Watches that are more like works of fine art

Watchmaking remains one of the last bastions for the preservation of exquisite handicrafts.

By Jonathon Keats 20/06/2017

Visiting the Russian town of Vyatka in 1837, Alexander Nikolaevich Romanov was seized by the urge to buy a pocket watch. The timepiece he coveted was expensive – nearly twice the cost of a watch cased in gold – though that did not concern the future tsar. What really caught his attention was that the watch was locally made, completely carved out of wood.

The maker was a man named Semyon Ivanovitch Bronnikov, a carpenter who taught himself horology while repairing wooden clock enclosures. He became a watchmaker by trial and error, cutting his gears by hand and fitting his wooden movements into cases of birch; only the springs, pivots and pinions were metal. He taught this métier to his sons, one of whom passed his knowledge on to his own son. By the early 20th century, when the last of the dynasty retired, the Bronnikovs had likely built some 500 timepieces.

Wooden watchmaking was a bona fide Vyatka tradition and the demise of the custom was a loss to Slavic cultural heritage. Nearly a century later, a young Ukrainian cabinetmaker became interested in horology while restoring the cases of old grandfather clocks. Like the Bronnikovs, Valerii Danevych had no metalworking skills – let alone horological training – so he started making clocks instinctually, crafting his own wooden gears with a saw. The Bronnikov watches, some of which are now in the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, soon inspired him to try his hand at miniaturisation. He began creating pocket watches and wristwatches of increasing complexity, culminating in a dual retrograde wristwatch with flying tourbillon.

Danevych’s Retrograde took 1800 working hours to complete. Aside from several springs, all 188 parts (including pinions and pivots) are wood, a feat he achieved by taking advantage of the distinct physical characteristics of materials ranging from bamboo to ironwood. Some of these woods even surpass metal in certain respects, including self-lubrication. (Natural oils in woods were also exploited by John Harrison, an early carpenter-turned-watchmaker whose first record-breaking marine chronometer used oak cogs.) Revitalising the Bronnikov tradition, Danevych shares the richness of traditional crafts and also reminds us how easily they can be lost if not continuously practised.

The importance of old-world métiers d’art has been recognised by no less an institution than the United Nations, which has also acknowledged their precariousness: in recent years, UNESCO has broadened international protection of World Heritage Sites to encompass “intangible cultural heritage” ranging from Chinese calligraphy to Zmijanje embroidery. Yet the UN’s guardianship is fundamentally defensive. Cultural heritage needs to be practised and appreciated, and no institution or industry is more actively promoting and advancing historic métiersd’art than haute horlogerie.

In 1839, two years after Semyon Bronnikov sold his first pocket watch, Antoine Norbert de Patek and François Czapek started an horological partnership in Geneva. Patek, Czapek & Cie. specialised in decorating watch cases, a business that thrived since no watch was considered complete unless it was elaborately engraved. The craft required years of training and was notoriously unforgiving. An artisan had to control the tip of his burin with nothing more than the strength of his hands, confidently embellishing precious metal with arabesques and heraldry.

Exquisite workmanship established the new brand, which became Patek Philippe, a company renowned for combining fine watchmaking with choice artistry and for nurturing generations of craftsmen. Then tastes changed.

By the ’70s, nobody bought highly decorated watches and there was no longer a market for engravers. Faced by the prospect that artisans would seek other kinds of work and their skills would be lost, Patek continued to commission engraving, quietly putting unloved watches into storage.

It has taken just a few decades for Patek’s decision to be vindicated, and the talent of the brand’s engravers is now matched once more by the appreciation of collectors. The new Grandmaster Chime, released for the company’s 175th anniversary, is as lavishly ornamented as the most accomplished 19th-century creations. Every facet of the reversible rose-gold case is engraved, complementing the supremely complicated 1366-component movement and testifying to the vitality of case engraving as an art form.

Yet engraving was not the only traditional watchmaking métier threatened in the late 20th century, and Patek Philippe was not the only company to take responsibility for preserving the Swiss watchmaking heritage. Vacheron Constantin was also a crucial patron, sustaining the livelihood and savoir faire of artisans in disciplines like enamelling.

The value of what the brand preserved is evident in its latest collection of enamel-dialled watches, which feature the craft of miniature painting. The Métiers d’Art Savoirs Enluminés take inspiration from an art form that truly has gone extinct: the medieval art of manuscript illumination. Vacheron Constantin has selected three painted miniatures of mythical Celtic creatures from the 12th-century Aberdeen Bestiary, each faithfully reproduced on the upper level of a complicated gold watch dial.

The dials are created using the medieval technique of champlevé, in which gold is carved away and replaced by layers of enamel made of ground glass that fuses to the metal in a furnace. To emulate the rich hues of the original Aberdeen illumination, the enamels are coloured with metallic oxides. The delicate features of the animals are replicated by applying enamel with a fine brush in many translucent layers, with the dial fired after each application.

The enameller must know how the metal oxides will interact with one another and react to the heat of the fire, depending on years of experience and sometimes generations of expertise.

