BAR HARBOR — James Cox made national headlines after a watch he owned, once owned by Paul Newman, sold at auction for $17.8 million. He made local headlines last week because the story behind the watch began in Bar Harbor while he was a student at the College of the Atlantic.
Cox, now a resident of Santa Cruz, Calif., grew up outside of New York City. He told the Islander he applied to COA because the school had a good ornithology program, as he was interested in engineering and bird flight. He said he also had visited the University of Maine, but he couldn’t choose between engineering and biology.
“The small scale of it is what attracted me,” he said. The professors impressed him.
“Even as an 18- or 19-year-old punk, I trusted them.”
Cox lauded COA’s unique human ecology degree, saying that the broad range of coursework gave him insights into how nature and humans coexist.
No two students study human ecology the same way, as students largely create their own coursework and there are few required courses.
Cox’s coursework inspired him to look to nature when engineering new products.
“I was fascinated in looking at nature in design, like looking at a dolphin to develop a propeller,” Cox said. “Why study birds without studying people and birds?”
During his time at COA, he met Nell Potts, whom he recalled as a “super hot blonde that looked like trouble.” The pair began dating shortly into their first semester in 1983. Little did he know at the time, her real name was Nell Newman, and she was the daughter of actor Paul Newman.
“She and I were courting before I knew,” Cox said. “We were having dinner at the Turrets, and she pulled out the [Newman’s Own] salad dressing, and I said that I met Paul at a race when I was 15, and everyone around us started laughing.
“It was almost like I was the last to know,” he added.
He and Nell moved off campus the next semester. Cox said that the two lived in a teepee on a plot of land that they purchased during one summer.
Cox said that he and Nell had a romantic notion of returning to the land, which he still owns, but they have not been back.
In 1984, Paul Newman asked Cox for the time while they were building a tree house. Cox said that he didn’t have a watch. The story goes that Newman later handed him his watch, a Rolex Cosmograph Daytona.
The watch had been a gift to Paul Newman from his wife, Joanne Woodward. It was engraved to commemorate his newest hobby of auto racing: “Drive carefully. Me.”
Cox knew that the watch was special; after all, it was a Rolex. He said that he wore it for six or seven years straight. It wasn’t as gaudy as some expensive watches could be, so it flew under the radar at COA.
“It was sentimental at the time,” Cox said. “No one really paid much attention to it.”
Cox said that he fondly remembers his guitar classes with Millard Dority, the current head of public safety at COA, and cooking and hiking with Lilea Simis, now an owner of the Town Hill Market. He said he enjoyed the sense of community in Bar Harbor, where the students and the locals meshed in a unique way.
“It was always fun to watch the local Bar Harbor people interact with the students,” he said. “It was a funny universe to integrate, and the local Maine people were so awesome, [they] took us in, as freaky and foreign as we were.”
Cox graduated from COA in 1987. Five years later, he started the company TerraPax, a sustainable carrying bag company. He said that while working at The North Face, he learned that the process of manufacturing bags and tents was very harsh on the environment. He started his company to address that problem.
TerraPax uses materials selected for “their sustainability and minimum dependence on petrochemicals; their ability to be reaped for generations with little or no detrimental effects to the ecosystem,” according to the company’s website. Cox said the idea was slightly ahead of its time, but now the concept of sustainable fashion is “en vogue.”
He sold the company in 2002 but remains an adviser. He said that the products are very popular in Japan but have yet to catch on in the United States.
He is currently the CEO of MethodSeven, a manufacturer of optics for indoor agriculture and aviation. With the help of German scientists, he developed a product that alters the spectrum of the harsh, yellow light of “grow-lamps” to make colors appear normally. He later developed glasses for pilots to enhance their vision under different conditions and protect them from infrared rays.
“It was a small, weird niche, but it was a home run,” he said.
When Paul Newman died in 2008, Cox began receiving offers for the watch from the few people who knew he had it. One offer was for $1 million, but he declined.
“The watch has a magic thing about it,” he said. “It’s been on so many movie sets, been to so many races, but it’s also been to class at COA.”
“The watch community is nuts about it, the racing community loves it because he raced, and Hollywood loves it because it’s a love story,” Cox added.
He put the watch in a safe-deposit box. He consulted with Nell. The pair stopped dating in 1993, but remain good friends. She agreed that something should be done with it, but they wanted to get the timing right. The market did not agree with the sale of the watch until this year. Cox credits the watch’s sale price to an explosion in the watch market.
In October, the watch sold for a record-breaking price. The recent influx of money, Cox said, is an incredible responsibility rather than a stroke of luck.
“People who won the lottery feel lucky,” Cox said. “I feel like a steward of the watch, and it has a moral compass in it.”
Cox said that he will use some of the proceeds of the watch to help The Nell Newman Foundation, for which he is the treasurer. But rather than a large single donation, he is working with financial advisers to invest the money so that he can give more over time.
“[Being] as cool as Paul Newman isn’t about being a movie star,” he said. “It’s about doing the right thing, and his good fortune was about that.”