It’s got it all: solidarity, pride, risk, excitement, fear, joy, unpredictability. The tension has been slowly mounting for the past six months, setting the stage for the final act. After touring ten capital cities, the collection will come under the hammer in Geneva on November 9th, in the kind of adrenalin-fuelled atmosphere only a saleroom can muster. While no-one is forgetting that the purpose of Only Watch is to raise money for research into neuromuscular disorders, over the course of the years the event has become the greatest auction show on Earth. As the only one to offer this many one-of-a-kind pieces in a single place, it attracts a growing number of brands which in turn bring in more and more enlightened bidders to drive prices ever higher. A virtuous circle and one that has been perfectly scripted.
Only Watch began with a personal drama: that of Luc Pettavino whose late son suffered from Duchenne muscular dystrophy. Pettavino decided to step down from his role as organiser of the Monaco Yacht Show and devote himself to finding a solution. He quickly realised his efforts would be best directed towards raising much-needed finance for scientific research into the disease. After organising several fundraising auctions, in 2005 he came up with the idea of getting watchmakers involved. With support from Nicolas G. Hayek, Pettavino convinced 28 brands to each donate a watch to the cause. They raised €1.9 million.
The majority of lots in the first two sales, held every two years in Monaco, were from brands’ regular collections. Then in 2009 an ordinary fundraiser became something much bigger. At the head of the newly created Patrizzi & Co Auctioneers and co-founder of Only Watch, Osvaldo Patrizzi made no secret of his determination to make the event the “world championships” of creative watchmaking. Interviewed at the time, he was adamant this wasn’t about “auctioning off run-of-the-mill watches to raise money for charity. Buyers aren’t stupid. If it’s just a matter of paying a watch twice the retail price, they may as well sign a cheque and have done with it. We accept nothing but the exceptional!” Which is precisely what the next sale in 2011 would be, when 40 unique watches raised €4.5 million.
A universal cause
A second milestone followed in 2015 when Only Watch relocated to Geneva, closer to the international collectors in town for the autumn watch sales. With immediate effect as 44 watches brought in €10.3 million – a record that’s already been beaten by the number taking part this year. On November 9th, 50 one-of-a-kind watches will line up for bidders at the Four Seasons Hôtel des Bergues. “Everyone’s there,” says Edouard Meylan, the boss of H. Moser & Cie. which is taking part for the third time. “There is definitely a group effect that makes this a very high profile event.” As far as media impact goes, according to the Only Watch press release, the six-month media campaign reaches an online and offline audience of 400 million people worldwide. “It’s a big investment for a brand such as ours,” Meylan observes, “but at the end of the day, everyone’s a winner.”
“For us, it’s the most important rendezvous of all,” says an enthusiastic Xavier de Roquemaurel, CEO of Czapek. “It’s the only place in the world where, at the end of the sale, we go round slapping each other on the back, when the rest of the year it’s daggers drawn! I am extremely proud and pleased to take part in the same event as Patek Philippe, which each year donates a priceless watch. It’s extraordinary when you think about it. This universality is absolutely unique.”
The organisers have one thing in particular to thank: Only Watch is the only opportunity collectors have to see and buy so many one-off pieces. “There is nothing like it anywhere in the world,” confirms Jean-Marie Schaller, CEO of Louis Moinet. “The first time I took part, in 2017, I saw some of our clients bidding for ten or even fifteen lots. Nor am I convinced they were thinking about the fundraising aspect. Quite simply, this is a truly extraordinary event for any serious collector.”
The drama reaches its climax in a scenario where excitement and tension can sometimes culminate in completely irrational behaviour. “To be honest, I do find it rather stressful,” says Rexhep Rexhepi, the talented young founder of Akrivia, who’s taking part in his first sale. “I thought long and hard before saying yes, as my image could suffer if the watch doesn’t make a good price.” It’s a risk MB&F keeps to a minimum. “We’re on the edge of our seats each time,” admits Charris Yadigaroglou, the brand’s director of communication, “but we communicate a lot with our collectors. You don’t go into it unprepared. Potential buyers don’t make up their mind on the day.”
While there is no recipe for success, everyone agrees that the main condition is credibility. “Brands are going to ever greater lengths,” Yadigaroglou notes. Common sense helps, too. “We learned one thing from our first sale in 2017,” chuckles Xavier de Roquemaurel. “Don’t try and make a watch everyone will like. If two bidders want it, that’s all you need.”