Without an industry to support the art form, individual artisans might not have the means to develop their craft and a millennium of accumulated knowledge could be forgotten. Such were the prospects in the ’70s. Yet through contemporary haute horlogerie– supported by the connoisseurship of collectors – métiers d’art associated with old-world watchmaking traditions are instead undergoing a renaissance.

Visiting the Ishikawa Prefecture of Japan in 2014, Philippe Delhotal heard about a painter so dexterous that he could inscribe a Buddhist prayer on a grain of rice. As the artistic director for La Montre Hermès, Delhotal was curious. He sought out 70-year-old Buzan Fukushima, a master of red painting on porcelain known as Aka-e, and inquired whether Fukushima would be willing to create two dozen Hermès watch faces by applying his traditional glazing technique to porcelain dials made in Sèvres.

The result was a first for both Aka-e and watchmaking. Depicting a legendary Japanese horse race delicately painted in shades of red and ochre with gold embellishment, the Slim d’Hermès Koma Kurabe brings to watchmaking a 19th-century métier d’art conventionally applied to vases, and brings to Aka-e a new source of patronage. From the standpoint of haute horlogerie, all cultural heritage is esteemed and every métier deserves consideration.

Maki-e – a type of lacquerwork in which powders of precious metal and pigment are embedded between layers of resin to create images in relief – has also recently begun to enhance and be enhanced by haut de gamme watchmaking. Originating in eighth-century Japan, the art form is treasured by the Japanese Imperial Household, which over the past century has commissioned some of the finest examples from the Yamada Heiando Studio.

Several years ago, Yamada Heiando began to make dials for Chopard L.U.C XP Urushi watches. The work is personally undertaken by Minori Koizumi, the studio’s master craftsman. To make his 2015 dial celebrating the Chinese Year of the Goat required dozens of applications of powder and lacquer, sequentially deposited and polished by hand over a full month. Each layer contributes depth, but Koizumi must also take care to avoid buildup that would obstruct the watch hands. To serve the needs of horology, the traditional technique has been adapted: as a métier d’art, Maki-e is both ancient and novel.

A similar renewal is taking place with gem carving, or glyptic, which dates back to ancient Mesopotamia, where insignia were cut into stone cylinders used as seals. In Greco-Roman times intaglio- and cameo-cut gems were set in jewellery, and by the Renaissance Italian artisans composed whole scenes in carved jaspers and agates.

Avid collectors of glyptic included Lorenzo de’ Medici and Catherine the Great. The craft has been neglected over the past 150 years, however, and few masters of glyptic persist.

In the Geneva-area municipality of Carouge, Chanel found one of them and commissioned him to make carved stone dials for its Mademoiselle Privé ladies’ watch collection, inspired by imagery of birds on Coco Chanel’s antique Coromandel screens. New tools had to be designed to manipulate the minuscule pieces of carnelian, turquoise and lapis, and the thinness of the dial required that the scenery be rendered in forced perspective. With Mademoiselle Privé, Chanel is not only helping to return glyptic to its former glory, but also inspiring glyptic artisans to be inventive.

In much the same way, micromosaic was once among the most coveted of arts, only to be nearly forgotten. Developed in 18th-century Rome, where they were known as eternal paintings, the diminutive mosaics decorated jewellery and vases. Like the ancient floor and wall mosaics that inspired them, micromosaics were crafted by fitting together thousands of tiny coloured glass pieces to make images or patterns. Unlike mosaic floors, some micromosaics used semiprecious stones. They reached their peak with Napoleon, who gave them to dignitaries he sought to impress, and now they are regaining their former prestige through the efforts of Cartier.

Over the past few years, the company has presented several watches with micromosaic dials. One of the most recent examples, depicting a white Royal Bengal tiger, incorporates irregularly shaped cacholong tesserae on a background of square-cut lapis lazuli, dumortierite and blue agate tiles. Each watch face includes more than 500 minuscule stones and each composition takes more than 60 hours of painstaking labour.

But time is even more significant in another sense. Like any métier d’art, micromosaic takes years to master. By continuously producing micromosaic dials and presenting new challenges, Cartier sustains the art form as artisans mature.

The term ‘métier d’art’evokes heritage. By nurturing and reviving traditional crafts, haute horlogerie ensures that heritage does not become history. However, sustaining ancient arts is not enough; haute horlogerie reaches its full potential when it also begins new traditions of craftsmanship by creating new métiers.

Recently, the future came courtesy of Harry Winston. With its Premier Precious Butterfly collection, the company invented a technique that may one day be as classic as micromosaic or Maki-e. Watch faces are coloured with iridescent powder dusted from the wings of butterflies, making the powder fundamentally unlike the pigments used in paints, glazes, enamels and lacquers. Pigments take their colour by absorbing a specific wavelength of light, but because the colouration of butterflies is structural, light waves are selectively refracted and reflected. With the Premier Precious Butterfly collection, Harry Winston put this vivid effect in the hands of artisans.

And that is where all great métiers d’art begin. Just consider the creative handiwork of Semyon Ivanovitch Bronnikov.

