It’s about time; Kaua‘i watches set for world stage

Hawai‘i’s only watch label is about to get some face time with the big boys.

Research-scientist-turned-watch-designer Dr. John Patterson flies to Switzerland today to exhibit his Bathys Hawai‘i Watch Company creations at Baselworld, the watch and jewelry industry’s largest trade show. The watches will be on display alongside such iconic brands as Omega, TAG Heuer and Rolex.

Patterson has been private label manufacturing his line of wristwear for the past two years. After designing the details of each timepiece in his Kapa‘a studio he works hand in hand with a team of technicians in the heart of Switzerland’s predominant watchmaking region to bring his vision to life.

One of the brand’s signature features is a chart of the Hawaiian Islands engraved on each caseback.

“No one has ever done anything like this in Hawai‘i,” said Patterson.

Nearly 100,000 retailers and wholesalers from around the world are slated to attend this week’s show. Patterson hopes to connect with retail distributors who could turn Bathys into a global phenomenon.

He’ll also finally get to meet the people who have been building his watches. The unique collaboration between Patterson and the Swiss watchmaking company takes place almost exclusively via the Internet.

“It’s interesting. I’ve never met the guys I work with,” said Patterson. “It’s been e-mail, instant messaging. I’ll finally be meeting them.”

The fact that Patterson was even invited to participate at the exclusive industry event suggests that the Bathys brand may have arrived. The event features just 300 watch vendors, the vast majority of which hail from Europe and Asia. A small, relatively new American brand showing at Baselworld is uncommon, so much so that Patterson, anticipating a snub, decided to implement his own bit of guerrilla marketing at the show by inviting industry players to a “Hawaiian Hukilau” party at a private Basel club. Though the Baselworld invite eventually came, Patterson said the party will go on, complete with sushi, mai tais and traditional hula performed by a Swiss halau established by Ka ‘Imi Na‘auao O Hawai‘i Nei founder Roselle Bailey.

Patterson’s space at the exhibition hall will echo the islands as well. While some brands use fighter jets and saltwater fish tanks to bring attention to their wares, Patterson will decorate Bathys’ space with replicas of traditional Hawaiian weapons and a four-foot tall, hand-carved ki‘i (tiki) by a local artist.

“I had to come up with something attractive, affordable and that looked right with the watches,” said Patterson.

Bathys may be a new player in the watch game, but the company is already creating a buzz, thanks in large part to watch aficionado forums on the Internet. One French watch publication recently called Bathys the industry’s “nouvelle star.”

The company’s name (pronounced BATH-is) derives from the Greek word meaning “deep,” a name that suggests a rugged timepiece that can survive island life. Patterson said his watches can take a beating and all are water resistant to 660 feet.

“My watches are designed to work regardless of the amount of abuse they have to take,” Patterson states on Bathys’ Web site. “In Hawai‘i you might be at 13,000 feet up Mauna Kea one day and 100 feet underwater the next. There aren’t many places on earth where such extremes are a routine part of life.”

Patterson said his affinity for watches can be traced back to his childhood. His father, a budding TV journalist in 1968, covered the aftermath of the Martin Luther King, Jr. assassination for NBC radio. With his $175 paycheck he purchased a Rolex.

“I always use to see that watch when I was growing up,” said Patterson. “I saw it as a symbol of manhood and success.”

As a teen, Patterson worked in a watch shop doing repairs and learning what made a quality watch tick.

In 1999, Patterson was living in Chicago with his wife and child but doing aquaculture research off the Big Island for months at a time. Like many Mainlanders before him, he fell in love with Hawai‘i and began to devise a plan to relocate. The strategy included leaving research science for a career more conducive to island life.

Patterson said he rarely wore his favorite watch, a Rolex, when he worked, for fear it would get damaged. That’s when he realized the watch market’s dearth of tough, quality watches made for everyday wear.

In 2005, Patterson moved to Kaua‘i and began designing the Bathys 100 Fathom.

“I wanted something Captain Nemo would wear in the 21st century. Something tough and cool, but not too outrageous,” said Patterson.

Though he could have had his watches made significantly cheaper in China, Patterson said, he never looked to anyone but the Swiss to build his dream. He found a company willing to work with him on the unique venture and the first prototypes were shipped to Hawai‘i for field testing and refinement. Patterson sent two watches to his fish farm friends on the Big Island. They wore them as they went about their duties, and even left one secured to a fish cage 120 feet underwater for three weeks. Aside from a little algae growth, the watch kept on ticking, and is still worn by Patterson’s pal today.

The first batch of Bathys’ Quartz 100 Fathom watches debuted in late 2005. Sales started slow until a positive review on a popular watch Web site stirred interest. Forty-six watch orders came in immediately following the posting.

“It’s felt great. Like I was on the right track,” said Patterson.

More than 700 Bathys watches have now been sold. The current generation of 100 Fathom quartz and automatic mechanical watches retail for $395 and $795 locally at Grande’s Gems & Gallery locations and online at bathyswatch.com.

Patterson said he will unveil two new Bathys models at Baselworld; a variation on the 100 Fathom called the “AquaCulture” and the company’s first dive watch with unidirectional rotating bezel called “The Benthic.” Both will be available to the public later this summer.

Up next for Bathys is a mid-size version of his 100 Fathom series designed for women and a new creation called “The Pelagic.”

Regardless of what transpires in Basel, Patterson said his company will continue to offer watches that are comparable to luxury brands in quality without the luxury brand price tag.

“What the luxury market does is gouge you,” said Patterson. “The luxury concept is not part of our DNA.”

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