Hubert Burda Media

Celebrity scandals in the watches arena

There’s no such thing as bad publicity. But is this true of brands when their timepieces become the focal point? 

John Mayer. Rafael Nadal. Jay Z. Bernie Ecclestone. These are just some of the famous names that have been embroiled in controversies and scandals involving luxury wristwatches in recent years: Lawsuits, thefts, allegations of bribery and contentious ads. That’s not to mention the scores of public figures — politicians, religious leaders, government officials — who have found themselves in hot soup for wearing timepieces beyond their perceived means.

Blame it on the explosive growth of the luxury watch industry over the last 15 years. This, combined with the rise of social media and a growing hostility towards the one percent by groups such as Occupy Wall Street, has meant short fuses and an army of eagle-eyed netizens waiting to pounce on public figures as soon as they trip up. In this case, by flaunting their riches on their wrists.

Most of the discontent is directed towards the personalities rather than the luxury watch brands themselves. On the contrary, such incidents have given the brands free press, particularly if they are long drawn-out affairs or involve major celebrities. As Daniel Malins, publisher of UK watch magazine WatchPro, observes: “The negative PR surrounding such scandals for brands is far outweighed by the value of getting its name on the front pages of the national press. Who at Parmigiani wasn’t wearing a broad smile when the Fifa gifting episode was unfolding? Which bigwigs at Richard Mille weren’t grinning like a Cheshire cat when news corporations were revealing the value of its RM 52-01, as worn by Putin’s right-hand man?”

Indeed. In a world of information overload, perhaps only a nationwide or global scandal can seize the attention of the public, or at least, a non-watch-loving public. Here are some of the most interesting, dramatic, controversial and even entertaining episodes involving luxury wristwatches in the last decade.


Celebrity: Rafael Nadal
Watch: Richard Mille
Year: 2008-2012

Spanish tennis sensation Rafael Nadal and ultra-luxury watchmaker Richard Mille have been collaborating since 2010 and their partnership has spawned a number of timepieces that are exceptionally lightweight, robust and shockproof. On the flip side, Nadal’s worldwide fame has also cast the spotlight on Mille’s costly creations — they tend to be in the six-figure range — making him a prime target for thievery. Two of his watches were in fact stolen: A custom-built wrist machine worth US$525,000 that went missing from the locker room during a 2008 match at the Rogers Cup in Toronto and never recovered; and a RM 027 Tourbillon (worth $376,000) that was lifted from his Paris hotel suite during the 2012 French Open. Fortunately, that piece was recovered after the police tracked down the magnetic keycard that was used to enter Nadal’s room. The perpetrator? The hotel’s barman. But that was not the last of it. The tennis champion would have lost a third watch had it not been for American doubles specialist Eric Butorac, who found Nadal’s ticker lying on a bench in a Cincinnati locker room and returned it. “I remember holding it and thinking: ‘Wow, this is worth more than my career prize money,’” Butorac told the Wall Street Journal.


Celebrity: Dmitry Peskov
Watch: Richard Mille
Year: 2015

You would think that politicians would know better than to flaunt their wealth in public, less they face a public backlash. Yet time and time again, statesmen from around the world find themselves in hot soup for allegations of graft. Often, a luxury watch is involved. One recent case involved Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov, who was seen sporting a limited edition Richard Mille RM 52-01 at his high-profile wedding to former Olympic champion figure skater Tatyana Navka. The titanium-cased watch with its iconic skull motif in red gold was reportedly worth almost £400,000, prompting anti-corruption crusader and opposition leader Alexei Navalny to remark on his blog: “Where could the head of state’s press secretary get a watch worth four times his annual income?” In 2014, Peskov reported an income of 9,184,358 rubles (about S$217,124). In a retort to Russian media, he claimed the watch was a gift from his wife, who paid it out of her own pocket. Given the Russian penchant for bling, we are certain this will not be the last we hear of such an incident.


Celebrity: Jay Z
Watch: Hublot
Year: 2013

Hip-hop mogul Jay Z’s affinity for watches — especially Hublot tickers — is legendary, but in 2013, the rapper came under fire for gifting a limited edition Hublot to Yankees baseball player Robinson Canó. The offending timepiece, a US$34,000 Shawn Carter Classic Fusion in 3N yellow gold, one of only 100 pieces made, was presented to Cano as he celebrated his 31st birthday in Belgium. What complicated matters was the fact that Carter manages Canó through his boutique athlete agency Roc Nation Sports. The Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) did not take the issue lightly; its regulations state “No Player Agent or Applicant shall provide, cause to be provided or promise to provide, any money or any other thing of value to any player, or any person related to or associated with such player, the purpose of which is to induce or encourage such player to use or continue to use any person’s or firm’s services.” An investigation was launched, but did not find Canó to be in violation of its rules, so he was allowed to keep the watch.


