Watchmakers auction one-off timepieces for a good cause

Luc Pettavino, the dynamic founder of Only Watch, tells us about the unique auction that he founded to raise funds for a cause close to his heart

Hublot Big Bang Unico Sapphire Usain Bolt timepiece. Courtesy Hublot

It’s not every day that you come across a story that combines high-end excess and raw, human emotion – but Only Watch does precisely that.

Even though most people won't have heard of Only Watch, it has evolved into one of the biggest watch sales in the world, and the work it is funding has the potential to benefit us all. The sale, led by auctioneers Christie's, will take place on November 11 in Geneva, and will feature incredible one-of-a-kind timepieces that have all been made and donated by the world's major watchmakers.

The biannual sale, now in its seventh edition, is the brainchild of Luc Pettavino – the dynamic and personable founder of the Monaco Yacht Show. He set up Only Watch to raise funds for research into Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD), a severe and progressive degenerative disease caused by a deficiency in the protein dystrophin, which helps keep muscle cells intact. Dystrophin is essential for maintaining muscle function and, without it, the body cannot renew itself. The result is a relentless decline in muscle mass, for which there is no cure.

Although women are carriers of the defective gene that causes DMD, sufferers are almost exclusively male, and it affects one in 3,500. Following a diagnosis at birth, the average age for survival is just 26 years. Unfortunately, it is not only newborns who are at risk, as the gene mutation that halts the production of dystrophin can develop at any age.

In 2000, Pettavino and his family received the devastating news that their 5-year-old son, Paul, was suffering from this disease. "Imagine having muscles that work less and less, until finally they don't work at all," Pettavino says when I meet him in Dubai. "This is muscular dystrophy. It is a change in DNA, and it is an extremely severe condition. Thanks to medical care, we have extended the lives of patients, but there still is no cure."

Luc Pettavino, Founder of Only Watch. Courtesy Only Watch

Confronted with the reality of this life-changing diagnosis, the Pettavino family was faced with a decision: to collapse under the hand of fate, or to stand and fight – and they chose the latter. "As always, when you tell a story, you reduce it to its best, but life is much more difficult than that," Pettavino says. "Daily life is made of ups and downs, but we are a joyful family. Our DNA was to say: 'OK, we, not only Paul, have received this challenging data. Do we have the capacity to not be victims? Can we override that and try to transform it into possibilities?'

“After the first wave of shock, I thought: ‘What are my skills? What are my abilities? What can I do?’” he continues. “So I went to see researchers [specialising in DMD] and asked if there was anything we could do that did not already exist.

“They said: ‘We should have a place where we can all come together, share results from our labs and be very open, and challenge and discuss.’”

This led Pettavino to set up two entities, the Monaco Round Table and the Association Monégasque contre les Myopathies, both dedicated to bringing different – and often rival – research bodies together to work towards a common cause. To make such organisations work effectively, however, it soon became apparent that huge amounts of money would be required.

After some initial fundraising efforts, Pettavino decided to reach out to contacts made through the Monaco Yacht Show, in particular watch manufactures, with the seemingly outlandish request that they each donate a timepiece that could be put up for auction. Paul Pettavino's story clearly struck a chord, because not only did the houses each donate a piece, but they also began to create unique and one-off items specifically for the sale. From this generosity of spirit, Only Watch was born. "I do not want to make a personal story into a personal event. I want to transform it into a universal story. The idea was to have a very direct, positive, creative discussion with all these watchmakers, and try to find a cure for DMD together," Pettavino says.

"During Only Watch, it is never a question of one family fighting for their boy, but a question of can we transform this, and apply a beautiful creativity and bring people together, with no contract whatsoever? There is nothing signed with anyone, it is just by word of mouth. It is good for all of us because it shows that it is possible. Each one of us has an open heart and the capacity to give – it is just how you connect with this reserve of altruism and goodness. It is just there, in every human being."

