Exploring three continents in Rolls-Royce’s first off-roader.
By Max Prince
Photographs by Cory Richards
The Rolls-Royce Cullinan is not an SUV.
It seats five adults and has an expansive tailgate. It rides on air suspension, towering more than six feet tall, and weighing more than three tons. It has a torque-y twin-turbo engine and full-time four-wheel drive, with a dedicated low gear for off-road use. On paper, it is an archetypal sport utility vehicle.
According to Rolls-Royce, the Cullinan, which represents the British automaker’s first foray outside the traditional coupe, sedan, and convertible body styles, is “a high-sided, all-terrain motor car.” Acronyms, apparently, are tacky. Crass. Maybe even vulgar. And a Rolls-Royce is nothing if not entirely devoid of vulgarity.
Consider the automotive landscape in 1906, when the company entered the market. Motoring was an event unto itself; drivers could expect frequent mechanical failure, tools and lubricants, ruined clothing, and long walks searching for fuel or assistance. Rolls-Royce positioned itself as the ultimate in personal luxury: all the opulence of autonomy and speed without the inconvenience and ignominy of a breakdown. Early marketing efforts were famously theatrical, with salespeople chucking their tool kits, locking their hoods shut, and driving hundreds of miles through mountains and deserts. Royals and socialites swooned. The brand became an institution.
In a neat historical symmetry, the Cullinan’s final testing phase involved a theatrical endurance trial. Wearing camouflage livery, the all-new Rolls-Royce traversed the Scottish highlands, smashed over Mideast sand dunes, ascended the 14,000-foot Pikes Peak in Colorado, then ripped off top speed runs across Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats. Cory Richards, the award-winning photojournalist and mountain climber, was along for the ride. He captured some exclusive behind-the-scenes images for Watch Journal, which appear on the following pages, along with his notes from the journey.
The visual grandeur of Richards’s work fits the Rolls-Royce’s personality. After all, the name Cullinan comes from the world’s largest rough diamond, discovered in 1905, and later cut into nine stones. Two of them were set into the Queen’s crown. Her Majesty does not dress provocatively, express political views, nor speak in clipped, crude abbreviations.
“Every time I step out the door, I don’t really know what to expect. That uncertainty is the soul of adventure. Being isolated is always unnerving. But it’s always underscored by a sense of curiosity. I’ve been all over the world, and I’ve never seen a landscape that is at once so similar and so complex.… God, it’s stunning.”
– Cory Richards
UNITED ARAB EMIRATES
“A place is more than its people, its cultures, its languages, or its landscapes. They’re simply components of the texture. Finding the moment that celebrates all of these things simultaneously—that’s the alchemy of photography. Finding a moment that says everything without having to say anything at all. Like the quiet stranger, walking through the desert, alone.”
“Finality is always bittersweet. Oftentimes journeys seem to end abruptly, like crossing a finish line that you know is there, but that you couldn’t see until it was behind you. I’d imagine it’s kind of like going 300 miles per hour [on the Salt Flats.] It happens before you can make sense of it, only to be trapped trying to remember the experience long after the world has slowed. What was lived can only be revisited in images along the way. Postcards from the past, that we use to make sense of how it’s changed us, as we look to the future.”
Porsche enthusiasts are a lot like other car enthusiasts. They’ve got lingo (“slant nose,” “Moby Dick,” “PDK”), icons (Bruce Canepa) and iconoclasts (Magnus Walker), a pedantic hierarchy (964 Carrera 911 RS trumps 996 911 GT3 RS, but both lose to 911 Carrera 2.7 RS). What makes Porsche enthusiasts unique is the degree of clubbiness, the vaguely secretive vibe. The ferocity of the mystique.
You can see how they got there. At their best, cars from Stuttgart are as involving and gratifying as any on the planet. The brand, as its devotees will remind you, has a long tradition of building innovative racing prototypes, ballsy street-legal sports cars, and exclusive special-edition models that blend the best elements of each. But the rarest Porsches tend to be kept under wraps. The company’s own museum meters out public appearances; private collectors are, understandably, hesitant to run irreplaceable, multimillion-dollar machines at the racetrack.
Held every third year (or thereabouts) since 2001, this vintage racing event is billed as the world’s largest gathering of Porsches. Derek Bell and Bruce Canepa and Magnus Walker are there, along with nearly 60,000 other zealots, letting their freak flag fly. So are the 964 RS, 996 GT3 RS, and 2.7 RS, plus virtually every significant Porsche racing car from the past seven decades, including Le Mans winners, like the 917 and 962.
