The Panerai VIP adventure series, in which a limited-edition watch is attached to a memorable experience for its buyers, is all about something “extra.” Anyone with the means can visit an exotic location, stay in a top hotel, dine on gourmet food and hire a boat for the weekend, but each of Panerai’s adventures includes something beyond that, something money can’t buy—for most collector’s that is a shared elite camaraderie over the experience and ownership of an ultra-limited watch.
But for its most recent adventure, the “extra” factor involved sailing the Mediterranean on the brand’s classic sailboat, the Eilean, to a private island off Italy’s Amalfi Coast for a serious lesson in how to live La Dolce Vita. It was one of the more pastoral experiences Panerai has offered. Trips attached to limited-edition watches have previously included an excursion to Grand Teton National Park for a climbing session with pro-mountain climber and Oscar-winning filmmaker Jimmy Chin, a free-diving expedition in French Polynesia with the record-setting French free diver Guillaume Néry and hardcore training exercises with the Italian Royal Navy in La Spezia, Italy.
The Eilean Experience was less daunting than these excursions, but no less representative of the Panerai sensibility. “Panerai has roots in Mare Nostrum (Latin for “Our Sea” the Roman name for the Mediterranean),” says Panerai product director Alessandro Ficarelli. “That is where it supplied watches to the commando divers of the Italian Navy. But this experience also represents Mediterranean … La Dolce Vita. It’s about sunshine and sailing and living the sweet life. It’s about experiencing the brand in a different way, about offering something that you will never forget, that is true luxury.”
The focus of the adventure, the Eilean, is a 70-foot ketch built by legendary yacht builder William Fife III in 1936, around the time Panerai was making its first series of watches for the Italian Navy’s special operations unit, or COMSUBIN. The boat’s first owners were Scottish steel merchants James and Robert Fulton. It then went through several owners until it ended up in a yacht charter business in Antigua. Former longtime Panerai CEO Angelo Bonati spotted it there in 2006, in a state of disrepair. He saw an opportunity for Panerai and purchased the Eilean on behalf of the brand and had it sent to a shipyard in Italy for restoration. Today, the fully restored ketch is an important element of the Panerai brand, regularly hosting special events for VIP clients and collectors and even taking crews out on cleanup missions to recover plastic from the sea.
LA watch collector Alex Chen, the only American to participate in the Eilean excursion, says he was attracted to both the adventure and the watch.
“For me, personally, I always like to have something special, unique, like a limited edition,” he says, “but there are so many limited editions out there, and there is no way I could buy each one of them. So the whole experience attached to this one … that was a great bundle package for me. I always wanted to sail on the Eilean and experience Italian culture, and this was my chance. It’s probably the first watch manufacturer doing something like this directly with clients. Most brands will invite you to their headquarters to visit the factories, and also to dinners to show you something new and cool, but Panerai … they’re doing something just above and beyond anything I have ever experienced before. From my understanding, they actually spent a year to arrange for this wonderful experience.” He says the Dolce Vita-themed adventure was the perfect trip for him because it was a little more relaxed. “I’ve never really been into the Submersible collection—I like Radiomir—and as for the climbing trip, Jimmy Chin’s a little too extreme for me. I’m more of a person that likes historical stuff, so learning about the Eilean was interesting for me. I also had a chance to get to know the other collectors on the trip and that was fun.”
“If you love Panerai, you know how special the Eilean Radiomir is,” says Chen, who owns more than 20 Panerai watches. The two tone model, priced at $50,000 and limited to just 15 pieces, aren’t made of just any old combination of steel and bronze. During the restoration of the Eilean, some of the boat’s bronze fittings had to be replaced, and instead of disposing of the old ones, Panerai decided to repurpose them as components (bezel, crown and caseback) in the Radiomir Eilean Editions. The dial’s blue color represents Mare Nostrum, and its textured surface resembles the boat’s teak deck. Engraved along the side of the case is a representation of the dragon emblem visible on the bow of Eilean, and the whipstitching along the soft leather strap mimics nautical knots. It contains the manually wound caliber P.6000. The steel case is 45 mm wide and the caseback is engraved “Eilean 1936.” “The choice of Radiomir as a collection for this trip reflects the casual, elegant lifestyle of La Dolce Vita,” says Ficarelli. “This was not a dive trip, so it was not a Luminor or a Submersible.”
The second key element of the Eilean excursion was Li Galli, an archipelago of small islands off the Amalfi coast between Positano and Capri. Only one of the islands, Gallo Lungo, is inhabited. It originally housed a monastery and then a prison, and for many years was owned by the city of Positano. Ballet dancers have been among the pleasure-seekers drawn to the cliffs. In 1919, Russian choreographer and dancer Leonide Massine noticed it while staying with a friend in Positano. He purchased it in 1922 and converted it into a private residence, including a dance studio, an open-air theatre and a main villa with bedrooms facing Positano and a large terrace garden facing Capri. Following Massine’s death in 1988, Russian dancer Rudolf Nureyev bought the island and spent the last years of his life there (he died in 1993). He restored the gardens and redecorated the villa in the Moorish style, cladding its interiors with vibrant 19th-century tiles from Seville. In 1996, the islands were purchased from Nureyev’s foundation by Sorrento hotelier Giovanni Russo, who has used it as a private residence ever since.
The buildings, a collection of whitewashed villas and cabanas, including a small chapel, are perched high on the island’s soaring cliffs, connected by a serpentine system of stone steps bordered by flowers and discreet wooden railings that blend with the cypress and umbrella trees dotting the island. From the top, a 360-degree turn yields stunning vistas of pleasure boats anchored in the bay below, with Capri and Positano hazy in the distance. The main terrace is bordered on each side by saltwater infinity pools and centered by a long dining table under the umbrella trees. A short distance away, across the helipad and up another flight of stone steps, is the famed dance studio, built into a former Roman watchtower, with its impressive free-sprung wooden dance floor and full barre along a wall of mirrors. If ballet is too strenuous, you can descend to the dock level for a swim. Nearby is a cabana, complete with a shower, change room, lounge area, fully stocked bar and another saltwater pool. The island exudes an aura of pure, quiet, peaceful luxury, a long way from the cares of the world, and it served as a perfect representation of Panerai’s interpretation of La Dolce Vita.
Members of the public are not allowed to land on Gallo Lungo but can swim in the surrounding waters. It can be rented, but only by referral, and at Russo’s discretion. The price of a one-week stay (for up to 16 people, as there are eight bedrooms) is rumored to be upwards of $225,000. For the price of a beautiful limited-edition Radiomir, Panerai brought collectors a glimpse of this exclusive paradise, an “extra” you don’t get with most watch buying experiences.
This won’t be the last of these experiences. In fact, Panerai is already planning trips for the fall, a training session with the US Navy Seals in Florida. There will also be a chance to embark on a full day of experience with Special Forces of Brigata Marina San Marco in Brindisi, or an opportunity to troll the waters and ice caps of the Arctic with conservationist Mike Horn.