Celebrity: Patriarch Kirill I
Watch: Breguet
Year: 2009

In an era where images have the potential to go viral within seconds and are subject to intense scrutiny by netizens, the potential for faux pas to occur is extremely high. Take the case of Patriarch Kirill I, leader of the Russian Orthodox Church. In 2009, a picture of him sitting at a table emerged on the church’s website. Sounds innocuous enough, until one eagle-eyed Russian blogger noticed the highly polished surface of the table clearly showed the Patriarch wearing a watch, although his wrist was mysteriously sheathed in a black sleeve. The timepiece in question turned out to be a Breguet Le Réveil du Tsar — worth an estimated US$30,000 — that had been hastily Photoshopped out of the picture. Faced with the shame of deception, the church removed the doctored photo, calling the issue a “technical mistake” and putting the blame on photo editors in its press service. We think the controversy could have been avoided altogether, had the photo editors simply left the watch on the Patriarch’s wrist; after all, Breguet did have close ties with Russia and the timepiece was a humble alarm watch, not a gem-encrusted confection. And if all else failed, the Patriarch could have claimed he needed the watch to rise in time for his morning prayers!


Celebrity: Felipe Massa
Watch: Richard Mille
Year: 2009

Five years into his collaboration with Richard Mille, Brazilian Formula 1 driver Felipe Massa suffered an almost fatal crash during the 2009 Hungarian Grand Prix when a piece of flying debris penetrated his visor and struck him above the eye, causing a skull fracture. Somewhat ironically — or perhaps not — Massa’s RM 006, equipped with a carbon nanofibre baseplate, survived unscathed. As the company’s website describes: “Carbon nanofibre…even survived a crash without any timing irregularities after F1 driver Felipe Massa lost a wheel during a race and crashed at high speeds wearing his RM 006. These results prompted Richard Mille to implement carbon nanofibre in next generation versions of the RM 002, 003, 004 and 008…” Should the description have been worded with more compassion, instead of referring to Massa as collateral damage?


Celebrity: Bernie Ecclestone
Watch: Hublot
Year: 2010

Rolex is currently Formula 1’s Official Timekeeper, but back in 2010, the throne belonged to Hublot. In December that year, F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone was attacked by a gang of marauders outside his company headquarters in Knightsbridge. The then-80-year-old billionaire and his Brazilian lawyer girlfriend Fabiana Flosi were ambushed by four men as they arrived at his office on a weekday night. The bandits kicked and punched the businessman before making off with £200,000 worth of items, including Ecclestone’s Hublot watch and a diamond ring. According to a police report, Ecclestone suffered “minor head injuries”, but that did not stop him from using his bruised and battered mug, complete with a blackened right eye, in a Hublot advertisement. The slogan read: “See what people will do for a Hublot”, which raised a storm of controversy over whether Ecclestone’s move was done in bad taste. We think it was, but at the same time cannot deny its ingenuity. Talk about making lemonade from lemons!


Celebrity: Aisha Buhari
Watch: Cartier
Year: 2015

Sometimes, a flashy watch worn at an inappropriate time is all it takes to draw ire from dissenters. In May 2015, Muhammadu Buhari became Nigeria’s head of state after a campaign denouncing corruption. He had carefully cultivated an image of himself as coming from a humble background, a man of the people, who even had to struggle to pay the registration fee to become a candidate-elect. All this was called to question when a photograph surfaced of Buhari’s wife, Aisha, showed her wearing a white gold, diamond-studded Cartier Baignoire Folle, estimated to cost about US$50,000 during his inauguration ceremony. Some reports in the local press leapt to her defense, saying the watch could have been a knock-off — and hence available for as little as $150 — although the more likely story is that Aisha is a successful businesswoman in her own right and therefore, could well afford to buy the watch. (She is a cosmetologist, beauty therapist and author). Judging by the dignified pose she assumed in that widely criticised photograph, we’d like to think so.


Celebrity: None
Watch: Parmigiani
Year: 2014

In the lead-up to the 2016 Rio Olympics, global headlines were dominated by corruption scandals involving the upper echelons of Brazil’s business community and government officials. But as many observers admit, corruption in the country is systemic and endemic. At the 2014 Fifa World Cup for instance, luxury Swiss watchmaker Parmigiani Fleurier was unwittingly embroiled in one such scandal. During a Fifa Congress in São Paulo, Brazil’s Football Association handed out goodie bags to officials containing Parmigiani timepieces. There was no mention of the model, although it was reported that 48 watches worth £16,344 each were distributed to the officials. Fifa’s ethics committee later retrieved all watches from the recipients, sold them and used the proceeds to fund grassroots football projects in Brazil. The incident turned out to be a rare win-win situation: The projects received funding while Parmigiani got its name associated with the world’s most widely viewed sporting event.


Celebrity: John Mayer
Watch: Rolex
Year: 2014–2015

In early 2014, singer/songwriter John Mayer, a well-known and passionate watch collector, suffered every aficionado’s worst nightmare: Upon sending some of his rare vintage Rolexes to a Rolex service centre, he was informed a number of pieces were not 100-percent authentic. Adding insult to injury was the fact that these watches were sold to him by his friend, reputed vintage watch dealer Robert “Bob” Maron. Mayer claimed he had spent about US$5 million with Maron over the years, so the faux pas was not taken lightly. In fact, Mayer slapped Maron with a civil lawsuit, claiming damages to the tune of $656,000 — the cost of the seven alleged fakes. However, a year later, Mayer made a complete U-turn and dropped the suit, releasing a joint statement with Maron that read: “Two years of research restored John Mayer’s belief that Bob Maron is an expert on Rolex watches and confirmed that Bob Maron never sold him a counterfeit watch.” What caused Mayer to rescind the suit remains a topic of speculation, because Rolex is known for its scrupulous authenticity reports. The lesson here? Caveat emptor.