The Realist’s Guide To The Metaverse

How do you navigate an immersive virtual world that’s still mostly conceptual yet manages to generate billions of dollars?

By Josh Condon 08/04/2022

One of the most buzzed-about destinations of 2022 is barely developed and widely misunderstood, starting with the fact that it isn’t, strictly speaking, real. And despite that existential disadvantage, the metaverse has managed to attract some of the world’s biggest brands, from Sotheby’s to the fashion houses (among them Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Dior) who’ve set up shop in the virtual universe to drop capsule collections, mint NFTs and auction off multimillion-dollar digital artworks. Along the way, the metaverse also became the hottest concert venue of pandemic-struck 2021, with A-list performances by Ariana Grande, Lil Nas X and Justin Bieber, all in avatar form.

Which is all fine, but what is it? The term itself, coined in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 sci-fi novel Snow Crash, is already headed for middle age, while the technological capability to create a fully immersive, interconnected virtual world remains a dream locked inside the mind of a yet-to-be-imagined supercomputer. Still, the headlines keep coming, from Ralph Lauren’s winter-themed virtual fashion retail village to the hyper-realistic “meta-human” avatars that are being generated by Epic Games’ Unreal Engine digital creation studio. For a universe that doesn’t yet exist, the metaverse is surprisingly, if intangibly, real.

THE LAY OF THE “LAND”

The reason you’ve heard of the metaverse at all is almost certainly Facebook’s October 2021 announcement that it would be investing “many billions of dollars for years to come” into the space, during a presentation in which CEO Mark Zuckerberg declared, with the fervent, unblinking enthusiasm of a newly initiated cult member, that the company was also changing its name—to Meta. Based on the rendered animations and demos shown during the announcement, the rebranded tech giant’s idea for its namesake future seems to boil down to a very boring Matrix taking place inside a Nintendo Wii, where you hang out, work and take exercise classes in fully immersive 3-D.

But such a hyperscale interconnected virtual world is only one of several possible futures for the metaverse, and it’s not everybody’s first choice. Right now, “the metaverse is kind of the merging of crypto and gaming,” says Karinna Grant, cofounder and co-CEO of The Dematerialised, a creator of and “marketspace” for digital fashion, accessories and collectibles. Crypto may provide some of the metaverse’s funding, but gaming is its technological bedrock, a digital-native industry with billions of global users that’s been creating immersive universes for decades.

Some of the biggest multiplayer franchises, including Fortnite, Halo and Minecraft, have evolved into self-contained worlds with GDP-level in-game economies. Consider these titles and those like them—developer-controlled storytelling gameplay that includes shared social spaces and experiences—as the moneyed establishment of gaming real estate in the metaverse. Of that group, Fortnite has locked down the most high-profile collaborations, activations and merch, including virtual Air Jordan sneakers, takeovers by Star Wars and Stranger Things and high-fashion avatar outfits—aka skins—and accessories designed by Balenciaga. Across the philosophical sound are the creator-led platforms, gamified world-building engines and marketplaces that don’t rely on contest or competition. Chief among these is Roblox, an online platform that’s like a massive virtual rec room and hangout, with over 10 million designers creating virtual experiences and items for its nearly 50 million average daily users.

“We now have a generation of kids who have grown up with 3-D interactive gaming where they intuitively know how to socialise in these experiences,” says Roblox chief business officer Craig Donato. Metaverse experiences such as Roblox, he says, are “fundamentally social—you’re doing them with other people.” For hundreds of millions of digital natives, hanging out together in virtual spaces “is a whole dimension to how they live their lives.”

Which explains the recent evolution of the virtual economy: as a sizable portion of that gaming-first demographic ages into the stage where one begins to desire the finer things in virtual life, a more sophisticated marketplace has emerged. Where once the majority of users went to Roblox primarily for game-type experiences, Donato says, “now people are going to see concerts, or
to see the debut of a movie, or a fashion launch like the new Gucci line.”

It turns out that industries naturally pollinated by population density—art, fashion, retail, entertainment, gambling—have no problem blossoming without the actual, physical density part; the dollars are real even if the users are ciphers. Consider the metaverse in its current state, then, as the entrepreneurial outer fringes of a gaming industry grown so large its gravitational force is now swallowing entire other economies.

HOW DO I GET IN?

When picturing the metaverse, many people imagine strapping on a virtual-reality headset and wandering around the type of bounded, orderly space we’re used to in the physical world: walking down a virtual main street, popping into a virtual boutique. Certain elements of that scenario exist today, including VR headsets—the biggest brand, Oculus, is owned by Meta and popular for immersive 3-D games such as Beat Saber—as well as shared, simulated 3-D spaces as experienced inside Roblox or Microsoft’s Mesh for Teams enterprise application, accessed through that company’s $5,599 HoloLens 2.

