For esteemed author, adventure travel writer, outdoor gear expert, diver, and watch aficionado Jason Heaton – who you may know as one half of the Grey NATO podcast team – direct action was the way to go when it came to helping a charity near and dear to his heart.
As a prolific diver and a traveler, Heaton has found himself deeply enchanted with Sri Lanka over the years; his wife hails from the island country in South Asia and it’s become an adopted second home for Heaton, who loves its culture and the incredible diving and nature it offers. Sadly, Sri Lanka recently experienced an economic collapse which has created fuel shortages, power outages, scarcity of medicines, and major food shortages. This has made feeding school kids lunch on a regular basis nearly impossible for the majority of Sri Lankan schools. However, grassroots fundraising efforts have been started to provide lunches for these kids on a regional level, and one such initiative was started by Heaton’s friend, Sri Lankan journalist Tina Edward Gunawardhana. The organization is known as the Nugegoda Children’s Meals Club and benefits five schools around Nugegoda, a densely populated suburb of the Sri Lankan capital city, Colombo. Heaton asked himself what he could do to help, and a special Doxa diving watch that he owned and loved, but has worn increasingly less over the years, came to mind. Heaton made the decision to auction the watch off on his Instagram page and donate all of the proceeds from its sale to the charity his friend had started.
Craft + Tailored’s CEO Cameron Barr is not only a major Doxa fan with a compulsion to buy cool tool watches under normal circumstances, but was particularly touched by the charity the watch’s sale benefited. Barr explains “I’ve been a fan of vintage Doxa for a long time and really like modern Doxa — to the point that I’ve even reached out to the brand to carry them for C + T — but they unfortunately have an exclusive distribution deal right now. Regardless, I’ve wanted to add a modern Doxa to my own collection that I could really use, but one that really celebrates the heritage of the brand. I’ve also always been inspired by Jason and his approach to the world really resonates with me because he really goes out and does the things these watches were designed to do; he’s really passionate and is the real deal. So between wanting a modern Doxa, this one being so unique, and it being a watch that Jason’s used and really taken to its limits, it was an appealing buy already. Beyond that, the fact that the sale of the watch was going to benefit such a great charity and one that was so important to Jason made it an easy sale for me.”
The watch in question is an unnumbered pre-production prototype of the limited re-edition of the Sub 300T Divingstar, which was co-branded with legendary Swedish diving gear manufacturer Poseidon. Heaton was given the watch by Doxa to put it through its paces underwater and make sure everything checked out before the dive-specialist marque went ahead with production of the 500 re-edition pieces. Original Poseidon co-signed Divingstars are unbelievably rare watches and were only produced for a brief period in the early 1970s, and are an incredibly hot ticket for Doxa collectors, so this relatively faithful 2018 re-edition was a huge success. Ultimately, the allure of diving watches to collectors has more to do with their rugged functionality and the innovative features than their aesthetic, but the bright yellow dial on the Divingstar gives it a unique appeal unlike any other dive watch. And there’s nothing more intoxicating in the world of dive watches than one that’s been used for the task it was intended for. In the case of Heaton’s prototype, it accompanied him on many excursions to the depths off the coasts of Sri Lanka.
While Barr almost ended up with the high bid, a fellow collector named Don Harris (@dundee63 on IG) just barely beat Cam to the punch. However, Harris did something incredibly unexpected and reached out to Barr with an offer. Harris says “When I saw it was to benefit hungry kids, it tugged at my heart strings. I like charity auctions, and while some see them as a chance to get an item cheap, I’ve always felt the spirit of an auction is to get the most possible for the charity. So I always bid as high as I’m comfortable. When I saw Cam was so close to my bid, I thought we had a rare chance to double the amount raised, so after winning the watch, I offered to donate it to Cam if he wanted to join forces and both donate our high bids. He agreed!”
Together, Barr and Harris’ double bidding (and the contributions of a few others) contributed $11, 140 to Heaton’s initiative for the Nugegoda Children’s Meals Club. After the bidding ended and everything was settled, we checked in with Jason Heaton to explore Doxa’s great history from his perspective as a diver and watch aficionado, his love of Sri Lanka, and to find out a bit more about the Nugegoda Children’s Meals Club.
Could you tell us a little bit about this particular Doxa and what makes it special beyond being an unnumbered prototype?
