Watchmakers have had a long relationship with the ocean. In the 19th century, Europe’s royal navies commissioned horology’s finest to rig their ships with the most advanced timekeepers of the day: Marine chronometers, which were used to calculate longitude at sea.
In the 20th century, watch manufacturers were tasked to equip navy divers and scientific explorers with waterproof, luminescent wristwatches that could be worn on underwater reconnaissance missions.
It is this affinity with the sea that has led watchmakers to rally around modern marine conservation efforts. From funding research to raising awareness of plastic pollution, marques like Rolex, Baume, Blancpain, Breguet, IWC and Omega are doing their bit to help save the oceans.
Commenting on these initiatives, Stephen Beng, Chairman of the Nature Society Singapore's Marine Conservation Group said: "Regardless of motivations, these companies, through their products and people, have a far-reaching influence on consumer mindsets. Their clients are affluent and very likely business decision-makers with the potential to effect positive change for the environment".
Rolex was the first company to introduce a waterproof watchcase in 1926, nicknamed the Oyster because it was a hermetically sealed case that clamped shut like its namesake. Over the following decades, the firm would develop iconic diving watches such as the Submariner, Sea-Dweller and Deepsea.
Rolex does not communicate the extent of its financial contributions to ocean preservation, but its partnership with the National Geographic Society stretches back more than 60 years.
Through this partnership, Rolex funds scientific expeditions undertaken by the Society. In turn, the Society reports on findings and activities through its media platforms – magazine editorials, videos, social media channels and so on.
The Society’s Explorer-in-Residence, Dr Sylvia Earle, is one such beneficiary. Dr Earle, a Rolex Testimonee since 1982 and a marine biologist with more than half a century of underwater exploration under her belt, is the founder of Mission Blue.
Her organisation’s main goal is to seek formal protection for 20 per cent of the world’s oceans from environmental damage and over-exploitation by 2020. This she hopes to achieve by partnering with global corporations and governmental bodies.
If you are familiar with the Baume & Mercier brand, rest assured that they did not drop the “Mercier” name. Baume is a totally new label from Richemont, Baume & Mercier’s parent company.
Launched in May 2018 – and targeted squarely at eco-conscious millennials – Baume watches shun the use of animal-based materials or precious metals. For example, the watchstraps are made from natural, recycled or up-cycled fabrics including alcantara, cork, cotton, linen and recycled PET.
Packaging is also kept to a minimum, with only FSC-certified paper and cardboard being used.
In the coming months, the brand will join forces with Waste Free Oceans, an organisation that collects plastic from oceans, rivers and beaches.
“Ocean plastic will be transformed into material that will enable us to create a modern, recycled and recyclable product while helping us to do our part in cleaning the oceans,” said Baume brand leader Marie Chassot in a press statement.
Blancpain lays claim to the world’s first modern diving watch: Its Fifty Fathoms model, released in 1953, which pipped Rolex’s Submariner by just a few months.
One fathom refers to a depth of 1.8m; 50 fathoms is therefore 90m – the water resistance rating on its namesake watch. That might not seem like much today, but bear in mind that diving was still in its infancy in the 1950s.
It is not known when the company began backing campaigns to protect the ocean, but in 2014, it consolidated all its efforts in this area under the Blancpain Ocean Commitment (BOC) initiative.
Among the BOC’s most prominent beneficiaries are the National Geographic Society’s Explorer-in-Residence Dr Enric Sala’s Pristine Seas Expedition, and marine biologist/underwater photographer Laurent Ballesta’s Gombessa Projects (“Gombessa” refers to the coelacanth fish in Mozambique).
To raise funds for – and awareness of - ocean preservation and protection, Blancpain created a series of 250-piece limited edition diving watches in 2014, with 1,000 euros from the sale of each watch going towards the cause. The watches are now in their third series.
Visit Blancpain for more information.
In 1815, legendary watchmaker Abraham-Louis Breguet (1747 to 1823) was appointed the official chronometer-maker to the French Royal Navy.
This year, more than 200 years later, the Breguet brand gives back – to the sea. It teamed up with the Race for Water Foundation, which aims to raise awareness of plastic pollution in the ocean and the need to preserve mankind’s most precious resource, water.
For three years until 2021, Breguet is funding a round-the-world voyage undertaken by a specially built catamaran. The Race for Water Odyssey will make 35 stopovers, providing a meeting point for scientists and thought leaders to discuss ways of transforming plastic waste into clean energy.
“We are sailing a clean, renewable-energy vessel powered by a mix of solar, hydrogen and kite, illustrating that a 100-tonne boat can circumnavigate the world without fossil fuel,” Marco Simeoni, President of the Race for Water Foundation, said in a press release.
“We are also demonstrating to the decision-makers we meet at each stopover that innovations and new business models can be more efficient and generate lasting economic, environmental and social benefits,” he added.
In 1967, IWC premiered its first diving watch, the Aquatimer, in response to the scuba diving craze of the time.
The Aquatimer eventually evolved into its own line of watches, and today it is the commercial front for IWC’s involvement with the Charles Darwin Foundation for the Galapagos Islands (CDF), a partnership that began in 2009 on the 200th anniversary of the scientist’s birth.
IWC declined to reveal exact figures, but “a sizeable contribution” generated by proceeds from the sale of its Aquatimer Chronograph Edition Galapagos Islands diver’s watch goes towards funding the nonprofit.
More than 100 scientists, students and volunteers are currently involved in a campaign to conserve the islands. The islands, of course, are where Darwin famously got the inspiration to pen his groundbreaking Theory of Evolution.
Another Aquatimer watch, the Automatic Edition “Expedition Jacques-Yves Cousteau”, provides the horological content for IWC’s alliance with the Cousteau Society. This nonprofit, dedicated to the protection of ocean life, was founded by the late researcher/filmmaker Jacques-Yves Cousteau (1910 to 1997).
The first joint research expedition to determine the health of coral reefs was carried out in the Red Sea in 2004. Next, IWC and the Society will embark on the refurbishment of Cousteau’s famous research vessel, the Calypso.
The Seamaster collection – the oldest in Omega’s lineup – dates to 1948, when the first Seamaster debuted as a commercial diving watch based loosely on waterproof watches made for British troops.
Fast forward to 2011, when Omega teamed up with the GoodPlanet Foundation. Founded by photojournalist Yann Arthus-Bertrand, this nonprofit’s mission is to raise consciousness of environmental protection.
Within a year, the partnership bore fruit in the form of an award-winning documentary film, Planet Ocean. To capture the beauty of the oceans both above and below the surface, the film’s producers engaged a team of 10 aerial and 13 underwater cameramen.
In 2014, Omega and the Foundation embarked on their next venture, Time for the Planet, two conservation programmes in Sulawesi, Indonesia. The area around Bahoi has one of the richest ecosystems on earth, but is threatened by overexploitation. Meanwhile, in Tanakeke Island, a project is underway to restore the mangroves and rebalance the ecosystem.
To help fund the projects, Omega committed “a portion of the proceeds” from the sale of its Seamaster Planet Ocean 600M GoodPlanet, a robust timekeeper watertight to a depth of 600m.