Paul Newman’s Famous Watch Does The Environment Some Good
March 25, 2019
The article was originally published in Garden Culture Magazine UK26.
James Cox has felt an enormous weight of responsibility ever since selling his watch at auction a little over a year ago. He wants to care for others and do good things in the world, while also finding the right people with the drive and passion to inspire change. That’s no easy feat. A philanthropist with a keen interest in the environment, the foods we eat, and how we interact with nature, Cox doesn’t just blindly write cheques; he takes the time to make sure he’s doing it right.
The obligations he has are all thanks to his former watch. As you may have guessed by now, it wasn’t just any watch; it was world-famous actor Paul Newman’s Rolex Daytona, and in October 2017, it sold for the highest price ever achieved for a wristwatch at auction.
The Famous Watch
The Rolex was given to Newman in 1972 by his wife, actress Joanne Woodward. On the back of the watch, Woodward engraved a simple message to her race car-loving husband: Drive Carefully Me.
With one of the most bankable movie stars of the time constantly seen and photographed wearing it, the Rolex Daytona quickly became a sensation in the wristwatch world.
“Because Paul Newman was so cool, this watch he wore became so cool,” explains Cox. “It was the beginning of the vintage watch movement. You can trace it all back to Paul Newman, really.”
How Cox ended up being the proud owner of such a desired timepiece was a matter of two paths crossing at the College of Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine, in the 1980’s. A student of human ecology, Cox fell in love with a girl named Nell, who he eventually discovered was Paul Newman’s daughter.
The couple ended up dating for a decade, and during that time, Cox offered to restore a dilapidated treehouse on the Newman family property in Connecticut. Perhaps in a gesture of thanks, the Hollywood legend offered Cox his watch.
“He came over one day and said, ‘Hey, kid, do you know what time it is?’, And I said, ‘No, I don’t have a watch, Paul’” Cox remembers. “And he took the watch off his wrist and said, ‘If you remember to wind it, it tells pretty good time.’”
That’s where it all began. Cox wore the watch for the next 30 years, not knowing just how coveted the item on his wrist was and what an impact it was going to have on his life.
“Six or seven years ago, I realize my watch has its own Wikipedia page,” recalls Cox. “Only a handful of people knew I had it, and I just kept quiet. People kept offering me money, and I just kept saying no.”
Into the vault, the wristwatch went, but after a few years in the darkness, Cox couldn’t bear to keep it locked up anymore.
“I said, ‘I think it’s time.’ If Paul Newman were alive, he’d want me to sell it. He’d say, ‘Well, you’re not going to keep it, kid. You’re going to do something good with that.’”
And boy, did he ever do good.
That Moment When It Sells For Millions
On October 26th, 2017, the wristwatch went up for auction at the Phillips Auction House in New York City. It was introduced by Aurel Bacs, a senior consultant at Phillips, as, “The most iconic Rolex wristwatch in the world, and possibly, the most iconic wristwatch of the 20th century.”
Without further adieu, the bidding began. If you look up a video of the auction on YouTube, vintage watch collector or not, you can feel the excitement in the room as Cox and Nell Newman look on from the audience with nervous anticipation. After 12 minutes of intense bidding, Newman’s Rolex Daytona sold for a record $17.8 million, including the buyer’s premium. No other wristwatch in the world has ever sold for such a high price.
“It was so bizarre. Is this a dream?” Cox remembers thinking after the gavel dropped. “It really showed that we could honour Paul, and it proved that he is, indeed, the coolest.”
Cox has felt that weight of responsibility ever since.
“That was a gift, and I can’t fuck it up. I need to do the right thing,” he explains. “And so the right thing is to do what I learned from Paul, and that is to take care of people.”
On-screen, Paul Newman was a critically-acclaimed actor known for his dazzling blue eyes and handsome good looks. But off-screen, he was known for his devotion to his family, his sense of humour, and his philanthropic work. In 1982, he created the Newman’s Own salad dressing brand and famously declared, “Let’s give it all away.” Since then, more than $530 million has been donated to thousands of non-profit organizations around the world.
Wanting to continue Paul Newman’s legacy, Cox took a large portion of the money from the watch he sold at auction and donated it to The Nell Newman Foundation, an organization that couples charitable giving with Nell’s passion for the environment.
“Without a question, I’m giving the money away,” says Cox. “Money, to me, is the lowest form of energy on the planet. It’s super convenient, but when you think of all the other energy forms on the planet, it’s the lowest. I sound like a total hippie!”
Peace, Love, and the Environment
Hippie or not, Cox is in the process of doing some incredible things, all the while shedding light on significant issues. Take his work with Clean Oceans International (COI), for example. Cox is a primary funder of the organization working to solve the issue of plastic pollution in the world’s oceans. With the UN sounding the alarm that there will soon be more straws and bottles in the ocean than fish, the non-profit is sailing around the world with a machine on board that is capable of converting plastic into diesel, gasoline, or other petroleum products with a much smaller carbon footprint than how we do it now.
Designed by Eco-Fuel Technologies, the unit is clean and quiet. Conversion, done safely using electrical power, is made possible through thermal-depolymerization. The reason COI is converting plastic to fuel is that the organization believes it’s impossible to spark a multinational movement to clean the oceans without there being a way to generate some profit. Sad, but true.
Finding the right people to inspire change is key. Cox also saw enormous potential in Celine Cousteau, a documentary filmmaker and the granddaughter of world explorer, Jacques Cousteau. Tracing her grandfather’s footsteps, Cousteau travels the world and highlights major environmental issues along the way. A donation from Cox in her name helped her complete her most recent work, a documentary called Tribes on the Edge. The film highlights the plight of the Indigenous people of the Vale do Javari reserve in the Amazon. Past generations have thrived in the world’s largest rainforest, but with increased industrialization, human enterprise, and deforestation, the tribes are in trouble. Cousteau draws attention to illegal industries that have stripped the ecosystem and the people’s resources, and to their desperate need for healthcare as non-native hepatitis rates soar.