In actual reality, almost no one uses virtual reality to experience the metaverse, which is still almost entirely seen through the two-dimensional screens of gaming monitors, laptops, tablets and phones. Despite the revolutionary rhetoric around the future of the metaverse—and there’s a lot, much of it with a passion for decentralisation, to be anchored in a next-gen, blockchain-based internet iteration called Web3—the unsexy reality of the current metaverse is that it runs on Web 2.0 and is most often accessed through the portable little supercomputers we still think of as phones.

But despite the handheld convenience, getting around the metaverse is difficult. It’s basically Los Angeles, a vast sprawl of disconnected enclaves where everywhere you want to go is a world away and you can’t tell how old anyone really is. Now picture each neighbourhood operating somewhere between an all-inclusive resort and an isolated nation-state: Every platform in the metaverse requires its own sign-in and its own avatar; it sells its own non-transferable goods and services and uses its own fiat currency to do so. Imports are almost as rare as exports, which are nonexistent.

These are the present-day, “small-m” metaverses that may one day be incorporated into a vast, interconnected capital-M Metaverse, with the ability to travel among worlds with all of your likenesses and inventory in tow, known as interoperability. There are many ideas of the metaverse that don’t include interoperability on such a grand scale, or even at all, but if you want to understand the headlines about luxury brands jumping into the space, consider that Meta, the seventh-largest company in the world by market cap, just committed to building its infrastructure.

WHERE DO THEY KEEP THE VALUABLES?

Art and retail are the current main attractions of the metaverse, and so far pretty much every newsworthy, big-name sale in the metaverse, from those Bored Ape cartoons infiltrating Twitter avatars to the unsanctioned “MetaBirkin” virtual representation of the famous Hermès handbag that sold for over $40,000—currently the subject of a lawsuit by the French luxury house—has been an NFT. That means a “non-fungible token”, a term that concurrently refers to both the virtual creation and the corresponding certificate of ownership and authenticity (the token) that lives on the blockchain and is updated with each transfer of ownership.

NFTs are all the rage despite still being of limited utility. “One of the criticisms around NFTs and digital assets is how do you show people you have them? How do you showcase your trophy pieces?” Grant says. Whether you’ve purchased a virtual sneaker or a commissioned artwork, the typical answer is that you’re given access to an image file that can be posted to Instagram or Twitter or digitally overlaid in Snapchat—and often, that’s it.

Dedicated NFT viewers, such as those from the Mynt, Spatial and CryptoVoxels, are a more elegant and contextual solution. Cyberart studio Accursed Share, which most recently collaborated on a series of multimedia NFTs with celebrity photographer Frederic Auerbach, featuring behind-the-scenes images and video from shoots with Mike Tyson, Natalie Portman, Zendaya and other stars, is working on its own proprietary NFT viewer. More useful still are in-real-life NFT frames, such as Samsung’s Frame TV, that can display your digital artwork on a physical wall.

“Christie’s and Sotheby’s, which are completely established and traditional auction houses, are a big part of the legitimation of the space,” says Mónica Belevan, chief concept officer of Accursed Share. “They’ve become like intermediaries in saying, ‘No, this actually has value. This
is actually real and happening.’ ”

The main place to display digital purchases is your avatar. Nearly every platform has a stock-in-trade of upgrades, skins, accessories, badges and effects—
a fresh supply of covetable gear is the engine of any in-game economy. Gucci, Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger have all designed digital wares for Roblox, while Nike, Moncler and Balenciaga have created avatars and merch for Fortnite, with Balenciaga announcing in January it would launch a dedicated metaverse division.

Yet all of those different products from different brands appeared, essentially, the same: like video game clothes. But there is an entirely more rarefied version of virtual fashion. The Fabricant builds bespoke, platform-specific couture garments and accessories with the digital craftsmanship and production values of a Hollywood studio. “We’re really lucky to be able to hire incredibly talented digital fashion designers, 3-D environment creators, visual effects people, lighting specialists—that all goes into what we do, which is why we have such a movie-industry-level finish,” says Michaela Larosse, head of content for The Fabricant. Larosse also describes the house’s upcoming co-creation platform, the Fabricant Studio, in which brands can “drop” digital fashion collections for modification, or selected graphic designers can stock custom-made digital fabrics, and with the help of the Studio’s design tool, users can create their own one-off pieces, which they can then mint as NFTs and wear in virtual worlds. “It’s like a digital atelier,” Larosse says. “You step in, you choose the fabric, you choose the silhouette.” The idea is a glimpse of an emerging creation economy called direct-to-avatar.

