The Once Upon a Time Watch Project…Watch Stories Waiting to be Told

The Once Upon a Time Watch Project…Watch Stories Waiting to be Told

Brian LaViolette was first gifted a watch by his father at the age of four, a Green Bay Packers commemorative watch from the Lafayette Watch Co. Brian eventually amassed a modest collection of seven watches by saving money from working odd jobs while attending school. Tragically, Brian’s life was cut short following a swimming accident in Door County, Wisconsin on 8 August, 1992, when he was just 15. According to his father, Brian had a love for music and sport, and a spirit of excellence. He had dreamt of working in advertising or sales, and worked hard in school with the hope of one day attending college to make this a reality.

A Call to Action Through Pain and Loss

When I first heard of the Foundation that bore his name and the inspirational story behind it, I knew I had to meet its founder and the driving force behind its hugely meaningful work for 30 years, Brian’s father, Doug LaViolette. I felt an immediate affinity towards the LaViolettes’ lived experience as I, too, had my younger brother’s life cut short due to illness. No parent should have to bury their child. As Doug recounted the painful memory of losing a son over a video call, he explained the reason for establishing the Brian LaViolette Scholarship Foundation — that he and his wife Renee might accomplish great things in Brian’s name and memory. It started with a simple idea of taking the $22,000 they had received from friends and family at Brian’s funeral and creating a single scholarship dedicated in his name, to be awarded to a deserving high school senior bound for college. In this way, someone would know who Brian was at least once a year, and hopefully be inspired to emulate his passion for life and education.

Through the generous support of many donors over the last three decades, the Brian LaViolette Scholarship Foundation has risen far above its humble beginnings, handing out 1,058 scholarships in 17 different states in the United States as well as in Poland, the Czech Republic and South Africa, to date. What distinguishes the Foundation’s scholarship program is that it brings together families who have experienced some form of personal loss. Every year, roughly 55 families get to decide who to grant scholarships to, in hopes that the recipient will embody the good qualities of the person whose name the scholarship honors. About 80 percent of the scholarships are in memory of someone else other than Brian. Brian’s younger sister Kim, the Foundation’s executive director, manages the scholarship program’s administration and the awards ceremony.

LaViolette family
The LaViolette family. From L - R: Renee, Doug, Kim holding her son Walker, Kim's husband Isaiah and their dog El Guapo (image: Brian LaViolette Scholarship Foundation)

The Once Upon a Time Watch Project

While Brian clearly had a passion for watches at such a young age, the Foundation is raising funds through a watch auction for the very first time this year, called the Once Upon a Time Watch Project. The seeds of this initiative were sown during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. The existential threat from a then poorly understood virus provided great cause for introspection on life and personal legacy. Doug was weighing such thoughts, and desired to impart good values to the next generation, and establish good structures for the Foundation into the future.

“What tangible thing would you be able to leave behind?”, he asked himself. The pandemic also provided the luxury of time, allowing Doug to consume more watch-related content than he ever had before. This caused him to chance upon a former Hodinkee contributor, from his home state of Wisconsin, who could help with the watch auction project. That person was none other than Eric Wind, a man I greatly admire for his many contributions to the ever growing canon of watch knowledge, first as a contributor at Hodinkee and later as a Senior Specialist at Christie’s. He now runs his own vintage watch business, Wind Vintage, and lives in Palm Beach Florida with his family.

Eric soon brought on his friend Josh Hendizadeh, a passionate watch specialist with Rago/Wright auction house, a perfect location to highlight this auction since it is headquartered in Chicago, in the neighbouring state of Illinois. By this time, Doug had already managed to secure about 30 timepieces, most notably the personal wristwatch of Pope Francis (which we will talk about in a little while), which would undoubtedly become the star of the auction. Between Eric and Doug, who is himself a US Army veteran, an eclectic list of donors from the worlds of politics, the military, Hollywood, professional sport and of course watches, would begin to take shape. Each watch represents a deeply personal story to its famous donor, a factor that sets this auction apart from the many others with a charitable cause.