“My job is to make things snowball when a group of right people comes together,” Cox explains. “I can help you, I can give you a grant, and I can find another to match that and give you another grant. It’s exhausting, but in a great way.”
In Iceland, Cox is currently helping recruit the right experts and conservation groups to help educate the people on a proposed hydroelectric power plant in the Westfjords. It’s a controversial debate, with many conservationists warning that damming the river system will destroy much of the natural landscape in the area.
“I’ve fallen in love with Iceland because the people are beautiful and the climate is beautiful, and I’m so curious about the rapid change in our climate,” he says. “It’s happening all over the world, you can see it with rivers and migrations of people and droughts. If you go to the poles, there’s strong evidence.”
As an ecologist, Cox, himself, is analyzing whether the project makes sense for Iceland. He’s also working closely with photographer Ragnar Axelsson, who is taking photos of the area to draw attention to what will be lost if the project goes ahead. The point is to help the Icelandic people build the confidence needed to make good decisions for their future.
“Iceland is the heart of the planet, and if we hurt the heart, then we are hurting the whole planet,” he says.
Socially, Cox has funded organizations working with Aids orphans in Africa, and those helping young girls to get an education. He and the Nell Newman Foundation have also sponsored beautiful community murals in Watsonville, California, featuring migrant workers.
“We are painting murals to show them we care about them,” explains Cox. “Despite political pressures, we want them to know we know who is growing our food; we know who to thank.”
Santa Cruz-based graffiti artist Taylor Reinhold is also the mastermind behind a 50,000 sq ft mural that, at first glance, appears to be of various sea creatures. Look closer, and the figures are actually plastic materials and other garbage floating around in the sea. Through Reinhold’s artwork, Cox is hoping to reach broader and younger audiences with important messages.
Trying to save the world is exhausting work, indeed, but Cox says we all have the ability to contribute, even without millions of dollars worth of funding.
“Every single one of us has the opportunity to be as cool as Paul Newman; it’s just about making good choices,” he explains. “Generosity is just about doing the right thing. I think buying organic food is being philanthropic because you’re supporting the good people who grew it.”
Ecologist, Philanthropist, and Businessman
A typical day for Cox has him out of bed by 6 a.m. so he can spend about two hours reading news headlines from around the world and catching up on his emails. He generally works on his philanthropic projects every afternoon, reserving his mornings for his successful company, Method Seven. He fully admits he’s working on about six businesses or projects and that each one should be its own full-time gig.
Method Seven was launched in 2011 and specializes in designing grow room glasses and sunglasses for pilots uses leading-edge technology. The company came to be after Cox’s friend and business partner expressed having difficulty taking pictures in indoor grow rooms. Cox says many of the growers he knew at the time were sparing their eyes and taking clippings from their grow rooms to see if it was time for harvest. He decided he wanted to find a way to balance the bright lights, making the environment safer and more comfortable.
— Method Seven (@MethodSeven) April 28, 2016
“Business is the most influential means of change, but nature the most civilized model of business,” he says. “Stop fighting nature, and look at it for inspiration and common sense. You will find the answers there. Those have been my guiding principals all my life.”
Following those principals, Cox found a former glass chemist in Germany and discovered that making grow rooms safer was possible, but that he had to make his own glass by melting seven different elements from the Earth into the lens. After a couple of years of work and a lot of money spent, they finally hit a home run.
“Soon after, we discovered all of these added benefits of this glass. There were people who used to get seizures when they went near grow rooms, and they stopped getting them,” Cox says. “[The lens] is blocking a lot of energy that strobes from those lights. It was also blocking out a lot of red heat, which causes fatigue amongst growers. There was a lot more going on than we thought.”
Today, Method Seven makes lenses adapted to all kinds of lights, and the growers who wear them say they no longer see spots after leaving their grow rooms.
“The cool kids that grow are the visionaries […] and we’re helping them do their jobs,” Cox says. “It’s the same thing for the pilots.”
The idea for making sunglasses for pilots came when the German glass chemist Cox worked with mentioned creating a similar kind of glass for the fighter jet cockpits during WWII.
“What the pilots experience at 30,000 ft is similar to what someone growing weed in his basement does,” he says. “The two worlds couldn’t be more different, but they certainly aren’t far apart. We are really on the edge of those two different worlds right now, and it’s nice to see them accepting each other because that wouldn’t have happened 10 years ago.”
He credits Method Seven as a way to reach into communities and meet people; he first met the man sailing around the world collecting plastic for diesel conversion by making sunglasses for him. He says his business is a tool to get good things done, and Paul Newman’s watch was a way to open doors.
With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility
It has been a whirlwind for Cox since selling the watch at auction a little over a year ago, but you can tell he wouldn’t have it any other way. Looking back, he tells me a story about the morning after the auction once the dust had settled.
“I remember walking 40 blocks through Central Park and New York City, and I went to Paul’s apartment where Joanne Woodward was staying. I sat with her for a couple of hours and told her what happened and how beautiful it was. That was as cool as the whole night before, and that’s what Paul would have wanted.”
She, after all, is a big part of this story too. Nobody could have possibly imagined the frenzy she was going to put in motion by purchasing the Rolex Daytona for her husband and engraving it with a simple message.
Cox describes the moment he was given the watch in a backyard in Connecticut as a windfall; one that would present him with opportunities only made possible by Newman and the life that he lived. And despite all of his own accomplishments and philanthropic efforts, Cox remains humble as hell.
“I’m no hero,” he says. “I just had a good one as a role model.”