And yet, as with the rest of the metaverse, nearly all retail remains confined within two-dimensional device screens, despite the potential of 3-D virtual reality. “When I tried on a VR headset for the first time, I was like, ‘I’m not a gamer, but I’d love to shop like this,’ ” says Neha Singh, former head of product for Vogue.com and founder of Obsess, which since 2018 has been building bespoke virtual-shopping platforms for luxury brands including Fendi, Ferragamo and Vacheron Constantin. “For the first few years of the company, we were building for virtual-reality headsets,” she says. “But of course, it was too early for headsets.”

It still is. Today, Obsess mostly builds web-based experiences, such as a virtual tour of Vacheron’s new NYC flagship, complete with high-fidelity digital renderings of the physical location and shoppable virtual merchandise. Ferragamo, meanwhile, designed a grand villa, entirely virtual, with soaring arched windows, a pistachio paint job and its own interactive advertising campaigns hung like virtual art on the walls. You can click through either on your phone or a web browser. “It’s not something where you need to download an app or run a virtual-reality headset,” Singh says. “It’s something that’s accessible.”

Karinna Grant, of The Dematerialised, sees another display avenue opening in the near future—she believes a new generation of phones will be able to project holograms “by the end of this year or the beginning of next,” allowing everyday users to bring digital pieces into physical space. “There are certain fashion pieces I’d love to sit on my desk at home,” she says.

But for the foreseeable future, everything’s an NFT, especially given the favourable economics involved. Unlike with virtual goods, resale terms can be baked into the NFT contract at the blockchain level, ensuring that for every resale transaction going forward, the artist or brand gets a fresh percentage of the sale.

It’s a revenue stream, in perpetuity, for each and every digital artifact created.

WHO OWNS THE REAL ESTATE?

Despite the metaverse’s theoretical promise of a limitless, unbounded new universe, plenty of virtual developers have been busy creating blockchain-backed digital real estate, and digital speculators have been obligingly snapping it up. Decentraland calls itself the “first fully decentralised virtual world,” a Roblox-style creation engine, peer-to-peer marketplace and gaming world where users can buy, sell and even rent virtual land via the Ethereum blockchain. It’s controlled by a DAO, a decentralised authority organisation popular in the cryptocurrency and digital-art spaces that has no circumscribed leadership and makes decisions by voting on proposals submitted from within the group. Upland, meanwhile, decided to harness the frothing, real-world real-estate delirium by selling GPS-perfect, blockchain-backed inventories of New York, Los Angeles and other hot housing markets, sending physical property owners scrambling for their calculator apps, wondering just who owns their plot in the metaverse—and how much they paid for it.

But there’s another use, according to Grant. “It’s becoming the case now that a lot of DAOs and the different collectives, which are investment arms to collect digital assets, are only allowed to buy things on the preface that it will have to be shown publicly,” she says, and “some collectors are specifically buying land where they can showcase their NFT collection.”

SO, WHAT’S THE POINT?

It takes very little poking around to realise the entire point of the place is that it’s an economy, stupid, but more importantly, it’s a frontier economy, with the type of open, unregulated space that has always attracted dreamers, artists, preachers, freethinkers, crackpots, grifters and the just plain bored.

Most of us have no reason to spend time in the metaverse—yet—but like all good destinations, it resonates because of its otherness, not despite it. Its outlandish premise proves the general rule that groups of people behave fundamentally the same no matter where we’re hanging out: we joke, compete, flirt, form cliques, show off, gossip and try to one-up each other. We’ll buy clothes for digital bodies that require no covering and grind away at gamified facsimiles of service jobs in a world that has no need for gravity, let alone pizza parlours. We act, even in a virtual universe, overwhelmingly, inescapably human.

And after two years of mostly keeping the global economy running amid lockdowns and widespread social isolation, suddenly the metaverse, in all its fundamentally remote, online, chatting, virtual interaction, seems not just imaginable or even plausible, but familiar. The virtual horizon is nowhere as far off as we once thought. And besides, the metaverse has a built-in survival advantage, one that no sane observer of modern culture would bet against: it’s the only reality around with a selfie view.

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Don’t Ride This Wave ….*unless your name is Robinson, Slater or Moore.

The 2024 Olympic surfing comp will be held at Tahiti’s treacherous Teahupo’o. Going for gold could be deadly.