Eric Wind
Eric Wind
Josh Hendizadeh
Josh Hendizadeh
Doug, Eric and Josh
Doug, Eric and Josh at the Rago/Wright office (image: Wind Vintage)

I had the pleasure of speaking with all three gentlemen about their favorite lots of the auction and we should start with the top highlight, the Pope’s personal wristwatch:

Lot 148: Pope Francis’ Swatch wristwatch ref. SR1130SW-GB743

Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected Pope on 13 March, 2013, and would usher in a new era of austerity for the papacy starting with his choice of papal name. Inspired by the life of Saint Francis of Assisi, a 13th century Catholic monk who eschewed his family’s wealth to lead a life in complete service to the poor, Pope Francis has famously rejected some notable long-held papal traditions. This includes refusing to live in the grandeur of the Apostolic Palace, preferring the more modest accommodations of the Domus Sanctae Marthae, a guest house adjacent to Saint Peter’s Basilica. While Pope John Paul II was famous for wearing a two-tone Rolex Datejust (although by all accounts he was a modest man who had no other trappings of wealth), Pope Francis was often photographed with a simple, black quartz Swatch on his wrist.

Pope Francis
Pope Francis checking the time on his Swatch.

The story of how the Pope’s Swatch came to be a part of the project is a fascinating one. It all started with Reverend Austin Rios, who has served as an Episcopal priest for over 20 years, the last 10 looking after a parish in Rome. Reverend Rios also happened to be Brian’s best friend, and the last person to speak with him before he drowned. After Doug and Kim approached him about the project, he immediately reached out to the Vatican, leveraging his fluency in Italian. The Vatican promptly advised that the best way to approach the Pope was through the Catholic Bishop of Green Bay, Reverend David L. Ricken. Reverend Ricken wrote an impassioned letter to the Pope on behalf of Rios and the LaViolettes, which clearly moved the Holy Father. Never before has the Pope bestowed such a gift to any US-based charity.

Austin Rios
Reverend Austin Rios (image: St. Paul's Within the Walls)
Reverend Ricken’s letter
Reverend David Ricken’s letter to the Pope, telling him of the Once Upon a Time Watch Project (image: Diocese of Green Bay)

The Pope’s Swatch comes as a full set with box and papers. It has a plain white dial with black printed Arabic numerals and minute hashmarks, housed in a 34mm black plastic case on a plastic strap. Apart from the light green hue of the lume-filled time-telling hands, the rest of the watch is in stark black and white, including the day and date wheels of the completely practical complication. A fitting watch for a man with such modest tastes.

Lot 148: Pope Francis’ Swatch wristwatch ref. SR1130SW-GB743
Lot 148: Pope Francis’ Swatch wristwatch ref. SR1130SW-GB743 (image: Rago/Wright)

To bid on the Pope’s Swatch, click here.

Lot 105: Oscar Waldan’s Retro Alarm ref. 0850R

Oscar Waldan’s story is one of tenacity, resilience and resourcefulness in the face of overwhelming odds. He was a teenager in his native Poland during the early days of World War II, where the Nazis’ relentless conquest of Europe began. Sent to Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany and later the Theresienstadt concentration camp in then Czechoslovakia, Oscar would meet a Czech watchmaker named Manek who took him on as an apprentice. This encounter proved fortuitous. The camp guards confiscated all belongings from new prisoners arriving on the trains, and if there were any watches found, they would be taken to Manek and Oscar to repair. The duos’ invaluable watchmaking skills afforded them favorable treatment amongst the guards, and was what kept them alive during the war.

After the war, Oscar escaped to New York as a refugee. Having no other employable skills but watchmaking, he worked at a small watch repair shop in Manhattan owned by a fellow Pole during the day and attended English classes at night. Some years later, he made his way to Switzerland to pursue a formal education in watchmaking, eventually becoming a prominent figure in the industry. Oscar found success as a designer and in merchandising and sales for Tissot and Universal Genève, thereafter bringing his design and sales acumen to consulting for the likes of IWC and Omega. Most notably, his foresight during the Quartz Crisis proved invaluable as he began to purchase mechanical movements from brands that were going under from the disruption to the industry. His close relationship with Dieter Wilsdorf, nephew of Rolex founder Hans Wilsdorf, and recommendation of the El Primero 3019 caliber led to Rolex purchasing the legendary hi-beat movement from Zenith that would begin the self-winding era for the Rolex Daytona.

In 1979, Oscar founded Waldan International with a factory in Bienne and a corporate office and service center in New York. The intention was to uphold the value of the mechanical movement amidst strong competition from quartz watches, by creating complicated mechanical watches in precious metal cases with the stock of movements he had acquired years earlier. In the beginning, Waldan International produced white label limited production collections for brands such as Tiffany & Co., Tourneau and Ulysse Nardin, secretly stamping a “Waldan Creations” hallmark on the inside of the case to mark their true provenance. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that the company started to print its founder’s name on the dial. Oscar passed away in 2018, and his son Andrew has taken it upon himself to continue his father’s legacy by taking over the brand.

