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One day last September, after a grueling 26 hours of travel, a group of horophiles gathered at the Conrad Bora Bora Nui hotel, an American Express Fine Hotels & Resorts property, for a cocktail party. What brought them together was a shared acquisition: Each had purchased a black-coated titanium Panerai Submersible Chrono Guillaume Néry Edition watch, of which only 15 exist. Each timepiece had come with a lagoon-blue dial, a price tag of $40,000, and one major Gift with Purchase: a weekend of underwater excursions with champion free diver Guillaume Néry. Eleven of the 15 owners—“Paneristis,” in horophile jargon—were present. Most had ordered theirs the previous January at the annual Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie in Geneva. “A lot of watch brands have invited me to the fairs,” a customer from Singapore said as he plucked a skewer of mahi mahi off a passing tray. “But none have brought me to Bora-Bora.”
“We are not a normal watch brand,” Panerai CEO Jean-Marc Pontroué told the group. A veteran of both couture and timepieces (he worked at Givenchy and Roger Dubuis), Pontroué is not a normal watch-company CEO. He came to Panerai in 2018 and last year launched Panerai Experience, capitalizing on two busy luxury avenues: limited-edition and experiences. Though “limited-edition” marketing is now applied to everything from beauty products to snack foods, and ultra-exclusive “experiences” not far behind, Pontroué says the pressure to stand out from a crowded field forces the brand to up its game: to make the timepieces “in series of fives and tens and for the Experiences to be once-in-a-lifetime.”
The first Panerai Experience was a two-day boot camp in Italy with the Comando Raggruppamento Subacquei ed Incursori, an elite special forces group of the Italian navy; it came with the Submersible Marina Militare Carbotech watch. This year Pontroué promises as many as eight limited-edition timepieces with accompanying events, including an expedition to the Arctic with explorer Mike Horn. But in Bora-Bora, it was all about going deep. Néry, a tanned and scruffy 37-year-old Frenchman, gained international fame for his ability to hold his breath for almost eight minutes while diving to 413 feet during competitions. In the years since, he has emerged as an underwater filmmaker and above-water environmentalist. “The oceans are in danger,” he told the group. “It’s my mission to dive in as many places as I can, see the damage, and spread the word.”
The day after the cocktail party, the group boarded a catamaran and cruised across the lagoon, past a gunnery used during World War II. As the boat reached beyond the fingers of the coral reef, the waves became large and slow-rolling. The water turned from turquoise to navy blue. The boat slowed, and everyone dipped their hands into the water—opaque, and glossy until it was broken by the bubbles of a surfacing turtle. Then it was broken by dorsal fins. Blacktip reef sharks were circling. Néry put on his mask. The crew passed out flippers and snorkels, joking about shark attacks. Néry slipped into the water and dove straight to the bottom, dolphin-kicking 100 feet down. He lay on his back on the bottom of the ocean.
Later, reflecting on the precarious intersection of luxury and conservation, Néry told me that he likes the idea of a nice watch because it’s repairable, not plastic, and can last more than a lifetime. He also sees luxury consumers as potentially powerful allies. “It’s the people who can buy these watches who can really help effect change.” He is not pushy. “I don’t want to be, ‘Don’t do that!’ People can get the message, if you just give them an idea and an experience. Then they can change themselves. That is something that money cannot buy.”
Eventually, the Paneristis jumped into the water. They timidly swam past the four- and five-foot sharks, which appeared unfazed by the paddling and the half a million dollars’ worth of luxury watches twinkling in the afternoon sun. Several sharks rubbed up against the snorkelers, eliciting shrieks. Néry surfaced, and it was time for diving lessons. Earlier, he had instructed the group to relax and “let go” while descending: “It’s the only way to connect to the ocean.” A handheld jet propulsion device was produced. Néry wanted to take people down one by one, to show them what it’s like at the bottom. After a reminder on breathing and equalizing the pressure in their ears, he said, “Just grab on to my feet.” The wife of an American watch collector took a turn. She held on to Néry’s ankles, and they torpedoed to the still, silent depths in a flurry of bubbles, shattering a wall of zebra-striped banner fish as they went. Two sharks followed. When she surfaced, she grinned from ear to ear: “I’ll never think about the ocean the same way again.” Then Néry grinned too.