By Jen Murphy 15/04/2024

It’s day two of the 2023 Tahiti Pro Surf Competition. I’m perched on the roof of a VIP boat around 100 metres from Teahupo’o, one of the world’s most dangerous waves. American Surf icon Kelly Slater has just been swallowed by a heaving wall of turquoise water. I’m so close to the action that when he’s finally spit out from the ride, my face gets misted in ocean spray. Below me, Australian Jack Robinson, who will go on to win the event, sits on the edge of the boat performing breathing exercises ahead of his heat. Around me, a flotilla of kayaks, jetskis, surfboards, and small vessels bobs in the channel, acting as a floating stadium for fans. 

For many of the competitors—and the 1,400-odd residents of the wave’s namesake village—this year’s contest is a dress rehearsal for an event with a far larger global profile in a few months’ time. While many of the world’s top athletes will travel to France in July for the 2024 Paris Olympic Games, the most talented surfers will head here, to the southwest corner of Tahiti island’s small peninsula, Tahiti Iti, to vie for gold at Teahupo’o in just the second surf competition in Olympic history. 

Aerial View by Manea Fabisch

In keeping with the limit of two surfers per gender, per nation, the Australian flag will be flown by Ethan Ewing (No. 2 in the World Surf League rankings at the time of writing) and the aforementioned Robinson (No. 5) in the men’s category, and Tyler Wright (No. 3) and Molly Picklum (No. 5) in the women’s. On this form, hopes of a homegrown medal haul are high.

Carissa Moore of the US who took gold at the 2021 Olympics at the Tahiti Pro in Teahupo’o. IMAGE: Beatriz Ryder

Olympic officials could have chosen a site off the coast of France, such as the surf towns of Biarritz or Hossegor, but historically, Mother Nature brings more sizable waves to Tahiti at this time of year. Plus, surfing has deep cultural ties to the region. The sport originated in Polynesia and dates as far back as the 12th century; it was practiced by Polynesian royalty. Teahupo’o is also a world-class wave that challenges the mental and physical prowess of even the most experienced competitors. The high risk of surfing this spot guarantees thrills that officials anticipate will boost viewership. 

Located in the gin-clear waters of the South Pacific with a background of mountains that appear to be draped in jade-green crushed velvet, Teahupo’o (pronounced TAY-a-hoo-poh-oh) is one of the sport’s most infamous swells. (Its name loosely—and cheerily—translates to “place of skulls”.) According to Memoirs of Marau Taaroa, Last Queen of Tahiti, printed in 1893, the first person to surf it was actually a woman from the island of Raiatea, in the 19th century. Not until the 1980s did anyone dare attempt it again, with the first competition hosted in the late 1990s. Former pro turned filmmaker Chris Malloy has called it “the wave that has changed surfing forever”.

Australian surfer Jack Robinson with his trophy. IMAGE: World Surf League

In the right conditions, Teahupo’o can tower upwards of six metres. That may sound small compared to the monster-size Jaws in Maui or Nazaré in Portugal—which can climb as high as 25 metres—but it’s not the height that makes Chopes, as the wave is lovingly called, so special. It’s the weight. When surfers describe a wave as heavy, they’re referring to its combination of a thick lip (the powerful section that starts to curl over) and the amount of water surging behind it.

Like most of the surf breaks found throughout French Polynesia, Teahupo’o is a reef break, meaning the water spills over the surface of knife- sharp coral. Chopes is unique because around 50 metres beyond the reef, the ocean drops more than 15 metres. As swells come toward the shore, the transition from deep water causes them to jack up over the coral before quickly crashing down with tremendous force. 

“The reef evolved perfectly in order to absorb the wave’s energy in the shortest distance possible to create this natural wonder,” surf superstar Laird Hamilton tells Robb Report. “It’s a wave that stands straight up and creates a huge barrel. It’s one of the greatest waves on Earth.” In 2000, Hamilton rewrote surfing history when he rode what has been dubbed the Millennium Wave here. Up until then, Teahupo’o was considered too perilous to attempt when it reached a certain size. Hamilton, a pioneer of tow surfing, had a jetski pull him into what is still considered one of the heaviest waves ever ridden. Surfer magazine published a memorable cover of him getting barrelled with just the words “Oh my god…” because the feat was so dangerous. 

In places, the reef lurks just 50 centimetres beneath the water’s surface, and the lip can act like a liquid guillotine if it clamps down before a surfer exits the hollow tube of the wave, known as the barrel. Had Hamilton wiped out, he wouldn’t have had an escape route. 

