, there is one nugget from those forbidding double periods that has stayed with me.

Our physics teacher Mr Fitzpatrick, a strange, dishevelled urchin of a man we desperately unkindly christened “Schitzy Fitzy” on account of his volatile personality (this was the mid-1990s, but even so…), would routinely turn from his chalkboard and wave a finger to assure us with a withered shadow of Einstein’s authority that “everything is relative”.

At the time, I convinced myself this was a softball excuse for why two and two didn’t always equal exactly four, even in teenage science, but it’s an aphorism I’ve returned to repeatedly in life, particularly when trying to explain some of the bad things that happen in the world to my children, or when lauding the French for upping the motorway speed limit to 80mph when the sun’s out.

It’s a lesson the organisers of Only Watch would have done well to heed.

Only watch auctionOnly Watch, as I doubt many will by now need reminding, is the biennial charity auction that through the sale of one-off timepieces donated by many of the world’s finest watch companies has raised $100 million for research into Duchenne muscular dystrophy.

The auction began around 20 years ago, since when it has enjoyed a meteoric rise, spurred by the sales of at times record-setting pieces donated by the likes of Patek Philippe, F. P. Journe and Audemars Piguet.

Others, such as Tudor, have used it just as successfully as a barometer of their popularity.

It might be obvious to say so, but in 2005, when the first Only Watch auction took place, the watch world was a very different place to the one it is now.

Watch media, such as it was, was shaped by gentle collector magazines like QP and retailer glossies like Watches of Switzerland’s Tempus – which back then, I was editing.

I dug out the winter 2005 issue and found no mention in it of Only Watch.

Why? Because we didn’t know about it and, I suspect, they didn’t know about us.

The watch world was small and largely disconnected, and frankly, not many people cared.

I Googled the first auction, which raised €1.9 million (Patek was pipped to the top lot by a €285,000 Richard Mille), and news of the results came from a US site called Antiques and The Arts Weekly.

This, remember, was still some time before Hodinkee and A Blog to Watch were founded, and a full five years before Instagram.

Relative to then, things have changed. Immeasurably.

The watch world is now a vast, tangled, hugely competitive network of sellers, buyers, collectors, journalists and influencers, together greatly outnumbered by highly opinionated, recognition-hungry social media users.

As in any walk of life, among these are empowered people prepared to ask difficult questions, even major collectors like Santa Laura (whose decision to call out Only Watch while sitting behind a nom de plume feels a touch ironic, I might note).

And as we know, as the landscape has changed, so too has the tone and content of the narrative, at the heart of which is now a demand to know everything and a rabid thirst for bringing down those who won’t reveal it.

This has made transparency, and indeed the appearance of transparency, a valuable commodity.

For brands and businesses, lacking it is increasingly viewed as tantamount to having something to hide, a characteristic that in turn begins to limit trading potential.

Then again, that’s been the direction of travel for years.

Just ask Panerai or Bremont, both of whom were badly burned some years back when inquisitors opened the caseback – quite literally – only to discover that what was inside wasn’t what was described.

Wonderfully, pivotally, it’s no longer enough for a brand to say it’s done something, and expect the world to believe it with unquestioning obedience.

To this point, that makes Only Watch’s great mistake not to have read the room and recognised that questions would one day be asked about what it’s done with $100 million.

As a charitable enterprise, it should have known better still.

Every charity I’ve ever come into contact with would vouch the same: that when it comes to fundraising, if you want people to go on giving, you not only have to thank them for their money, you have to show them where it goes.

This may yet be Only Watch’s sole crime, but meanwhile the punishment is as heavy as it is inevitable.

What now? I suppose we live in hope. On the handful of occasions, I’ve met Luc and Tess Pettavino, I’ve always found them warm, genuine and frankly delightful.

They are a refreshing contrast to the dozens of self-serving types in this business whose eyes are darkened by years of pursuing profit over purpose.

But if I can base my expectations on those reflections, I also have to acknowledge they are unerringly relative.

S8pakyvp ioyykl06 robin swithinbank about the authorAt the time of writing, Only Watch has said it will publish an independent audit, which feels like something to be glad of because it means it might yet come up clean.

If so, it will remain the paramount example of the preposterously rich watch industry prioritising generosity over greed. If not? Ugh.

What is more certain is that its future lies in the hands of others, among them Audemars Piguet and, as WatchPro editor-in-chief Rob Corder pointed out, with Patek Philippe.

As the lone defector before this year’s now postponed event, AP will become kingmaker whenever a new date is announced, and that announcement will be far more powerful if Patek Philippe reveals a timepiece for the auction.

For now, I’ll give Mr Fitzpatrick his credit. Only Watch’s formula hasn’t changed, but applied today rather than 20 years ago, it delivers a different outcome, all things being relative.

As such, Only Watch becomes a cautionary tale for an industry still built on secrecy.

As Mr Fitzpatrick would also have said: “show your working”.

Otherwise, as Only Watch has demonstrated, you’ll be marked down.

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