All told, some 330 cars take to the circuit, the location of which varies depending on the year. Past venues include historic Lime Rock Park, in Connecticut, and Daytona Speedway. Rennsport Reunion VI (September 27-30, 2018) is scheduled to take place at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, in Monterey, California.
To mark the occasion, Porsche Design has created a new timepiece, the Chronotimer Rennsport Reunion VI Limited Edition. It pays homage to event, but also to the original Chronograph I, released in 1972. That piece helped put Porsche Design on the map; the company reportedly sold some 50,000 examples, more than a few of which wound up on the wrists of pro drivers.
Like the Chronograph I, the Chronotimer Rennsport Reunion VI Limited Edition has a distinctive matte-black finish, a nod to the instrument panels in the cockpits of racing cars. The 42mm carbide-coated titanium case is black, as is the dial; the sapphire crystal backing allows for a clear view of the automatic Valjoux movement. It all hangs on a black calfskin strap made from “original Porsche interiors,” replete with red contrast stitching. Each watch features a unique numbered engraving.
Each Rennsport Reunion feels like a rare and special thing, and this new Porsche Design watch aims to capture that sentiment. Accordingly, it’s limited to a scant 70 pieces, distributed only within the U.S. Other car enthusiasts might not see the appeal. But Porsche fanatics? The want for this one will be downright ferocious.
The website Mr Porter is best known for its selection of fashionable menswear, supplying modern shoppers with deftly chosen clothing by a range of labels, from Acne Studios to Z Zegna. It’s built a loyal following since launching in 2011. But recently, the site has been gaining recognition for offering designer wares of a different ilk: luxury watches.
“Our view on watches is the same as it is with fashion,” says Toby Bateman, Mr Porter’s managing director. “We’re trying to create a selection of brands that represents different aesthetics and different price points so that ultimately we’ll have something for everyone.”
Log on to mrporter.com, and you’ll find pieces from Montblanc and Baume & Mercier, starting at under $1,000, running up to investment-grade Piaget and Jaeger-LeCoultre. Mirroring the clothing side, which carries discovery labels such as And Wander and Herno Laminar as well as mainstays such as Gucci and Prada, insider watch brands like Ressence and Weiss are included in the mix.
All told, Mr Porter has hundreds of watches from more than a dozen brands. But the selection isn’t overwhelming. Like everything else on the site—and on its womenswear sister site, Net-a-Porter—what’s stocked is a concise, targeted edit instead of a scattershot.
“We’ve got buyers who can whittle down what can be a complicated and quite daunting shopping process for customers,” Bateman says.
His curation includes multiple iterations of classic pieces, quite a few exclusive styles and limited editions, the occasional desk clock, and even adventurous one-offs, like Bell & Ross with a transparent crystal sapphire case (priced at $480,000 and, as of this writing, still available.)
“We can talk about watches in the context of style . . . no one else in the market, online or offline, is really able to do that.”
– Toby Bateman, mrporter.com
But unlike a dedicated jeweler or watch retailer, Mr Porter’s overall breadth of stock—in addition to clothes and shoes, sunglasses, briefcases, neckties, and jewelry—helps shoppers imagine how a timepiece could fit in with their wardrobe. Bateman sees this as a major advantage.
“We can talk about watches in the context of style, and pretty much no one else in the market, whether their online or offline, is really able to do that,” he says. “If you go to a jewelry store on Madison Avenue or on Bond Street, you just see watches—you don’t really [get] ‘This is how you wear that diver’s watch,’ ‘This is the one for the office,’ ‘This is the one for jeans and a T-shirt over the weekend.’”
In terms of ushering high-end menswear into the e-commerce realm, Mr Porter’s has been a trailblazing force, and the site’s upscale look was crucial to its breakout success. Even judged by those lofty standards, timepieces get special treatment in terms of imagery and text. Every watch is photographed in-house with dedicated cameras; more details about each are included than would be with, say, a pair of trendy sneakers or a bomber jacket. Some pieces are even offered with multiyear warranties.
“When you actually see how professional and well-done Mr Porter is, it was a little bit of a no-brainer,” says Nick English, the co-founder of Bremont, the first brand to partner with Mr Porter when it began carrying watches, in 2013. “The whole experience is pretty amazing—they just do it really well. It’s the closest thing to going in there and talking to someone in a shop.”