Oscar and Andrew Waldan
Andrew Waldan (L) with his father Oscar (image: Christopher Gregory for The New York Times)

Lot 105 is a Waldan International Retro Alarm reference 0850R with a vintage manual winding A. Schild 1931 movement, generously donated by Andrew Waldan. Andrew owns a pair of these that once belonged to his father, and decided to keep the one that his father wore daily. That piece his father wore was signed “Oscar Waldan” on the dial which, according to Eric, was never available for sale commercially, having been made specifically for Oscar. The Retro Alarm has a distinctive design for an alarm sports watch, with a 38mm 18K yellow gold case with a stepped bezel and lugs and two separate crowns that adjust the time and the 13-second alarm function. The dual-crown design is reminiscent of dive watches with compressor cases from the 1950s. Other decidedly vintage cues include the printed Breguet-style numerals, railroad minute track, red serpentine alarm hand and Mercedes-style time-telling handset.

Lot 105: Oscar Waldan’s Retro Alarm ref. 0850R
Lot 105: Oscar Waldan’s Retro Alarm ref. 0850R (image: Rago/Wright)

This lot represents a unique opportunity to own a piece from the private collection of a watch industry veteran who was instrumental in the revival of mechanical watchmaking. To bid on Oscar Walden’s Retro Alarm, click here.

Lot 118: Sgt. Donald Jakeway’s Wittnauer

Sergeant Donald Jakeway was a paratrooper from the United States Army 82nd Airborne division that endured some of the worst fighting during World War II. The division was involved in every major operation in western Europe, including in Italy, France, the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany. Sgt. Jakeway was part of the contingent of 12,000 paratroopers that participated in Operation Overlord, the Allied Forces offensive into Normandy, France on 6 June, 1944, better known as D-Day. Their task was to set up a bridgehead in Saint-Mère-Église, to fortify and facilitate the Allied assault on the western flank, and secure a section of the coast at Utah Beach. Unlike so many others, Sgt. Jakeway survived D-Day because his parachute got caught in a tree, preventing him from being blown downwind into enemy territory. Glancing at his US Army-issued Wittnauer watch, he noted the time: 12:20AM. Separated from his unit, he knew it was going to be a very long night ahead indeed.

Sgt. Jakeway would subsequently serve on other important missions such as Operation Market Garden in the Netherlands (which ended in failure) and the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium, where the Allies suffered heavy casualties but ultimately triumphed. Severe wounds cut short his combat tour in Europe but also earned him four Bronze Stars, two Purple Hearts, four Battle Stars and the French Legion of Merit for his bravery. He was a platoon leader and the only one from his platoon to make it out of Europe alive.

Besides his work with the Foundation, Doug also works with the military, making commemorative coins and medallions. He first came into contact with the Jakeways when he made a commemorative coin for Sgt. Jakeway. Included in the set was an insert card depicting Jakeway during the war and he could use these memorabilia to tell his story when meeting other WWII veterans during reunions. After his passing in 2019, on 30 November (the day this auction will be held), Sgt. Jakeway’s family donated most of his belongings to a military museum, save for one box containing the telegrams they received when he was thought to be missing-in-action during the D-Day operation. In the box was also the Wittnauer that he wore throughout his time fighting in Europe, which his son Don Jakeway Jr. has kindly donated to this auction project.

Sgt. Don Jakeway platoon
Bottom left: Sgt. Jakeway with his fellow paratroopers. Bottom right: Sgt. Donald Jakeway (image: Rago/Wright)
Platoon and telegrams
The telegrams Sgt. Jakeway's family received informing them that he was missing in action. (image: Rago/Wright)

While the dial of the watch is heavily discolored and the lume of the hands and hour indexes (most likely radium) are severely darkened, as expected from rough handling during a war, there are no major dents or marks to the 30mm stainless steel case. Most of the font on the dial remains legible and the lume, completely intact. When Doug took the watch to Rummele’s Jewelers, the local Rolex authorized dealer in Green Bay, Wisconsin to get it checked out, the movement was found to be in perfect condition. Evidently, the watch was a treasured possession, and Sgt. Jakeway had taken good care of it when he returned to the US.

Lot 118: Sgt. Donald Jakeway’s Wittnauer
Lot 118: Sgt. Donald Jakeway’s Wittnauer (Image: Rago/Wright)

To bid on this watch that belonged to a true hero from the Greatest Generation, click here.

Our final two highlights may not have as compelling a story as the previous three watches, but are valuable prospects from a collectability point of view:

Lot 101: Randall Park’s Heuer ‘Pre-Carrera’ Chronograph ref. 404

Randall Park is most famous for his work as an actor and comedian on HBO’s comedy series Veep, ABC’s Fresh Off The Boat and most recently, Netflix’s Blockbuster. He has been a keen watch collector since childhood, and said in an interview with Hodinkee earlier this year that he would “never let go of my watches, even after they’d break and I’d stop wearing them”.

