Of all the symbols of North Carolina, few remain as cherished, as esteemed, as magnified, as worthy of slapping on a license plate as the Wright Brothers’ airplane, flying over Kitty Hawk in 1903.
For this reason, I nearly gagged when I learned that a piece of that history – a small piece, yes, but still a piece – would be incorporated inside a limited-edition luxury watch now selling for upward of $25,000.
On the back side of this Bremont-brand Wright Flyer watch, between the rotor plate and the sapphire crystal window, lies a strip of muslin wing cloth from the original plane.
For what an Uber driver earns in a year, it could grace your wrist.
So here’s my knee-jerk reaction: Outrage!
How could anything the Wright Brothers touched be transformed into a prestige item for rich people?
I’m admittedly stubborn on this point, perhaps naively so. But aren’t a few things still beyond price, even in this era when ballparks are named for giant banks? Should Martin Luther King Jr.’s children really be able to hawk his Bible and Nobel Prize? Shouldn’t we be angry at The Clash for selling Jaguar the rights to “London Calling”?
I’ll calm down. There’s more to this story. Much of the money goes to historic preservation. But I’ll let you hear it from the people who are most involved.
First a refresher: Orville and Wilbur Wright notched the world’s first powered, manned, controlled flight on the Outer Banks in December 1903, having chosen Kitty Hawk partially for its barrier-island isolation, leaving them free to tinker in seclusion.
The 1903 plane spent several decades in London after that famous flight, then traveled to the Smithsonian Institution, but after Orville Wright’s death in 1948, the family discovered pieces of the original wing covering boxed up in an attic.
Neil Armstrong carried a piece to the moon, a nod to his fellow flight pioneer. Other pieces have gone to museums and as gifts. Larry Tise, a professor at East Carolina University who has written much about the Wrights, told me that Orville used to send pieces of it to the Outer Banks in exchange for plane parts that had been stolen.
In 2013, the Wright family licensed the brothers’ names and likenesses for use on consumer goods, citing the need to support the 6,000-square foot mansion where Orville lived in Dayton, Ohio. Doing so costs between $130,000 and $180,000 a year.
First news of the watch came last year, but I hadn’t heard of it till Monday, when a reader sent an advertisement he saw in Financial Times. I looked through the promotional materials online and found this quote from Amanda Wright Lane, Orville’s great-grandniece:
“The wing cloth from the 1903 Wright Flyer is considered almost priceless by some, but we felt Bremont’s passion for aviation heritage made them a suitable choice for this rare use of the cloth. The Bremont Wright Flyer is a stunning way to launch our brand in international markets and is sure to become one of the most valuable watches ever made.”
They’re magnificent watches, elegant and accurate. Bremont, a London-based company, has done this sort of thing before. Its limited edition watch “Codebreaker” contained artifacts from Bletchley Park, where German secret codes were cracked in World War II. Those proceeds went toward the park’s restoration – the same idea for the Wrights’ timepiece.
Natalie Keigher, Bremont’s international public relations manager, told me this about Bremont’s founders, pilots themselves:
“It has been a real dream come true to work with the Wright Family and to have discovered that this material even still existed. The watch in the flesh is truly stunning, and it is down to the priceless nature of the cloth and the materials and movement used in the watch.”
That combination, the company said, justifies the high price point.
She couldn’t tell me the percentage from the few hundred watches’ sale that will go toward preservation.
Then I spoke to Amanda Wright Lane, who very kindly fielded my questions. The Wright Family Foundation began with her father in the 1990s, she told me, and the whole idea for licensing the name was to keep control over it.
“(My father) knew Uncle Orville,” she said, “and he didn’t want Uncle Orville’s name to be used on a bottle of gin.”
The foundation supports many charities through grants, including those dedicated to aviation history. Along with Orville’s house, she said, the family hopes the money will go toward preserving factory buildings where the Wright Brothers worked.
She and her brother decided that this use of the cloth would be a one-time happening, and that it should come at the hands of a company passionate about aviation history. She isn’t sure how much cloth remains because different family members have it, and it is sometimes given in thanks for donations.
“As long as we weren’t completely taking away a priceless artifact,” she said. “If it could help bring awareness to the story and help entities that were really working hard. ... It is a very heavy mantle to carry and a wonderful mantle to carry. Believe me, we don’t take these decisions lightly.”
I felt more sympathetic after we spoke. I know from my own family’s experience how costly and headache-inducing it can be to save even a minor artifact. For items of true historical import, well, consider how we’ve cut the governmental budgets that used to fund those projects and then tell the Wright family they’re wrong.
Still, if I see you wearing one of those watches, I’m going to throw a paper airplane at your eye.
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