A flotilla of fans watch Brazilian Pato Teixeira in action

I’m an avid amateur surfer and live on Maui part-time to take advantage of Hawaii’s waves, but even on a gentle day, I wouldn’t attempt Teahupo’o. Teahupo’o village has a water-safety patrol that watches over athletes during contests. Still, a handful of surfers have lost their lives here, and many go home with serious battle wounds. In August last year, during a practice session for the Tahiti Pro, Ethan Ewing fractured two vertebrae in his back after crashing out in solid, but average, six-foot waves—an accident that arguably cost him top spot in the world rankings. 

In classic gung-ho-surfer fashion, though, the Queenslander was back in the water at Teahupo’o three months later, one eye still resolutely fixed on Olympic glory. “Definitely more anxious than excited heading back to Tahiti after hitting the reef really hard last time,” he posted on his Instagram account. “Teahupo’o is still seriously intimidating, but I feel like I’ve made some steps in the right direction.”

Unless you surf, Tahiti Iti probably isn’t on your radar. Starting from the largest town of Taravao, the south-coast road ends at the village of Teahupo’o, hence its nickname, the End of the Road. The community, just 500 metres from the wave, is the antithesis of the glitz and glamour of Paris or even nearby Bora Bora. This is a slice of tropical paradise that has somehow evaded development. To reach the contest each day, I park at the end of the road, then walk over a one-lane bridge and follow a sandy path that passes local homes. 

“All of your senses are heightened here,” former world surf champion C. J. Hobgood tells me when I run into him at the event. “It’s not just the wave—it’s the island. Everything looks five- dimensional. Mountains seem stacked on mountains and glow a vivid green. You turn to the right and these bluer-than-blue waves are breaking. Then a rainbow might appear in the sky. The raw beauty is overwhelming to take in when you first arrive.” 

Surfers talk of feeling the mana, a Polynesian word for spiritual energy, here. Jack Robinson even referenced it after his victory in the Tahiti Pro. It may sound woo-woo, but I undoubtedly feel something when I arrive after a 90-minute drive south-west from the hotel-lined harbour of Tahiti Nui, the island’s larger, more developed area. Tahiti Iti’s empty beaches and waterfall-riddled lush interiors remind me of a quieter, more vibrant version of Hana, a little corner of Maui with just one hotel, a handful of restaurants and kilometres of untamed nature. In an era of over-tourism, this kind of purity comes with a trade-off: You won’t find five-star hotels or celebrity-chef restaurants on Tahiti Iti. In fact, it doesn’t have any hotels at all—and won’t be opening any ahead of the Games. 

Locals have been adamant that Olympic infrastructure remains minimal. The proposed construction of a three-storey judging tower directly on the reef at Teahupo’o has been a major concern among residents and environmental groups. The one Olympic improvement locals welcome is a new bridge that will connect to the beach in front of Chopes. 

I check into Villa Mitirapa, newly built in the rural community of Afaahiti, a 25-minute drive from Teahupo’o. Giant carved wooden doors lead to an open-air living room, a plunge pool and views of the lagoon, and every evening a chef drops by with a delicious preparation of the catch of the day. In the village of Teahupo’o, you’ll find family-owned guesthouses such as Vanira Lodge, a collection of three bungalows tucked up in Te Pari (“the cliffs” in Tahitian), as well as A Hi’o To Mou’a, a B&B run by the proprietor of hiking outfit Heeuri Explorer.

2024 French Olympian Vahine Fierro, who first surfed Teahupo’o as a teenager

Pro surfers are typically hosted by the same local families year after year. (During the Olympics, athletes will be housed on a ship anchored in a sandy area offshore to avoid damaging the seabed.) Hobgood tells me he made visits to his “adopted Tahitian family” for nearly two decades. For the past five years, he has come to Teahupo’o to help coach reigning Olympic champ, Hawaiian Carissa Moore and now stays with her adopted family. “They take us on hikes you’d otherwise never know how to access and have rich stories about the place,” he says. “And everything they prepare for us at meals, from the passion-fruit jam to the chilli sauce, is homemade.” 

The next big thing being “adopted” by a Tahitian family is hiring Raimana van Bastolaer as your guide. For a first-time visitor, Tahiti Iti can be far harder to access than other islands, which is perhaps why so few people explore the peninsula. You need a local to reveal where to go, and van Bastolaer makes you feel like an insider. 