They only made 500 and this was not one of the 500 because it was actually a pre-run piece. I’m friends with Rick Marei, who ran the Doxa line for a number of years. Rick was the guy who revived the brand back in the early aughts and was one of the pioneers of selling higher end watches online. It seemed like every time he would cook up some new version of a Doxa, he would send me a prototype and say “Hey, can you take this one diving and test it out, and see what you think?” This watch was one of those prototypes and it was a collaboration that they had done with Poseidon, which is a Swedish dive gear company, back in the early ‘70s. You’d be extremely hard-pressed to find an original one, where they put the Poseidon logo on the dial and sold it exclusively through dive shops and gear outlets. So not only was that rare with the Poseidon logo on it, but back in-the-day, they just didn’t make a lot of Divingstars with yellow dials; it’s probably the rarest version of a vintage Doxa and when they released this re-edition in 2018, I’m not even sure that Doxa had a Divingstar in the standard lineup at that time – let alone a co-signed one.
There’s a cult following for co-branded watches in general these days, as you know with the Rolexes with Domino’s Pizza dials or Tiffany dial watches and weird stuff like that, and this is just another layer of that phenomenon and a really cool niche one in the world of diving watches.
Doxa is the brand that has the most tangible diving heritage of any manufacturer in my book. Between their relationship with Jacques Cousteau and the arrangements they had selling through dive shops. For the non-diver that buys a co-signed Doxa, it’s a pretty collectible watch to begin with, but for people that understand diving culture and Doxa’s place in it, it’s got an even deeper heritage.
Yeah, definitely. I think Doxas are kind of a nerd collectible to begin with because they don’t have the most accessible aesthetic in terms of just a watch that a person might casually walk up to and buy because it has all of these very specific dive related features to it. Admittedly, when I first got into watches and started visiting watch forums back in the mid-2000, I just didn’t get Doxa. I was like ‘What is it about this weird, kind of ugly duckling watch that people like?’ But once it clicked, I couldn’t get enough of them and I think they’re so cool because anything that’s so purpose-built is appealing – no matter what the sport or what the piece of gear is. I like when something is designed very specifically with a purpose from the outset. Things on the Doxa that really represent that is its almost dwarf hour hand that is almost vestigial because when you’re diving, the hours doesn’t don’t matter, but it’s got a giant minute hand. It has tons of lume and it’s got a dual scale bezel and that’s hyper grippy, so you can still adjust it with gloves underwater. And then back in the day, they came with an expanding bracelet and ultimately, they were building this watch for really only one person, and that was someone who would take it underwater.
Nowadays, not many people do that, which makes it kind of fun to go back and collect Doxa divers because even if you’re not going to take it underwater, you can still appreciate these features that made this watch so unique, and you can go a level deeper with this example because it’s been co-branded with the Posiedon logo, which is also a pretty niche brand – even in terms of dive equipment. Poseidon is a Swedish company that’s been around a very long time and is very well respected, but their specialty has always been cold water diving and breathing regulators that are adapted so they don’t freeze up in cold water. They also always made really heavy duty wet and dry suits for diving in cold water. So to combine the Doxa weirdness and mystique with a very niche brand like Poseidon, I think makes this watch really special and unique, and appealing to both divers and those that just appreciate what these watches were built for and their purposeful design.
You dove with the watch a lot in order to test it and consult on it. Were there any particularly memorable dives it accompanied you on?
Both my wife and I wore it a lot; she’s from Sri Lanka and she wore it on a trip that we did back there around 2019, and she wore it quite a bit on that trip. Previous to that, I had taken it diving to Bonaire the most, which is where most of my photos of the watch were taken. I can’t remember anything specific about a particular dive other than that place being one of my favorite places to go and dive, and it lends itself really well to underwater photos because its waters are very calm, the water’s warm, and it’s very clear, and was wearing a Poseidon dive mask then which saw a lot of use and has since disintegrated. I can’t say I wore this watch exploring a virgin shipwreck that I discovered or treasure hunting or something like that, but I wore quite a bit actually and I really like this watch.
It’s based on the 300T model, so it has the slightly chunkier case the Sub 300 – which has a thinner case based on the earliest Doxas. So this has that thicker case and it’s a burlier watch in general, and it has a helium release valve on it. So design wise, this watch is squarely in the early ‘70s and not based on the really early ones.
You’re married to a Sri Lankan and you spend a lot of time there. Can you tell us why Sri Lanka is so special to you, both on a human level and as a diver?