Some watch companies view the site’s unique position—egalitarian and accessibilible, but still upmarket—as a bridge. Put simply, Mr Porter represents a medium to showcase items to shoppers from around the world that might be intimidated by a traditional watch store, or simply unfamiliar with their brand.
“We felt this is a good opportunity to potentially connect with a new clientele in a very convenient way,” says Giovanni Carestia, North American President of Panerai, which has been carried on the site since last year. “This is great way to raise the bar.”
Nearly five years in, Bateman describes the site’s watch business as being “in its infancy.” He says a Luxury Watch Guide expansion is planned, and Mr Porter did stock the new Cartier Santos when it launched in April. Still, the site’s catalog largely leans away from formal dress watches, emphasizing versatility. Zenith, IWC, and Nomos Glashütte are featured heavily. TAG Heuer and Montblanc smartwatches have been popular thus far, but—ironically, for a digital-only retailer—a broader range of tech watches will be added only if they fit well into the overall mix.
(Bateman: “It will depend on what comes to market and whether it’s got a good U.S.P. [unique selling point] that we can talk about with our customers.”)
Regardless, he says timepiece category has already helped broaden the site’s customer base. And whether or not Mr Porter becomes a major player in the luxury watch market, Bateman believes that it’s positioning the site as a more holistic retailer for the shopper of the future.
“Having watches on the site has enabled us to reach guys who don’t consider themselves to be ‘fashion guys,’” he says. “They come to Mr Porter and see the watch selection, but in the process they’re discovering Mr Porter. What they then see is that we create really great content which isn’t overly fashion-led—it’s quite lifestyle—and we have a very diverse product offering across all our categories. [Those shoppers] hopefully will become Mr Porter customers in other aspects.”
On a sunny Wednesday morning late last year, Fabrizio Buonamassa found himself behind the wheel of a sleek twin-turbocharged sedan, juking through traffic in downtown Palm Springs, making a beeline for the deadliest road in America.
Buonamassa, the 46-year-old head of watch design at Bulgari, had never been to California. The night before, he’d paced slowly across the rooftop at Chateau Marmont, taking in the Los Angeles skyline, seeming pensive. But when he arrived in Palm Springs, an unsuspecting publicist tossed him the keys to a new Maserati Ghibli. Buonamassa promptly set the navigation to Route 74, that infamous widowmaker of a mountain road running into Coachella Valley, and laid down two fat strips of rubber exiting the hotel parking lot.
“Police?” he said, slowing the Ghibli from felony to misdemeanor speeds, eyeballing a suspect black-and-white sedan in the opposing lane. When it passed, he shrugged, downshifted, and ripped into the throttle again. “Hah!”
Ostensibly, Buonamassa was in town for the Los Angeles auto show, celebrating the release of the new Octo GranSport and Octo GranLusso, the latest Bulgari x Maserati watches. The collection brings together two titans of Italian design—the former company being Rome’s premier jewelry house, the latter Modena’s oldest luxury automaker. For Bulgari, which is now owned by Paris-based luxe conglomerate LVMH, it’s an assertion of the brand’s domestic sensibilities. For Maserati, which has seen sales increase tenfold over the past decade, it’s an opportunity to bake in an additional layer of exclusivity. (While the GranSport and GranLusso aren’t limited-run pieces, they will be available only to Maserati customers.)
Still, joint ventures between watch companies and automakers can feel contrived. Buonamassa brings a unique credibility to this one. He grew up in Naples and studied in Rome, worshipping at the altars of Bertone and Zagato and Pininfarina, the famed carrozzeria that coach-built bodies for Ferrari and Alfa Romeo. Before joining Bulgari in 2001, he actually served as an auto designer at Fiat Group, Maserati’s corporate parent. It was the realization of a childhood dream.
“If I have to make a choice, my heart is closer to the Italian vintage cars than the Swiss watchmaking heritage,” Buonamassa admits. “My father, he was working for Hertz, you know, the rental car companies. He would travel and bring me home books of cars from around the world. I was sketching them from the age of four or five, and this is what I enjoyed drawing first—the cars. But I have always loved designing product. This idea of making emotion from an object. I just love it.”