Surfer and guide Raimana van Bastolaer

Born and raised in the capital of Papeete, he was one of the first locals to surf Chopes, and over the years, his intricate knowledge of the wave has earned him the nickname the Godfather of Teahupo’o. He was out in the channel with Hamilton the day the American had his historic ride, and John John Florence and Kelly Slater are among the surfers who stay with him when they’re in town. Van Bastolaer even did a stint as a part-time coach at Surf Ranch, Slater’s central California wave park. Thanks to his non-stop pursuit of a good time, everyone wants to be around him. Now 48, the stockily built, dauntingly athletic van Bastolaer has become the go-to guide for visitors ranging from Julia Roberts, Margot Robbie and Jason Momoa to Mark Zuckerberg and Prince Harry. “I get to yell at princes and CEOs,” he jokes. “I’m out in the water with them telling them when to pop up and paddle. And they love it.” 

Tahiti’s unofficial ambassador lives and breathes surfing. Through his company, Raimana World, he takes just one or two guests at a time on private curated surf tours throughout French Polynesia’s two central archipelagoes: the Society Islands (which are home to Tahiti) and the Tuamotus; he plans to add Fiji soon. Some of his clients base themselves on their own yachts or charter one through Pelorus. The yacht specialist’s Tahiti portfolio includes the 77-metre La Datcha, which has two helipads, a submersible and a spa. 

Motu Nao Nao, a private new island resort in French Polynesia.

Other clients he directs to exclusive properties, such as Motu Nao Nao, a new 25-hectare private-island resort in the cerulean lagoon of Raiatea with just three enormous villas crafted from coral, wood, and shells. A roving bar bike delivers custom cocktails to guests as they explore the island, and the French chef, inspired by Asian and North African cuisine, prides himself on never repeating a dish, no matter how long guests stay. 

Van Bastolaer gets only one or two clients a year experienced enough to be coached into a barrel at Teahupo’o. “Most just want to get close to the wave to feel its energy and hear it roar,” he says. “That’s enough to give you an adrenaline rush.” Locals are incredibly protective of their surf spots, and van Bastolaer stays away from popular breaks. “Out of respect, I don’t take clients out if there are more than a few people in the water. Luckily, I have access to toys that get us away from the crowds.” He island-hops by helicopter, yacht or jet boat, then transports guests to surf breaks via high-speed RIB (rigid inflatable boat) or jetski. Most days average two to three hours of surfing, and he sprinkles in other activities such as snorkeling, whale watching (July to November) and barbecues at his house. 

Papara, the beautiful black-sand beach where van Bastolaer honed his skills, 45 minutes from Teahupo’o, will be turned into a fan viewing zone with jumbo screens during the Olympics. Papara is one of the most forgiving surf breaks in Tahiti, and I head here to longboard. La Plage de Maui, a simple restaurant with sandy floors, plastic chairs and lagoon vistas, becomes my daily après-surf spot. Located in West Taiarapu, 40 minutes east of Papara, with nothing but coastal road and local homes in between, this humble spot sits next to Maui Beach, one of the only white-sand beaches on the whole island. This stretch may be Tahiti Iti’s best-kept secret. 

After a barefoot walk along the shore, I don’t bother to put my shoes back on before heading into the restaurant, where servers proudly sport Tahiti Pro T-shirts and posters of pros hang on the walls. At a waterfront table, I spot rainbow-hued parrotfish and Moorish idol in the glassy lagoon. I’m pretty sure I could live on a diet of local Hinano beer and poisson cru, Tahiti’s national dish of raw fish marinated in lime juice and coconut milk. My final day, I ask my waitress if she’s concerned the Olympics might overexpose this laid-back, oft-forgotten enclave. She just laughs in reply. 

On the drive back to my villa, I remember what van Bastolaer told me when we were introduced a year ago: Tahiti Iti’s specialness is lost on those seeking overwater bungalows or nightlife. It’s a place you can’t know in a day. The island reveals itself to you slowly. And even when van Bastolaer is your host, he won’t give away all its secrets. 

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The Boldest, Most Exciting New Timepieces From Watches & Wonders 2024

Here are the highlights from the world’s biggest watch releases of the year.

By Allen Farmelo, Carol Besler, Paige Reddinger, Oren Hartov, Victoria Gomelsky, Cait Bazemore, Nick Scott, Justin Fenner 10/04/2024

Watches & Wonders, the world’s largest watch show, is in full swing in Geneva. The highly anticipated cascade of new releases is marked by confident individual brand identities — perhaps a sign that watchmakers are done scrambling through the violent collision of restricted supply and soaring demand for high end watches. All seem to be back on solid footing.

