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The business of expensive watches is largely about brands making handsome profits by selling well-heeled customers things that they could easily live without. But, for all the “take”, there is also a certain amount of give in the watch world, with many makers channelling some of their revenue towards good causes.
Omega, for example, has pledged $1m to support the Orbis Flying Eye hospital; Bremont has donated money to the restoration of British institutions such as HMS Victory and the Bletchley Park wartime code-breaking centre; and, since 1992, Audemars Piguet has funded the protection and conservation of forests in 30 countries around the world.
Indeed, eco-friendly projects are proving more popular targets for the largesse of watch brands, many of which are looking to temper their sponsorship of activities such as Formula One, MotoGP and powerboat racing with enterprises that appear more ecologically sound.
The problem is, however, that the marketing benefits of dishing out cash to save the planet usually fall short of those to be had from paying to have a brand name emblazoned on the rear-view mirrors of a Grand Prix car.
When it unveiled its redesigned Ingenieur collection at last year’s Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie, IWC set in motion a partnership with the Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 team. This year’s SIHH sees the Richemont-owned brand reveal an all-new family of Aquatimer sports watches – and part of the proceeds from two special editions in the range will go towards the conservation of the Galápagos Islands, the archipelago lying 1,000km west of Ecuador, a World Heritage Site since 1978.
For the past 55 years, responsibility for the protection and conservation of the islands has been in the hands of the Charles Darwin Foundation which, since 1964, has operated a research station there that is now the base to more than 100 scientists, students, teachers and volunteers from around the world.
They are there to research the indigenous flora and fauna of the islands and to prevent the unique ecosystems from being irreparably damaged by, among other things, an onslaught of invasive plant and animal species, human settlement, tourism and illegal fishing.
Until eight years ago, the future of the Galápagos looked decidedly bleak as the foundation was on the verge of bankruptcy. It was saved when a 36-year-old German financier called Swen Lorenz went there on holiday.
Seeing that the situation was becoming critical, he quit his home and high-salaried London job in order to return to the islands to work full-time as the foundation’s chief executive. He has since used his financial skills to turn it into a profitable organisation with a $3.5m annual budget – about $250,000 of which will now come from the association he has forged with IWC.
The collaboration began in 2009, which marked the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, who based much of his evolutionary theory on discoveries made on and around the Galápagos during his five-year voyage aboard HMS Beagle in the 1830s.
IWC is now stepping up its support, initially by donating part of the proceeds of the sales of the two new Aquatimer Chronograph special versions, the SFr13,000 ($14,300) model 50 Years Science for Galápagos, which will be made in an edition of 500, and the unlimited, SFr12,500 Edition Galápagos Islands.
“Since we began the association with the Darwin Foundation five years ago, Swen Lorenz has brought a new dynamism and professionalism to the organisation, and we’re now very confident that any money we can donate is going to be truly beneficial,” says Georges Kern, chief executive of IWC.
“The massive extent of threat posed to this World Heritage site is clear to us, and we feel a very special obligation to help preserve the ecosystem of the Galápagos Islands, which is why we’re channelling part of the proceeds from sales to the charity and to the research station.”
It is, a worthy way for a watch brand to demonstrate its commitment to the planet – but backing the Galápagos and creating those special-edition watches might also be a surprisingly smart marketing move. Why? Because the people who visit the islands – among whom are an increasing number of celebrities – are of considerably above average wealth and, equally importantly, are invariably passionate about ecology.
“The Galápagos Islands are an expensive place to travel to, as a result of which the majority of our visitors are wealthy, high-calibre individuals who are often highly influential,” says Mr Lorenz.
“The foundation is a hugely emotive organisation in itself, but when people actually visit here, they often feel like they have gone away from the normal world, and that can be a life-changing experience.”
An experience that, of course, they can be reminded of every time they glance at the time on their SFr12,500 special-edition Galápagos wristwatch.