These two new watches are a testament to that fascination. Buonamassa’s design cleverly recalls a vintage sports-car tachometer; the standalone, retrograde hand sweeps a linear path to indicate minutes, which are displayed in single digits and underscored by a “MINx10” multiplier. The GranSport even has hash marks near the top “6” marker, aping a redline. Hours are shown through a crystal aperture at the three o’clock position, clicking off like an odometer.
The GranSport is DLC-treated steel, black to match the textured dial. It’s slung on a black perforated leather strap with electric-blue contrast stitching, mirroring a Maserati bucket seat. The GranLusso brings a more formal vibe, with an 18-karat pink gold case and gray sunburst pattern dial, hanging on a padded chestnut band. Both pieces measure 41.5 mm, house the same 33-jewel automatic movement, are assembled in-house, and offer a 42-hour power reserve. More important, both pieces look and feel as unimpeachably Italian as the man who designed them.
Back in Palm Springs, having crossed Route 74 off his bucket list, the lanky Buonamassa strode across the courtyard at The Parker hotel, hands in his pockets. Wearing an impeccably tailored blue jacket, Jacob Cohen denim, and purple Persol sunglasses, he stopped to admire a large bronze statue of a half-peeled banana, installed on a grassy patch next to his room. Astrud Gilberto’s “Portami con Te” played over a lawn speaker. He hummed along with the refrain, smiled, then checked his watch.
“Oh!” he said. “Time for lunch.”
In the beginning, I started to appreciate beautiful drawings. Design was a consequence, because it gave me the opportunity to make sketches. This is why I’m a designer. I’m lucky because my profession is to make drawings.
I’m a formative designer. In my career, I design a lot of different things. I think that a designer should be able to do this. Honestly, the process is sort of a small mystery, but the approach is the same for airplanes, for cars, for watches, for furniture. You have to solve problems. You have to know the problems and imagine solutions, and you have to do this in a beautiful and unique way.
Design is a compromise. Even the credit process. And if you do not trust your idea, it’s impossible to sell, even to the boss. So I have to imagine something, to start to make sketches, to tell you I think that this idea is correct. The sketch is just a skill, it’s just a tool because sometimes I need to fix the image that I have in mind. But I have to trust the idea.
My job is to turn technology into emotions. Bulgari is well known for geometry and color innovation. We were the first to use cabochon cut in jewelry. We were the first to use aluminum in couture watches, plastic in watches—we were the first to use porcelain, exotic material, and steel in fine jewelry. This is the case with the Octo Finissimo, the thinnest automatic watch in the world. I have to know the technology, and I have to be able to transform it into something that makes sense to the client. Otherwise, it’s just a movement. Yes, okay, it’s a fantastic movement, but this is the role of the designer. And I have to do this through the iconic signs, the codes of the brand, and the heritage of the brand.
We have a word in our vocabulary, sprezzatura. That means you can make something very complex in a natural way. The most important innovations are made by simple things. And the simplicity, like Leonardo da Vinci says, is the latest complication. [The Octo] is very difficult to produce, but it works very well. It’s strong enough for everyday life, and it looks absolutely simple. This concept of sprezzatura, for the first time you can find it in watchmaking. Because in Swiss watchmaking, you can find a lot of watches that are very hard [to produce], but also very difficult in terms of language. How can I read the time?
If a product is able to talk to you about its function, I’ve done a good job. Good design expresses itself. If I tell you the watch is this, this, and this, and that you have to use it this, this, and this way, maybe it’s not a good design. It’s another thing.
The retro trend, it is copy-and-paste design. For some brands, it’s easier to open the desk and say, ‘I want to make the new edition of this watch.’ This is not our approach. We make a lot of sketches on the wall and we say, ‘This is good. Wow, it’s fantastic.’ After five minutes, we see again the products and we say, ‘It’s not Bulgari enough.’ The octagon has a lot of different meanings in different cultures, different religions—eternity, friend, perfect balance between the heaven and the earth. It’s a shape that Bulgari started to use in the 1950s. When we decided to revamp, for Gérald Genta, sure, you have to make an Octo. But the Octo that you see today, it’s an Octo made by Bulgari. This [new] watch, it’s the same shape, but with different attention to the details of the faces. It still performs, but in a contemporary way. This is the signature of the brand. When you see this watch, you cannot make mistake it. But when you see this watch compared to a vintage one, it’s two different worlds.