Steady confidence is a good thing. Consider Jaeger-LeCoultre offering up traditionally styled grand complications or Vacheron Constantin revamping the classic Patrimony with smaller cases and vintage-inspired radially brushed dials. Consider TAG Heuer celebrating the 55th anniversary of the square Monaco with a skeletonized flyback confidently priced at US$183,000, or Moser similarly showing off a fascinating skeletonized tourbillon in its distinctive 40 mm Streamliner at US$86,900. IWC has leaned hard into their traditionally styled Portugieser line, including an astounding Eternal Calendar complication. We find the storied French houses of Cartier, Chanel and Hermes blurring the lines between jewelry and watchmaking with the technical prowess and artistic whimsy that originally earned these brands their exalted place in the hearts and minds of sophisticated aesthetes. Confidence abounds in 2024.

We could go on and on with examples, but the watches below will demonstrate that for 2024 the big watch brands dared to be themselves, which appears to have given them the confidence to take some seriously compelling horological risks. We have separate coverage of off-show releases and, of course, Patek and Rolex, so keep and eye out for those.

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A Gucci Garden Blooms in Sydney

On a rainy Sydney night, the drinks talent from Maybe Sammy mixed with guest bartenders from Giardino 25 in Florence, for a night of liquid magic.

By Belinda Aucott-christie 13/04/2024

Since hanging out its shingle in 2022, Giardino 25, the all-day café and bar located in Gucci’s palatial, multidisciplinary space in Florence, has been a boon to stylish tipplers. Taking inspiration from one of its previous tenants (a longstanding florist), the garden-themed joint (Giardino is the Italian word for garden) serves delicious aperitivi and dangerously addictive cocktails.

 

Umbrian native Martina Bonci is in hair-to-brogue Gucci for her artful bartending session at El Primo Sanchez. 
Aurora cocktai at Giardino 25, Florence.

Giardino 25 took bloom this past Tuesday at a pop-up at El Primo Sanchez in Paddington. The Maybe Cocktail Festival in Sydney is a series of 20 events scattered throughout the city curated by the award-winning Sammy’s Cocktails team. The festival aims to spur knowledge-sharing and foster excellence in Australia’s drinks scene.

“Last year we held 16 events and they were all packed,” says Stefano Catino, director of hospitality at Public, the management company behind Maybe Sammy venues and bottled drinks, “so this year we’ve curated extra events and flown out even more international bars and bartenders.”

“Nineteen of the 21 events are free to attend, which is very important to us,” he continues. “The cost of living is high, and it’s very expensive for Australians to travel overseas, so this festival allows people to drink cocktails from an amazing bar in Rome or try a Tommy’s Margarita from the gentleman who created it without the cost of a plane ticket.”

Dressed head to toe in Gucci,  and using the bar as her personal catwalk, Giardino 25’s special guest, Martina Bonci, looked every bit the star behind the bar. “We have brought our mix of classic Italian influences and innovation,” she told Robb Report, “so guests in Australia get a little slice of what we do in Florence.”

Among her tantalising pours were powerful dirty martinis decorated with shimmering gold leaf and Aurora, a transparent twist on the Negroni.

Reflecting on her whirlwind trip down under, Bonci said their visit to Bondi Beach and the cocktails at Maybe Sammy were the highlights.

“The bartenders at Maybe Sammy are world-class,” she explained. “There is a good reason they win awards and have a respected reputation overseas. And El Primo Sanchez has such a fun atmosphere—we had a great night.”

Martina Bonci, Bar Manager at Gucci Giardino 25, has been honoured twice as ‘Best Bartender in Italy’ by both the Bargiornale and Blue Blazer Awards. To her right her colleague Matteo Piga.

Bonci, who came to prominence in a long string at Milanese hipster joint Gesto and is known for her use of agave, favors drinks dripping with seasonal fruits and citrus flavors. Having tried her creations, we do, too.

She made a serious impression on Sydneysiders, who would do well to make a pilgrimage to see her in action on home turf. As if any of us need another reason to visit Italy.

The Maybe Cocktail Festival, continues this weekend in Sydney, with the public welcome to attend a Bartenders Brunch at Sydney’s Alpha on Sunday from 11.00 am – 3.00 pm, hosted by George Calombaris. 

View the program: Maybe Cocktail Festival @maybe_cocktail_fetsival

All images courtesy of Gucci.

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Patek Philippe Brings Back Collector Favourites at Watches & Wonders 2024

Both the Nautilus Chronograph and Aquanaut Travel Time receive a welcome return.

By Josh Bozin 10/04/2024

If you’re a watch fan, there’s every reason to believe that a Patek Philippe Nautilus, Patek Philippe Aquanaut—or both—would be high on your wish list. Both collections are of historical significance, helping pave the way for the influence of the steel sports watch category—and subsequent chokehold on the market today.

So, when Patek Philippe unveiled its newest releases at Watches & Wonders in Geneva, it was a pleasant surprise to see the return of two of the best past iterations of the Nautilus and Aquanaut collections.

