There are three people in a small boat - a doctor, a teacher and a watchmaker. The boat is overloaded and none will survive unless one of the trio gives up his life to save the others. So who should be sacrificed? Anyone with a mobile phone, a mild touch of hypochondria and kids will not hesitate for a second - the watchmaker gets dumped. Who needs him? For the last 12 months the world's watchmakers must have felt like a similar sense of superfluousness. As the US and European economies contracted people abandoned watch stores like aristocrats leaving the Titanic. Exports of Swiss timepieces sank 26 per cent worldwide in the first nine months of this year, with the US and Russia recording death-plunge numbers of 42 and 59 per cent respectively. Were it not for sustained sales in Asia - especially Hong Kong - the Swiss watch-making industry would have taken its biggest hit since the 1970s when the digital watch was born. The first recession of the 21st century, cheap mobile phones with a watch function and the increased concentration of the world's population in cities, where clocks are everywhere, have reminded many potential customers that watches are a curiosity. We don't need them but they are coveted and for some they represent an irresistible adornment. Watch makers began adjusting to a new psychology in which customers purchase a watch because of what it says about them - not because it tells the time - almost a century ago. And an effective strategy has been to associate it with a desirable quality, like heroism, courage or sporting prowess. Rolex are the masters of sports marketing and they all but invented the concept in the form of a determined young swimmer called Mercedes Gleitze. On October 7, 1927 Gleitze (1900-1981), a London typist and part-time professional swimmer from Brighton, set off from France seeking to be the first woman to swim the English Channel. Fifteen hours and 15 minutes later she landed on the British coast after surviving hours of pain and exhaustion. Her trainer, G.H. Allan, had fed her grapes, honey, strong tea and cocoa from a support boat to help fight the cold. At the end of her swim she collapsed and remained unconscious for almost two hours. A few days later, On October 11, Mona McLennan claimed to have repeated Gleitze's feat in just over 13 hours. McLennan's record-breaking effort came too quickly to be believed and after days of questioning McLennan confessed that her swim had been a hoax and Gleitze's epic saga immediately fell under suspicion. Gleitze was not prepared to rest on tainted laurels so she immediately pledged to repeat her swim, on October 21. Just over a year previously Rolex had patented its famous Oyster, the world's first waterproof watch and they saw a golden opportunity in Gleitze's indomitable spirit. Hans Wilsdorf (the cofounder and managing director of Rolex) sent Gleitze a letter offering her an Oyster watch to be worn during the upcoming swim. In exchange, Gleitze would provide a written testimonial on the performance of the watch after the swim. Unlike more contemporary sporting heroes who have been associated with Rolex, like Roger Federer whom the brand poached from Maurice Lacroix in 2006, Gleitze did not see her association with the brand end in glory. The conditions in the water were brutal, with temperatures ranging from 11 to 14 degrees Celsius - a significant reduction from the near-16 degree temperatures she had 'enjoyed' during her previous endeavour. She was 10 hours and 24 minutes into her swim and seven miles short of her target when she was overcome with pain. As she sat in the boat, a journalist from the London Times who was on board made an incredible discovery and later wrote: 'Hanging round her neck by a riband on this swim, Miss Gleitze carried a small gold watch, which was found this evening to have kept good time throughout.' Later that same year Gleitze wrote a letter to Rolex saying 'You will like to hear that the Rolex Oyster watch I carried on my Channel swim proved itself a reliable and accurate timekeeping companion even though it was subjected to complete immersion for hours in sea water at a temp of not more than 14 and often as low as 10. This is to say nothing about the sustained buffeting it must have received. Not even the quick change to the high temp of the boat cabin when I was lifted from the water seemed to affect the even tenor of its movement.' In the years that followed Rolex developed branding relationships with world-class over-achievers from Tiger Woods to Sir Edmund Hillary and Ana Ivanovic to Diana Krall. And that worked well for Rolex and other brands until this year, when throwing bucket loads of cash at already very well paid A-type personalities began to feel a bit declasse, as least in North America. In a new world where the US is a client state of China, depending on its former adversary for perpetual forgiveness of debts it cannot pay, a new two-pronged approach has evolved. In the US and Europe watchmakers are looking to associate their brands with the earth's fragility and want to be seen as advocates of a new gentler approach to the environment and economic management. In 2008, Panerai, part of the Richemont group, announced a four-year collaboration with the South African explorer Mike Horn on a global expedition designed to demonstrate the environmental stresses facing the planet. Horn is wearing a Panerai Luminor 1950 Submersible Depth Gauge (which used to belong to Richemont chief executive Johan Rupert) as he visits some of the world's most inaccessible places. Rolex fans will recognise the tactic; Edmund Hillary wore a Rolex Explorer on his ascent of Mount Everest in 1953. And with any kind of desire for luxury under scrutiny in the post-banker bailout US watch brands want to have people think they are making a difference as well as something that some might see as anachronistic and self indulgent. 'All companies are saying they're doing something to save the earth or cure disease,' said Edie Weiner, president of Weiner, Edrich, Brown, a futurist consulting group based in the US told The New York Times. 'Companies who do it differently and smarter are actually the ones who solve the problems. Like being the company actually providing the mosquito nets.' None of the leading watch brands has yet created a chronograph with complications that include mosquito repellent and in China they have no need to do so. In this region the marketing strategy continues to have a pre-bailout edge. Big is good, huge is great and enormous is even better. In this market getting a celebrity on board remains a sure-fire strategy for success. When IWC opened its flagship store in Tsim Sha Tsui last month they brought along South Korean pop star Rain and French soccer legend Zinedine Zidane. In the east, for now, the bling also rises. At last month's launch party for Parmigiani's new sports watch, created in collaboration with the Italian yacht maker Pershing, watch fanciers were out in force much to the delight of Parmigiani's chief executive Jean-Marc Jacot. 'In Asia the client wants a watch that says something about his or her aspirations and achievements,' he said. 'Pershing is a perfect fit for us and Asia is the right market for its launch. There has been a seismic shift and Europe, as it first did 500 years ago, is looking to the East for its prosperity.'