Sri Lanka ticks a lot of boxes for me because it’s a long way away – it’s literally 12 time zones away, depending on what time of year it is – so just the journey there, you feel like you’re doing something significant when you go there. The country has incredible history, but also this incredible variety of landscapes and things to do; herds of wild elephants and leopards in the jungle. They have mountains in the central part of the country that get up to 9,000 feet and it’s a very famous place for growing tea. Of course they have incredible beaches and the ocean, and then they have all these ancient Buddhist ruins. But it also has a huge metropolis with nightlife and a very diverse population. So, it’s one of these places that has something for everyone, whether you’re into history or beaches or hiking in the mountains or diving, it’s kind of got it all. What also appeals to me is there’s this interesting colonial past to Sri Lanka, where first the Portuguese were the occupiers there, and then the Dutch took over from them, and then for a very long time, and it was part of the British East India Company, which is where that tea culture came about. So you get this mix of cuisines and even the architecture, where you get these Colonial-era, very British and stately-looking manor houses up in the tea country and some of the big hotels down near the beach, and I just love that eclectic mix of cultures and variety of things to do.
Sri Lanka also has a really rich history in diving. The science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey among many other books, and he was a Brit who ended up moving to Sri Lanka back in the ‘50s because he fell in love with the scuba diving there. Clarke was one of the pioneers of diving in Sri Lanka, along with another guy that was ex-British Royal Navy, and the two of them discovered one of the most significant shipwrecks full of silver ever! It had giant lumps of silver coins that were almost welded together from the corrosion over hundreds of years. Some of it’s in the Smithsonian now. Then there’s a lot of World War II shipwrecks and when World War II was raging, Sri Lanka was a British colony and the Japanese bombed a good part of Sri Lanka and sunk a good number of ships offshore, so there’s some great shipwreck diving. It also has one of the world’s densest populations of sperm whales and blue whales, which are endemic to that area. So it’s really just such a rich place for anybody that’s into history or wildlife.
The charity that the sale of this watch benefits is the Nugegoda Children’s Meals Club, which provides meals for children in Sri Lankan schools. Can you tell us about the charity and why it’s such an important one for you?
Nugegoda is a suburb of the capital city of Colombo, and it happens to be where my wife’s parents live. This charity was set up by an old school friend of my wife named Tina Edward Gunawardhana, and Tina lives half the year in London and half the year near Nugegoda. She’s a journalist and writes for one of the big Sri Lankan papers and one of their magazines. There was an economic collapse in Sri Lanka recently, largely due to corruption and mismanagement of funds by the government. People weren’t just unable to afford food, it couldn’t be imported because there was no foreign currency to pay for imports. So everyday working people were going without and you heard stories about parents who were foregoing their own meals to feed their children, and Tina selected five schools in Nugegoda (Nugegoda Tamil Vidyalaya, Revatha Vidyalaya, Wijeyrama Vidyalaya, Sunethradevi Girls School, Mahinda Special School) to try to help. We’d love to be able to do this across the entire country, but this was a grassroots, kind of local effort. So Tina and her partners selected five schools where kids were not getting lunch in the middle of the day, and by raising funds, they were able to start providing lunches one day a week per school for the students in those schools. When I heard about the initiative, I started donating like a hundred bucks whenever I could, which goes a reasonably long way given the currency exchange there. But then I thought ‘Why don’t I just auction off this watch that was special to me, but I don’t wear very much anymore?’ The Doxa is a pretty special piece, but my expectations for it based on the used market was maybe $2,500. I was just shocked by the response to the auction and when the final winnings came in and Cam [Barr, Craft + Tailored CEO] essentially doubled the high bid, we ended up with over $11,000, which goes an incredibly long way towards feeding these kids.
I heard from Tina last week and she said that they’ve taken that money and allocated it for the Monday lunches at five schools, which feeds 477 kids for 40 weeks worth of Mondays. That’s a pretty amazing effort. It’s a sad commentary that we can’t do every day of the week for these kids yet; school kids going without lunch is just a terrible, terrible scenario. We could all pull our hair out and go crazy thinking about the economics of our lifestyles, where you don’t even think that buying something mundane on Amazon would feed a kid for like a month in a place like this. You could go crazy thinking like that. But it is nice to make a big effort and do something like this when you can, and this one was really satisfying for me.
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