Patek Philippe
Patek Philippe Nautilus Chronograph

First, we get a new Nautilus Chronograph, with the return of the revered 5980, now replete with a new case in white gold and a denim-like strap (a contentious issue among watch pundits). Discontinuing all Nautilus 5980 models earlier this year, including the collector-favourite 5980/1AR in Rose Gold, left a sombre feeling among Nautilus fanatics. These celebrated chronographs, renowned for their distinctive porthole-inspired design and air of sporty elegance, are some of the most sought-after watches in the Patek Philippe catalogue. Thus, the revival of the 5980, now in white gold, is a cause for collectors’ celebration.

The new offering retains its chronograph function with mono-counter tracking 60-minute and 12-hour counter at 6 o’clock on the dial, but now comes on a new denim-inspired, hand-stitched fabric strap with a Nautilus fold-over clasp in white gold—some will love it, some won’t.

Patek Philippe
Patek Philippe

The Calibre CH 28‑520 C/522 powers this new Nautilus with its flyback chronograph, all of which is visible through the transparent sapphire crystal caseback. The dial is also incredibly eye-catching, with a beautiful opaline blue-gray hue accentuated by white gold-applied hour markers with a white luminescent coating. It is priced at approximately $112,000.

Also returning to the fold is the Patek Philippe Aquanaut Travel Time, now with its own bluish hue dial—similar to its Nautilus counterpart. After discontinuing the Aquanaut Travel Time 5164A this year, as well—a watch often regarded as the greatest Aquanaut to date—Patek Philippe surprised all with the new 5164G in white gold. Its greatest attribution is the clever Travel Time GMT function, which clearly rivals the Rolex GMT-Master II as perhaps the travel-friendly watch of choice (if acquiring one was that simple, of course).

For those who prefer the Aquanaut’s sportiness and easy-wearing rubber strap, this newest iteration, with its Opaline Blue-gray dial and matching rubber strap with a deployant clasp, is undoubtedly an icon in the making. The new 5164G has a 40mm case and features the Calibre 26‑330 S C FUS movement, which can also be viewed via the transparent sapphire crystal caseback.

Expect to pick up the new Aquanaut Travel Time for around $95,250.  

Patek Philippe
Patek Philippe Aquanaut Travel Time

 

Follow @robbreportau for all your Watches & Wonders coverage, and more!

 

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Rolex Kicks Off Watches & Wonders 2024 with a New GMT-Master II

The new stainless steel GMT-Master II has already been dubbed the “Bruce Wayne”.

By Josh Bozin 09/04/2024

It may not be the GMT that watch pundits were speculating on—or that collectors were hoping for—but the new Rolex GMT-Master II with a new grey and black ceramic bezel adds dazzle to the revered Rolex collection, which this year celebrates its 70th anniversary.

The idea of a new Rolex GMT launching at the world’s biggest watch fair is cause for a little madness. While the watch community eagerly awaited what was thought to be the discontinuation of the highly sought-after GMT “Pepsi” and the return of the GMT “Coke,” the luxury Swiss watchmaker had other plans.

Instead, we’re presented with a piece that, on paper, hasn’t changed much from previous GMT releases. That’s not to say that this isn’t an impressive release that will speak to consumers—the new GMT-Master II ref.126710GRNR, dubbed the “Bruce Wayne,” is definitely a sight for sore eyes.

Rolex
Rolex

This new GMT retains the same dimensions and movement as the other watches in the GMT collection, along with its 40mm size case and the option to fit either an Oyster or Jubilee bracelet. The obvious changes, albeit subtle, come in the way of its mostly monochrome return; a fact that will appease traditionalists. If you’re opposed to the attention-drawing “Pepsi”, “Sprite”, or “Batman” iterations, this model is a stealthier pick—much like pseudonymous Bruce Wayne.

The other noticeable change is the “GMT-Master II” now applied in green text and a 24-hour hand in green; perhaps a nod to the 2007 Basel World GMT release.

Like many Rolex timepieces, this will generate great hype and attention, so don’t expect allocations to come easily.

Rolex
Rolex

Model: GMT-Master II
Reference Number: 126710GRNR

Diameter: 40mm
Case Material: Stainless steel
Dial Colour: Black
Lume: Chromalight on hands and hour markers
Water Resistance: 100m
Bracelet: Oyster or Jubilee

Movement: Caliber 3285
Functions: Hours, minutes, seconds, date, GMT
Power Reserve: 70 hours
Winding: Automatic

Price: $17,150 (Oyster); $17,500 (Jubilee)
Availability: Now. Non-limited edition

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