Watch Brands Look to the Ocean
New York Times, September 4, 2014
NEW YORK — Visitors to the United Nations Secretariat Building may be disappointed to learn that the property is in the midst of a five-year multibillion-dollar renovation that has shut access to the General Assembly, where diplomats, democrats and dictators beseech, cajole and condemn one another on matters of global import.
There is, however, a consolation. Through Sept. 30, an exhibition of underwater photographs in a provisional space set aside for the U.N. Visitors Center offers tourists a glimpse of a diplomatic encounter steeped in drama of a different sort.
The image that opens the exhibition, and is its de facto signature, depicts a scuba diver and a massive humpback whale greeting each other with what looks like the human-cetacean equivalent of a handshake. The arresting shot, by Masa Ushioda, is one of 29 photographs on display at the United Nations as part of the “Oceans” exhibition, an effort to draw attention to the ecological and economic importance of healthy oceans.
Organized by the U.N. Division for Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea, sponsored by the Swiss watch brand Blancpain and co-curated by DivePhotoGuide.com, the exhibit opened a few days before World Oceans Day on June 8. An image of a single manta ray in blue water, taken by Blancpain’s chief executive, Marc Hayek — an avid diver — is among the featured photographs.
At first glance, ocean conservationists and luxury watchmakers may seem like strange bedfellows. But that has not stopped a clutch of watch brands from aligning themselves with nonprofit causes dedicated to the sea. As sponsors, they have given money and publicity to ocean-related environmental projects. Their most visible contributions, however, have come in the form of ocean-theme timepieces. Primarily diving and sailing models, many of them will be hitting the stores in the next few months.
Among them is the latest update of Blancpain’s iconic dive watch, the Fifty Fathoms, which marks its 60th anniversary this year. To promote the new vintage-inspired Fifty Fathoms Bathyscaphe model, the brand invited the National Geographic explorer Enric Sala — with whom it has partnered on the Pristine Seas Expedition, a program to survey and help protect some of the ocean’s untouched places — to appear at a press conference during the Baselworld luxury watch fair in April, where the 2013 Fifty Fathoms collection made its debut.
“The Fifty Fathoms, it’s not just a family of watches — it’s a history of diving,” Mr. Hayek said in his introductory remarks. “It was the beginning of diving and there was a need for a watch, because there’s nothing more crucial in diving than keeping your time.”
Most divers today wear digital dive computers on their wrists but Matt Weiss, editor and publisher of DivePhotoGuide.com, said that Blancpain and other luxury watchmakers were smart to target diving enthusiasts. “It’s the right audience: adventurous and affluent,” he said.
The Swiss brand Girard-Perregaux appears to have gotten the memo. On World Oceans Day, the brand held a reception at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in honor of Susan and David Rockefeller Jr., whose 15-minute documentary, “Mission of Mermaids,” looks at how ocean acidification, overfishing and pollution are affecting the seas.
Michele Sofisti, chief executive of Girard-Perregaux, was introduced to the Rockefellers in 2012 through his publicist, Venanzio Ciampa, president and founder of the Promotion Factory. The brand has supported the couple’s ocean preservation initiatives ever since. Three limited-edition timepieces honoring the partnership will be joined by a fourth on Sept. 25, when the Sea Hawk Mission of Mermaids dive watch will be unveiled at a fundraiser in New York City.
“We have been around for 222 years,” Mr. Sofisti said. “But we also pay attention to how we can protect these important natural resources.”
If there is any doubt that ocean conservation has become a bona fide meme in the watch business, look no further than the new Seamaster Planet Ocean GMT from Omega. The 2013 dive watch is the product of the brand’s two-year partnership with the environmentalist and filmmaker Yann Arthus-Bertrand, whose GoodPlanet Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to raising awareness of threats to the oceans, will benefit from a portion of the watch’s proceeds.
Omega’s backing also helped Mr. Arthus-Bertrand produce a 2012 environmental documentary, “Planet Ocean,” a tour de force of underwater cinematography. “Omega is a big brand, and they took a risk,” he said. “It’s always a risk to ask an activist to make a film.”
Risky or not, Omega clearly saw an opportunity to promote a good cause and plug its name in the process. “It’s important that we communicate important issues like oceanic health to as wide an audience as possible,” Omega’s president, Stephen Urquhart, said.
“Of course, we have also been inspired by what happens on the water’s surface,” he added.
Mr. Urquhart made that clear in late June, when he escorted international journalists through the San Francisco Bay base camp of the America’s Cup challenger Emirates Team New Zealand. In addition to watching the team perform a training run aboard the ETNZ boat — its high-tech sails emblazoned with the Omega logo — the journalists were among the first to see the new Omega Seamaster Diver ETNZ Limited Edition, which pays tribute to the team.
“It features a special countdown element on the center of the dial — a design concept that debuted with the Seamaster America’s Cup Racing Chronograph in 2002,” Mr. Urquhart said.
TAG Heuer knows the drill. The brand, best known for its auto-racing tie-ins, has been associated with the America’s Cup since 1967, when it was the official timekeeper of the winning boat, the Intrepid. As a current sponsor of defender Team Oracle, TAG introduced the Aquaracer Calibre 72 Countdown chronograph, a dive watch with a countdown timer, to honor this year’s competition.
With Omega and TAG Heuer’s proxies dueling for supremacy on the high seas, IWC Schauffhausen has taken a different tack to underscore its commitment to the ocean. Earlier this year, the Swiss-German brand opened a 60-square-meter, or 646-square-foot, boutique aboard Royal Caribbean’s Mariner of the Seas, which sails cruise routes out of Singapore and Shanghai.
To those familiar with how the Swiss watch industry markets its perennially popular dive watches, IWC’s move would seem to bring a dash of reality that may give buyers their most authentic connection to the ocean.
In reality, “very few people are diving or doing anything near the sea,” Ariel Adams, founder of A Blog to Watch, said. “But it’s a good talking point.”