Watch Philanthropist Mr Luc Pettavino On Charity And The Most Expensive Watch In The World

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Watch Philanthropist Mr Luc Pettavino On Charity And The Most Expensive Watch In The World

Words by Ms Carol Besler

4 November 2021

Midway through the 2019 Only Watch auction, a hush fell over the room as the star of the show, a one-of-a-kind Patek Philippe Grandmaster Chime, lit up the screen. The only sound in the crammed salon at the Four Seasons Hotel des Bergues in Geneva was the rustle of sleeves as people raised their phones to record the bidding, which began in the millions; 10 minutes later, the room erupted in cheers and applause as the hammer came down at CHF 31m, the highest price ever paid for a watch.

Mr Luc Pettavino, founder and organiser of the auction, remembers the moment well. “The energy in the room was vibrating a l’unisson,” he says. “There was one energy, and, for me, it was the energy of pure light. How many different people were in the room? 280? No. There was one entity. Everyone was deeply touched, almost in shock. It was like being bombarded by adrenaline, endorphins, dopamine all at once – like we were all a bit stoned. I realised after CHF 15 or 20 million, that I had tears coming down my face, but I didn’t know I was crying. It was a bizarre moment. It was like the scale of value had exploded… but in a nice way.”

Despite his insistence that the room heaved as one, Pettavino’s response was profoundly personal, yet entirely selfless. It had less to do with the fact that watchmaking history had just been made or that someone had actually paid such a price for a watch, but that this CHF 31m would be channelled into the Association Monégasque contre les Myopathies (Monegasque Association for Research Against Muscular Dystrophy). In 2000, Pettavino’s son, Paul, then aged four, was diagnosed with Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD), an incurable degenerative muscular disease that affects one in 5,000 males at birth. Boys with DMD are typically wheelchair-bound by the age of 12. By 21, most are paralysed from the neck down. The end result is always the same; most do not live beyond their twenties.

Despite the odds, Pettavino set out to find a magic bullet. The idea for a watch auction came to him after a meeting with Mr Nicolas Hayek Sr, the late chairman of the Swatch Group, who later offered his full support. Others followed, but not right away.

“When I started, I didn’t know anything about watches,” he says. “I’m not from the industry. I’m not a collector. Since day one, we had Patek Philippe, Richard Mille, Blancpain, Breguet. At the time, I was also organising the Monaco Yacht Show and I guess that was kind of reassuring for them – OK, the guy knows what he’s talking about in terms of luxury, he has a child with this pathology, so we understand why he’s doing this. Yes, Prince Albert of Monaco is [supporting] the cause… Still, it took some good open hearts for these people to say d’accord.”

At the first sale in 2005, and the next, Pettavino bought more than one of the lots himself, as did the Prince.

Since then, Only Watch has garnered support from the top echelons of the industry and made Pettavino something of a horological superstar, bringing the industry together in a way that no one else has. In its eight editions, the biennial sale has raised more than $80m, a sum that makes other charitable endeavours in the watch industry look like bake sales.

“Now, the green lights are everywhere,” he says. “Everybody understands what it is, so I feel less weight on my shoulders. It’s more like a common house that we all build together. Everyone brings their competence to the project. The manufacturers know how to make them, Christie’s knows how to sell them, Ferrari knows how to transport them, and so on.”

Other contributors include Lanson (champagne), Bettimask (face masks), Dietlin (showcases), Maya Jah (catering), Palexpo (venue) and more. There are no signed contracts, only handshakes, with the exception of Christie’s. “They insisted, because, in the end, the auction sells many millions worth of watches, and they have to have a paper trail,” Pettavino says.

Pettavino is the glue that holds it all together, but he checks his ego at the door, and the others tend to follow suit. “Yes, you can be the conductor of the orchestra,” he says. “But not three metres above. You’re just in the group, maintaining the harmony. I don’t think it’s to flatter my ego. I don’t think I need that to feel alive, or to integrate in society, or to prevent myself from being bored.”

“Yes, you can be the conductor of the orchestra, but not three metres above. You’re just in the group, maintaining the harmony”

Only Watch only handles pieces that are one of a kind. It set the sale apart from every other watch auction, and guarantees collector interest, media attention and results. If there is any competition at all among the brands, it’s to be the most creative, or the most innovative. Some introduce new complications, and there are often unlikely collaborations.

Highlights from the upcoming ninth edition, set for 6 November at Palexpo, Geneva, include a complicated desk clock by Patek Philippe inspired by one made in 1923 for Mr James Ward Packard, the American carmaker and famed watch collector, and a watch that tells time via an automaton in the shape of a hand by F.P. Journe in collaboration with Mr Francis Ford Coppola. The original versions of three of the lots (by Ulysse Nardin, Bulgari and Hermès Timepieces) are nominated for awards in this year’s Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève, the Oscars of watchmaking, which is taking place today, two days before Only Watch.

And what has come of it so far? Companies owned by the charity have opened labs, created biotechs, filed patents and are currently recruiting patients for clinical trials starting in 2022. “If life is good to us, we will find a cure with a generic treatment,” Pettavino says. “A cheap treatment. For the moment, we’ve reached Camp 1 of Everest, then Camp 2, Camp 3, and we can see the summit. Maybe we’re not going to plant the flag just yet, but we’re progressing to Camp 4.”

Paul Pettavino succumbed to the disease in 2016, just shy of his 21st birthday. He attended every auction until 2015, even participating in the design of four editions donated by Louis Vuitton, and watched in awe as the project translated into something like hope for a cure.

Here was a father doing more than simply taking care of his son. Here was a hero. But Pettavino counters: “I thought of him as a hero. At one point in my life, when I was still managing the Monaco Yacht Show, I was enduring a long, terrifying burnout. My everyday light was very diminished. I was weak, I couldn’t eat. It was very tough, and after a while, I said, if I can’t manage to put back together the puzzle, I will not survive. But Paul, despite such a heavy pathology, was always smiling and asking me how I was doing… he was my reference.” Pettavino sold his shares in the Monaco Yacht Show in 2010 to dedicate himself full time to the charity.

“I’m happy to say that today I am healthy and my life is very balanced,” he says. “Just like this project. It’s both Everest and very down to Earth. We are grounded and we have our head in the stars. The best privilege you can have in life is to have breakfast with a goat keeper and dine with a prince. And feel the same.”

Pettavino means this literally. From the window of his home, he has a view of the hills surrounding Monaco. “Right now I’m watching the goats,” he says, as we speak. “And I know the guys keeping the goats. Sometimes in the morning I make some tea and take it with me and go chat with them.”

It’s equally plausible that, later in the day, he will dine with a prince, having bonded with his patron, Prince Albert of Monaco, over the years. “What I mean is, don’t put a scale on people – like some are important, some are not important. If you see a human being coming to you and you take the same attitude Paul had, you accept them, even if there are differences. You’re not obliged to spend your life with him or her, but you know, remember the other piece of you.”