We don’t have a creativity issue at Bulgari. We don’t just put the logo on a watch and say it’s a Bulgari x Maserati, because we have a lot of ideas. The idea [for the GranSport and GranLusso] was to tell you the time in a different way—to tell you the time as a rev counter, as in the dashboard of a car, thanks to our retrograde and jumping hour movement. The number on the watch dial, it is the same font on the Maserati dashboard. After that, it’s a matter of color. The GranSport is very dark. It’s a nod to the performer. The GranLusso, it’s more exquisite. It’s more elegant, more luxurious. This is the two faces of the Maserati, the brand that invented the gran turismo, the kind of cars driven not only by performance but also luxury.
Bulgari and Maserati have a lot of elements in common. Both Italian brands made by [families], the Maserati sons and Sotirio Bulgari with his sons, Giorgio and Constantino. Very strong entrepreneurial skills. The same attention for proportion, the same attention for beautiful things. [The Octo] is an impressive watch in terms of technical skills, let’s say ‘performance,’ but it’s not the first thing you notice. Maserati is the same. It’s engine technology, performance chassis. But when you look at a Maserati car, first of all you see that it’s beautiful.
Encased in amber on this page is a collection of parts representing a greater sum, a tool made redundant by progress but reborn as a status symbol, an anachronism that survived as the object of enthusiast lust. Sound familiar? Parallels to the wristwatch aside, we loved the original Mercedes-Benz Geländewagen because of what it represented: an epic and improbable triumph of smart engineering and authentic style.
The backstory is equally as improbable. The first prototypes were commissioned in 1973 by the Shah of Iran, at that time a major Mercedes-Benz shareholder. He asked the company to create an all-new truck, one that could traverse his kingdom’s vast and harsh terrain. The resulting machine, equipped with a stout diesel engine and hardcore four-wheel-drive system, resembled a Jeep that subscribed to Architectural Digest and liked hitting the squat rack. It underwent extensive torture testing in the Arctic Circle and Sahara Desert, only to arrive in early 1979—just after the Shah was deposed.
Not that it mattered. Build by hand at a dedicated facility in Graz, Austria, the new truck’s overall rugged construction, robust mechanicals, and freakish off-road abilities were a revelation. It wasn’t long before the Geländewagen, known colloquially as the “G-wagen,” found its way into military fleets around the globe. Mercedes began offering a street-legal version to civilians across Europe. Sales held steady throughout the 1980s.
Then something funny happened. Which is to say, nothing happened.
Whereas modern cars get styling tweaks after two or three years, and a clean-sheet redesign after seven or eight, the Mercedes saw just one exterior overhaul, in 1990. Even then, it retained the same durable body-on-frame bones, the same upright windscreen, and squared-off profile. When the G-wagen finally arrived at U.S. dealerships, in 2002, it was stuffed with premium features and a complex V-8 engine but still rode on its original steel chassis. Customers lined up to pay six figures for what was essentially a brand-new antique.
They quickly discovered that, as a commuter vehicle, the G-wagen was compromised in nearly every facet. The mega-tall roof, engineered to accommodate a high seating position for scanning rutted dersert topography, became an albatross in parking garages. The soft suspension and slow steering were ideal for off-road handling but sloppier than a soup sandwich on asphalt. The braking performance and fuel economy, about which the less said, the better.
But the design resonated. Rolling around Beverly Hills or South Beach, where a curvaceous, high-tech supercar is all but mandatory, the G-wagen’s brutal angularity and warhorse vibe seemed vaguely rebellious and deeply cool. Mercedes leaned into the silliness, offering customers new levels of conspicuous absurdity—a six-wheel version, an exotic twin-turbo V-12 engine, a special-edition wearing fluorescent yellow paint. Incredibly, the G-wagen, effectively unchanged after nearly four decades in production, hit record sales last year before its all-new replacement was announced.
The cynical take is that we, as a people, are attracted to excess. Maybe that’s true. But the G-wagen’s brand of excess stood for something, even if many of the customers didn’t realize it. Planned obsolescence is a treadmill; newness is a cult. But function and quality, and good design, are forever.
“The G-wagen succeeds because it’s a piece of anti-design design. Of course, there’s something disingenuous about that—it’s a very elaborate, powerful, luxurious vehicle. But it’s ostentatiously boxy, and looks plain in the same way that someone in jeans doesn’t look dressed up. It’s a brilliant piece of reverse snobbery, which is why it took on a whole new life as a luxury vehicle. It appeals to people who want to spend a lot of money and avoid conventional status symbols.”
— Paul Goldberger, architecture critic and Vanity Fair contributing editor