There are three chapters in this story. The first involves a young man, who left a very successful finance company he founded to answer an inner calling of a life working with animals. The second involves another, who upon being struck by career consternation, took a leap of faith to establish a brand of his own. And the third is where their paths converge.
The legion of followers across Dean Schneider’s social media platforms — 10 million on Instagram, another 10 million on TikTok, 8.8 million on YouTube and 2.2 million on Facebook — underlines the massive influence he wields in the realm of wildlife conservation. His popularity is a phenomenon only comparable to the heyday of Australian “Crocodile Hunter” Steve Irwin, whom he idolised as a child. But being born and raised in Zurich, the Swiss native’s exposure to wildlife was very limited. Besides, job prospects in the field were scarce in the city.
“It was just not easy for me to go down that path so I ended up in the finance industry,” says Schneider on a recent trip to Kuala Lumpur. “I was very fortunate to achieve quite a lot at a young age. In fact, I attained what a lot of people strive for their entire lives — financial freedom, where if you wanted to buy a car or a watch, you could. And I did all of that and realised all of these material things lose their emotional value over time.”
He wanted to channel his energy, abilities and skills into something with a higher purpose and meaning, and looked within to realise it was the plight of animals that stirred him. In the following years, he flitted from country to country in search of land to set up a sanctuary and finally found the perfect place on another continent.
“It took me two, three years for that idea to evolve and over 10 trips to South Africa. I eventually managed to move there and build Hakuna Mipaka Oasis,” relates Schneider, who uprooted his life at 24.
Swapping snow-capped mountains for the bush, Schneider recalls the arresting impression imprinted on him when he started his journey in South Africa. “It’s the most beautiful place — it’s heaven on earth. It changes you. It changes your perspective on life, on animals, because you literally connect with Mother Nature. You’re in the wild and you look around and there’s a giraffe, birds in the air and they all coexist side by side and it just does something to you. It shows you who you are, among all these beautiful creatures on the planet.”
Dubbed the “Lion King”, Schneider’s name brings to mind videos of him closely interacting with a pride of lions — Dexter, Nayla, Snow, Leo, Kiara and Khalessi — brought up in the 400ha sanctuary of Hakuna Mipaka (Swahili for “no limits”). He shows his viewers a glimpse of the world’s vastness, giving insights into the majestic wildlife that rules the day, and crepuscular and nocturnal animals that conquer the night. Schneider is not shy about showing the gory parts too, such as the hunting that occurs, which is also a completely natural part of the ecosystem.
But he had to learn the ropes from scratch to be confident enough to place himself among lions, hyenas and cheetahs. “There’s no book that tells you how to become part of a pride. It is learning by doing and takes intuition, understanding and empathy.”
Perhaps it is the natural fear imbued in those whose lives are so distanced from the wilderness or the thrilling rush of seeing a man cuddling a predator like a house cat that sends viewers into bafflement and a frenzy. But they are hooked and the numbers show.
Schneider’s content was something Norqain CEO Ben Küffer and his son were fans of and the conservationist’s way of life and story seemed aligned with the independent Swiss watch brand’s own “My life, my way” tagline. Küffer, who was previously with Breitling, set up Norqain in 2018 after the CVC buyout. The independent watchmaker is supported by a slew of industry veterans, including Jean-Claude Biver.
A friend who knew Schneider’s father offered to arrange a meet-up in Zurich. “He told me that Dean Schneider would be a great ambassador. But the guy had 10 million followers, so I thought it would be very difficult to get him,” Küffer recalls. The pair met and the most unexpected thing happened — they were so caught up in each other’s stories that they forgot to talk business.
Their natural chemistry is plain as day. They share similar upbringings, values, goals and tenacity, like parallel arrows aimed a few degrees apart. Everything was in alignment to form a partnership that would benefit both parties. Schneider admits he was not open to any brand deals at the time as past discussions had always required a compromise that went against his own values. But things happened almost serendipitously with Norqain and Küffer took on his requests as a challenge.
“There were a couple of basic requirements, which were important in order for me to be associated with a brand,” notes Schneider. “It was tough for Norqain as well because it had to get rid of all leather bands and animal materials in their watches.”
Leather straps were part of an entire line of product but Küffer complied, and that pushed the young Norqain team to look for solutions and go completely cruelty-free. Schneider greatly appreciated the move.
“Norqain is the only collaboration I have up until now,” he says. “Everyone thinks Dean must have so many brand deals, but I only have one. It’s just Norqain!”
Last year, the two parties launched the Hakuna Mipaka Wild One, a 40mm limited-edition timepiece that houses the NN20/1 calibre manufactured by Kenissi, which also supplies movements to Tudor and Chanel. Stamped with a lion fur pattern, the black dial is rimmed with a marbled Norteq case, an ultra-light and robust carbon fibre composite created exclusively by Biwi for the brand.
Biwi, a Swiss manufacturer specialising in innovative rubber, plastic and silicone solutions, also works with Richard Mille, Audemars Piguet, Hublot and recently, Louis Vuitton. The shock absorber on the watch also incorporates sand from the Hakuna Mipaka sanctuary in South Africa.
This time around, Schneider suggested taking Dexter as inspiration for the new design. The watch follows similar codes of the black version but this edition, limited to 300 pieces, is donned in a sandy hue, a new Norteq colour, reminiscent of the lion. Gold hands give it a regal look, befitting a timepiece that pays tribute to the king of the jungle and the caseback is etched with Schneider’s famous quote: “We need to learn to love them exactly the way they are and not the way we wish them to be!”
The rubber strap is vegan-certified and 10% of proceeds go directly to the Hakuna Mipaka Foundation.
“Honestly, I’m really happy with it,” says Küffer. “We did so many good things thanks to Dean’s input.
“I really think Dean is somebody who’s doing good for the planet. He underscores what I’m trying to do at Norqain as well, which is to build a cool, adventurous but also ethical watch brand. It is not possible for me to imagine the brand without Dean because I think he’s a big part of it. He brought in an edge that, for me, is a huge part of Norqain today.”
Schneider recently relocated Dexter and Snow to the Live Wild Reserve, an extension of their property offering 600,000 sq m of pure nature. As the lions are all grown up, they are becoming more territorial and a larger space was required to ensure they live with as little conflict as possible.
There is also a monkey dome in the works to offer a more natural environment for a couple of rescued Capuchin monkeys, which are from the Amazon. Schneider’s sanctuary is strictly off-limits — no tourists are allowed — and against the practice of breeding in captivity. So social media is really the only way for the rest of the world to get a peek of the animals.
As for Norqain, it has been announced that the five-year-old brand will be making its Watches & Wonders debut at next year’s Geneva edition slated for April.
This article first appeared on Oct 9, 2023 in The Edge Malaysia.