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March 1, 2007updated 01 Feb 2016 10:45am

The Bling Is Dead! Long Live The Bling!

By Clive Aslet

There’s no cabaret on this cruise, says Clive Aslet

There’s no cabaret on this cruise, says Clive Aslet

The world keeps getting better. The other day I spent a couple of days on MY Sherakhan, a 70m yacht that began life as a training vessel for the Dutch merchant marine. Since a comprehensive rebuild lasting three years, the only thing that survives from its former existence is the hull.

Everything else has been lovingly devised to make an opulent pleasure craft, at the service of the very rich. I have no idea what some of the party animals chartering this yacht get up to on it. (Or if I do, I’m not saying.) For me, the opulence of the finishes was as good as an orgy.

The floors are laid with a geometrical pattern of marble and sparkly glass. Everywhere is panelled in what appears to be a veneer of contrasting woods, although on enquiry these turn out to be extremely convincing fakes (combustible materials have to be kept to a minimum.) Every surface seemed to wink at me and say, ‘Come on, have a good time.’

That was St Kitts. Then, to Turin, where Gino Macaluso, owner of Girard-Perregaux, invited me to the unveiling of his latest watches.

I have never been to an event of this kind before. I am very far from being an obsessive about watches. My own Boucheron steamed up while we were in the Maldives and stopped working; I haven’t as yet had it mended, partly because the hands are so fine that I cannot see them (even with glasses, I am unable to read the date).

No danger of that with a Girard-Perregaux. They belong to the chunky, masculine school of watches, and although each one seems to have several more dials than I would know what to do with, the faces are strongly coloured and gutsy. Girard-Perregaux are a connoisseur’s choice. Only 16,000 of them are made a year, compared to more than 650,000 Rolexes.

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We sat, about 30 watch makers, watch writers and me, around a table in the glass bubble Renzo Piano has built on top of the old Fiat car factory in Turin (the track on the roof where cars used to be tested featured famously in The Italian Job). Pairs of white gloves were handed out, for anyone wanting to handle the precious objects.

The day ended with everyone having dinner out of town, in the sheds that house Signor Macaluso’s collection of rally cars. (An hors d’oeuvre of cream cheese in a pastry case; ravioli; filetto alla Vilardi, which is beef in goose liver sauce; a chocolate globe half melting under hot cholate sauce, into which you spoon vanilla ice cream. Was the chef trying to kill me?)

Now, not even a Girard-Perregaux costs quite as much as a superyacht, but there is a point of connection. If you like one, you probably like the other. Part of the fascination of MY Sherakhan is how it all works.

Here is the equivalent of a floating boutique hotel, whose Michelin-starred chef will rustle up a whole meal to complement, as it might be, your liking for Puligny-Montrachet; on which female crew members change outfits five times a day; with so many Jacuzzis that 20,000 litres of fresh water are required daily.

Where do the working parts go? It is the same with an expensive watch. If you must have a watch with several independently moving dials, there is no reason, these days, for it to be powered by clockwork. Even the most accurate mechanism cannot beat a quartz movement. And yet the beauty of them lies in doing something entirely unnecessarily, beautifully and ingeniously well.

There are many human activities of which this is true. Almost anything that is properly hand-made, for example, from a Savile Row suit to an exquisite humidor (go to Boutique 22 in Paris and look at the selection by Eli Bleu) or a fragrant cheese. Not so long ago it used to be assumed that this world of sensuous, if unnecessary perfection was doomed.

Certainly the forces of political correctness – in the shape, for example, of the health and safety police who are banning the smoking of cigars in London clubs and the making of unpasteurised Camembert in France – are ranged against it. But the world moves on, taking unexpected directions.

Emotionally, I have always felt nostalgia for the Edwardian age, the last echoes of which reverberated into the 1960s (think of Harold Macmillan) until killed by the Beatles, the end of Empire and rocketing oil prices. The Edwardian country house reached an apogee of civilisation, evolved by the landowning class over centuries but now supported by spectacular industrial fortunes.

I wrote a book about it, called The Last Country Houses: the title reflects the general conviction that this way of life was dead. But as I picked up a Girard-Perregaux timepiece and ordered another rum punch on MY Sherakhan, it came to me that the Edwardian era is back. However hard a century of egalitarianism has tried to gas the burrows, billionaires keep popping up like rabbits.

This spring and summer, the effects will be seen at the America’s Cup in Valencia. I do not recall having so much as heard of the America’s Cup while I was growing up in southern England. It seemed to belong to the era of Sir Thomas Lipton, the millionaire tea merchant and friend of Edward VII who mounted five challenges with yachts named Shamrock.

For most of the 20th century, the trophy was safely stowed in the New York Yacht Club because only Americans were rich enough to do the sport justice. All that has now changed. The Swiss team Alinghi are the present defenders. Skill and technology join hands with international money.

Just look around the Port America’s Cup: there is a superyacht pier right in the middle of it, with special access granted to the privileged guests. No question of unseemly democracy here. Girard-Perregaux are one of the sponsors, and a very few discerning wrists will sport the Laureato Regatta watch, made to celebrate the America’s Cup.

Quite a piece of kit, produced in a limited edition of 32. It incorporates a chronograph and something called a flying tourbillon. Somebody did explain what it is, but goodness, I’ll never be able to afford one. I am so glad that some neo-Edwardian can, though. Ain’t life grand?

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