It is now 12 years and 25 million (Dh107.9m) later. To help build momentum ahead of this year's edition of Only Watch, Pettavino embarked on a world tour with all 52 of the unique pieces up for auction, stopping in 10 cities, including, for the first time, Dubai. When I visit the exhibition at The Ritz-Carlton Dubai International Financial Centre, glass cases are filled with rare and extraordinary timepieces by the likes of Arnold & Son, Audemars Piguet, Patek Philippe and Jaquet Droz, to name a few.

Present at the event is David Linley, the honorary chairman of Christie's for Europe, Middle East, Russia and India. I ask him what it means for the auction house to be involved. "This year, Christie's is the auctioneer, and it's a huge honour and privilege for us to do it. This is the reason we are all so keen to be involved, for the positivity and the results of the research. I am a great admirer of what Luc has achieved, and I am one of the ambassadors for this project," he says.

In addition to donating timepieces, this year Pettavino has made a further request of each of the brands involved. To appeal to non-watch-collectors who are also keen to get involved, he has requested that the maisons also offer, wherever possible, an experience to complement their watch.

Remy Julia, head of watches for Christie's Middle East, India and Africa, explains: "Luc is the centrepiece, and he pressed a special button this year for the brands and manufacturers to try and come out with a special experience. We can take the example of Piaget, which is a very traditional brand, but they are coming with a special treat linked to their collaboration with Art Dubai. Another is Blancpain, which has a very well-known 50 Fathoms timepiece, so it is linking this watch to an experience with a world-champion freediver."

Among other items and experiences is a Chopard Superfast 8Hz Power Control Porsche 919 Only Watch 2017, which carries with it attendance to the 2018 Monaco Grand Prix in the company of legendary driver Jacky Ickx. It's a steal at an estimated US$19,000 to $26,000 (up to Dh95,505). 

Ulysse Nardin has crafted the Marine Tourbillon Only Watch piece, and will offer the winning bidder an additional two-day trip to the Monaco Yacht show, while Hublot (which has supported the auction since 2005), is offering a meeting with Olympic athlete Usain Bolt alongside its Big Bang Unico Sapphire Usain Bolt for Only Watch. Anyone interested in this should be prepared to spend between $52,000 and $83,000 for the privilege.

Closer to home, Bell & Ross's BR-X1 R.S 17 Only Watch timepiece comes with a trip to the Abu Dhabi Formula One as the guest of Renault, including a meeting with the racing team and a gift of Nico Hülkenberg's race gloves.

Bell & Ross’s BR-X1 R.S 17. Courtesy Bell & Ross

Even those not offering experiences have strived to create something unique. MCT Watches, for example, teamed up with the artist Anish Kapoor to create the S200 VantaBlack – named for a material that absorbs 99.96 per cent of light, making it the blackest material in the universe.

Linley shed some light on why such collaborations are so important. "As a frustrated designer and inventor of watches myself, it is the inventiveness that triggers the next development phase. I think the reason a lot of watch brands want to be involved is the opportunity to show what they are capable of, even if they never make one again. That is the point about watches, isn't it? They are sculptures, works of art and a whole process of engineering."

Although the sale will raise even more money, tragically, any inroads into research will come too late for Paul Pettavino, who passed away late last year, just before his 21st birthday. "Paul was a very wise soul," Pettavino tells me. "He was resilient and joyful. He had a very subtle and constant light, and any time you were in his surroundings, you felt OK. I saw what life imposed on him – heavy operations, his spine needed 36 devices to hold it because his muscles were wasting away, but Paul was very quick to say: 'OK, what are we doing today?' The idea is carpe diem. Be afraid, be scared, but go on. Don't be held back by your fears."

Monique Pettavino, wife of Luc and mother of Paul, sums it up beautifully: “Using watches is a good parallel because of the time element there is with every illness. With DMD, it is a race. This illness, because it is genetic, can happen to anyone, like cancer. You hope something can save you instantly, but there is nothing.

“There has been a lot done on DMD, but it is mostly about comfort. But now, finally, we are very close to finding a solution,” she concludes.


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