Time for action: Only Watch

On 9 November at Christie’s in Geneva 50 unique watches will be auctioned to raise money for a special charity. Brummell met the founder of the Only Watch project in London on the British leg of his worldwide tour to promote his very special lots.

Watches & Jewellery 7 Nov 2019

Luc Pettavino, founder of Only Watch
Luc Pettavino with HSH Prince Albert II of Monaco at Only Watch at the Monaco Yacht Show
Only Watch at the Monaco Yacht Show
The all black Tudor Black Bay Ceramic One for Only Watch 2019
Zenith El Primero A386 Revival for Only Watch 2019

Luc Pettavino created Only Watch in 2005. His son Paul was born with Duchenne muscular dystrophy and Pettavino wanted to find a way to raise money for research into the disease and other muscular diseases. Only Watch was the solution: an auction of 50 watches made especially for the charity as one-offs by the world’s most prestigious watch manufacturers, which sees 99% of the money raised going to charity. When we met Pettavino on the London leg of his world tour of Dubai, Paris, London, New York, Tokyo, Singapore, Hong-Kong, Taipei and finally, Geneva – where he was showing his collection of watches to prospective bidders at Christie’s – he spoke to us of his pleasure at being able to ‘Create beauty to do good’.

Only Watch auction at Christie's, Geneva in 2017
Only Watch auction at Christie’s, Geneva in 2017

My son was born with Duchenne muscular dystrophy, and so 15 years ago, I gathered a group of international scientific researchers and asked them: ‘What are your needs?’ I wanted to help investigate how best to treat this disease. Money was not the only issue; this is a space that changes a lot – it is all about gene therapy, cell therapy, pharmacology… all these ideas floating in the air. So the question really was what do you need to progress your work and, of course, how much funding to you require? Plus, what kinds of paths should we follow; and how should we follow them?

That was when I dreamt up Only Watch – because we needed to find a means through which we could raise hundreds of thousands of Euros. If we could do that, we could finance academic, fundamental and applied research. And then, once we had arrived at the proof of principle, we’d have to protect this with patents. In the event, we have taken great strides along a new path – like climbing Everest. We have created biotechs working in the fields of chemistry and biology. We have moved towards clinical trials and all this has been done in the independent spirit of Only Watch.

I hit upon the idea of creating a charity based on auctioning watches because they are amazing things: they embody enormous creativity in just a few centimetres, and they are light. You can carry tens of millions of Euros around the world in the smallest suitcase.

I started to approach the world’s most famous watch manufacturers and explained the plan: I wanted them each to make me a one-off, unique watch that I would then auction. The money raised would go towards the research of Duchenne muscular dystrophy and other muscular diseases. That was in 2005, and Only Watch has taken place every other year since then – 50 unique watches, auctioned for this charity. We have already raised $40 million, so it is quite efficient.

People often ask me how I managed to persuade the manufacturers to take part, but it wasn’t so difficult. They got it pretty quickly. My best skill is to have this intuitive emotional intelligence, to know where to unlock the barriers going down so you feel at ease in a space where we are going to apply creativity and goodwill. I am just the temporary conductor of a beautiful orchestra, making sure the symphony is optimised. Then we all thank each other, and with no contract, no obligations, we just depart. More specifically, I created the Monaco Yacht Show, so I know how to gather people together and how the codes of luxury work. The watch manufacturers could see I was quite empathetic in terms of their brands. But then there was the personal story too: I had Paul – a child with Duchenne muscular dystrophy.

All that combined with the codes of luxury and a lot of attention to detail meant in the end, the magic happened. The peculiar thing is that I was totally uncertain as to whether it would be a success, and every two years, every time, it is a kind of a magic moment. It is not about watches as such – I am the first to admit I don’t know anything about watches – and it is not about ego. I just serve the cause and I think that is what people respond to. I am happy that those who participate in this are happy to do so.

These days, professionally, I am what I call ‘a specialist in generalities’. I created the Monaco Yacht Show in 1991 and sold my share in the business in 2010 because I only wanted to do charity work. I live on my patrimony, and I do a lot of free consultations for other foundations to design their projects. I am like a pollinating bee; I never stay long on the same flower. I feel free and I just come and discover, try to be of value in what I do, and as true as possible to my beliefs and values. It’s nice. It is a good surprise for us all to be able to gather so much diversity in such soft power.

Only Watch, for me, represents 50 positive stories – 50 moments where people agreed to lower their barriers and trust the project. And not to sign any contract, with no obligations, and to just say: ‘OK, we’re going to create a one-off to support a cause’. This is a real group effort. Each of us brings a brick to a beautiful mansion and in the end when we sit back we realise it is a palace. But each time we start, the outcome is uncertain, which makes the project beautiful. The format is very simple: we just ask people to create a unique watch and to give it to us, and we sell it and transfer the money. Everything is done pro-bono on my side, so 99% of the money goes to research. It’s a beautiful story.

It could have been a sad story because my son Paul had this disease but when we heard his diagnosis we decided to transform the energy and get a positive solution. Life gives us opportunities to act, to be connected, so let’s create beauty to do good. This is what has happened. Unfortunately, Paul is not here anymore, he passed away three years ago on his 21st birthday. But his was a story of resilience, of acceptance and of being extremely positive. For me, organising Only Watch is not something sad, it’s not something bringing me back to a loss, but instead it’s something constantly showing me the possibilities of overcoming hurdles; of accepting what is and transforming it to create solutions for future generations.

We’ve been financing research into muscular disease and today we’re quite close to clinical trials. Being totally independent with a lot of money – because 40 million dollars is sufficient to achieve a lot in science – it’s a story of joy. It’s a story where we say let’s do this together and do something great.