Randall Park
Randall Park

Randall’s Heuer chronograph is simply put, a really cool and collectable watch because it predates the famed motorsport-inspired Carrera product family. While the very first Heuer Carrera reference 2447N was launched in 1963, the reference 404 was somewhat of a prototype line to the Carrera and produced for a relatively short period of time starting in 1959 until the mid-‘60s. It was beloved for its distinctive big-eye counters at 3 and 9 o’clock, contrasted by low-profile, stubby pump pushers also known as ‘baby pushers’. Powering the watch is the venerable manual wind caliber Valjoux 23, the two-counter cousin to the famous Valjoux 72.

The example on offer has a really clean, almost unblemished silver dial that has aged to a warm cream tone. Printing on the dial is crisp and the hands are in amazing condition, with the original lume still intact. Although most of the triangular lume plots have broken off and the case has been polished previously, it does not detract from the watch’s overall appeal.

Lot 101: Randall Park’s Heuer ‘Pre-Carrera’ Chronograph ref. 404
Lot 101: Randall Park’s Heuer ‘Pre-Carrera’ Chronograph ref. 404 (image: Rago/Wright)

To bid on Randall Park’s Heuer ‘Pre-Carrera’ Chronograph, click here.

Lot 100: Eric Wind’s Rolex Oyster Perpetual ref. 1002 with ‘Mosaic Shantung’ dial

Did I mention Eric is a really cool dude? Well, he has also donated a really cool watch which is proof of what I just said. The standard Rolex Oyster Perpetual sans date can be considered the purest expression of the entire Rolex catalogue’s design ethos. It distils the two most representative innovations of the brand into a single watch, the waterproof Oyster case and the self-winding Perpetual movement, with a time-only dial and smooth bezel. Eric’s watch is the reference 1002 specifically, first launched in 1959 and remaining in continuous production until the 1980s, in seemingly endless combinations of case materials, dial colors, movements and bracelet styles.

This excellent example has a 34mm Oyster case and bracelet in stainless steel, which are both very likely unpolished. The original deep-blue high-gloss dial with a subtle, mosaic motif is practically pristine. Such a dial design on any Rolex is exceedingly rare and also known as a ‘Shantung’ dial, named after a type of silk fabric with rough, irregular surface textures historically woven in the province of Shandong, China. Sartorialists call this a ‘slubby’ texture that evokes a casual chic vibe from garments made of this fabric. Lume plots at each hour index are full and have aged to a consistent creamy yellow and the indexes and hands themselves seem to have been untouched by time. The only nit one might pick is the lume in the minute hand has darkened unevenly but that it a minor blemish.

Lot 100: Eric Wind’s Rolex Oyster Perpetual ref. 1002 with ‘Mosaic Shantung’ dial
Lot 100: Eric Wind’s Rolex Oyster Perpetual ref. 1002 with ‘Mosaic Shantung’ dial (image: Rago/Wright)

For its rarity, collectability, condition and easy wearability, this could very well be someone’s one watch collection and my overall pick of the auction. According to Eric, this is one of two mosaic/shantung dial Rolexes in his possession, the other is a Datejust and he decided he shouldn’t be greedy and let the Oyster Perpetual leave his collection for a good cause. What a guy.

To bid on Eric Wind’s sublime Oyster Perpetual, click here.

Final Thoughts

If you’ve been to enough watch enthusiast GTGs (get togethers), conversations invariably divert to nerded-out expositions of reference numbers and design variations and why one configuration trumps the other. For all intents and purposes, this hobby can very often delve into the insular and self-gratifying. Crucially, almost every timepiece in this auction served a practical or commemorative purpose in their owners’ lives. They were cherished for their utility instead of their collectability or market value, and each donor has given a piece of themselves to enrich the lives of others.

In the course of writing this article, I met three outstanding gentlemen whose passion for this project was unavoidably infectious. More importantly, they aim to continue supporting the Foundation far into the future. Maybe if us as enthusiasts and collectors could find a similar goal in the service of others, we just might be able to imbue these tiny inanimate objects with a greater sense of purpose.

To learn more about the Brian LaViolette Scholarship Foundation, visit https://www.briansjourney.com/#home-section

The Watches auction by Rago/Wright will begin at 11am CT on 30 November. 100 percent of the profits from only lots 100 – 148 will directly benefit the Foundation and you can view all 175 lots here and here.

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