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Watch This Space: Justin Hast

Meet the game-changing horological influencers blazing a trail across social media—and doing things their own way.

By Josh Bozin 09/07/2024

In the thriving world of luxury watches, few people own a space that offers unfiltered digital amplification. And that’s precisely what makes the likes of Brynn Wallner, Teddy Baldassarre, Mike Nouveau and Justin Hast so compelling.

These thought-provoking digital crusaders are now paving the way for the story of watches to be told, and shown, in a new light. Speaking to thousands of followers on the daily—mainly via TikTok, Instagram and YouTube—these progressive commentators represent the new guard of watch pundits. They’re actively swaying the opinions, and the dollars, of the up-and-coming generations who represent the new target consumer of this booming sector.

JUSTIN HAST

@justinhast

Credit Oracle Time

There’s something comforting about Justin Hast’s watch commentary. It could be his broad English accent; a soothing melodic chime that hits all the right notes. But rather, it’s probably his insatiable thirst for all the little things in and around watches. It jumps right off the page with anything he’s ever written, and it’s infectious if you tune into his Instagram reels, where he speaks to over 50,000 followers almost daily.

Above all, he simplifies what, for the everyday enthusiast, can sometimes be a dry, jargon-heavy topic.

“I never really trained as a writer, photographer or producer of any kind,” says Hast. “It was very much, get stuck in and see what sticks. It’s not lost on me what a privilege it is to have access to these brands, these watches, and to the shows and events. I feel like a kid on Christmas morning every Monday.”

After spending a decade researching watches, enduring the drudgery of his office job, Hast’s big break came when he met Frank Geelen, owner and CEO of the influential Monochrome Watches website, at a Bell & Ross boutique opening in London.

“I can’t remember how much Frank drank that night when he agreed to allow me to write a story for him,” he quips. “That was the starting point that allowed me to pick up a camera and explore the watch world.”

From that chance encounter, Hast has gone on to contribute influential words to the likes of Hodinkee, Mr Porter, Revolution Watch and Forbes. He is the author of The Watch Annual, which was created for watch enthusiasts in 2020 as a means of cataloguing the best timepieces of the year.

 

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A post shared by Justin Hast (@justinhast)

Listening to Hast, it’s fair to say that he lives and breathes watches, and it’s been this way for a large chunk of his life. He recalls two formative moments: the first, age 10, when he received his first red G-Shock watch from a schoolfriend; the second came with the passing down of his grandfather’s Omega Constellation Day-Date —a watch designed by Gérald Genta.

That experience goes a long way to explaining Hast’s affinity with vintage dress watches. Unsurprisingly, then, his top four picks from the recent Watches & Wonders fair in Geneva are all vintage-inspired pieces designed for the modern watch consumer: the Piaget Altiplano Ultimate Concept Tourbillon, the IWC Portugieser Eternal Calendar, the Vacheron Constantin Patrimony 39 mm in rose gold, and the Laurent Ferrier Classic Moon.

Hast’s motto for life is “win the day”, one that he lives by as he continues on his journey to “inspire the next generation of watch enthusiasts”. And it’s clearly a mission already accomplished.

Read more about the watch industry’s horological influencers Bryan Wallner and Teddy Baldassarre.

 

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Watches & Wonders 2024 Showcase: TAG Heuer

This year at Watches & Wonders TAG Heuer continued on its path towards high-watchmaking status.

By Josh Bozin 09/07/2024

There was a moment last year when TAG Heuer surprised the watch world (and naysayers of the brand)—you couldn’t have missed it. At Only Watch, the biennial charity auction of luxury one-off timepieces, TAG Heuer dropped the proverbial mic with its release of a unique Monaco Split-Seconds chronograph; a piece completely left of field for the otherwise mid-entry level luxury watchmaker.

It was then inconceivable to arrive at the Palexpo in Geneva, day one of Watches & Wonders, to find the very same Monaco Split-Seconds Chronograph as TAG Heuer’s hero release of 2024. Don’t mistake TAG Heuer’s intentions; this is a big moment for the brand, particularly as it endeavours to reach cult high-watchmaker status.

 

TAG Heuer Monaco Split-Seconds Chronograph

 

This new $200,000 Monaco, which is aptly released in its 55th anniversary year, is an absolute workhorse of a timepiece. Retaining all the hallmarks of its legendary racing history, the new Monaco features an open-worked aesthetic that completely draws the eye to its intricate design details and mechanics. This is, folks, the first mechanical split-seconds (or ‘Rattrapante’) chronograph that the brand has made, essentially allowing the wearer to measure two separate events that start simultaneously but have different durations.

Of course, powering such a watch is no small feat; TAG Heuer has called upon the expertise of Vaucher Manufacture Fleurier—a specialist manufacturer of high-end mechanical movements—to help craft the new TH81-00 caliber.

Available in two colour ways, red or blue, the watch also features a grade-5 titanium case (allowing for its lightness), a sapphire dial, and a neat 41 mm package that makes this a truely “wearable” timepiece—if the price tag doesn’t deter you.

If this is an indication of things to come for TAG Heuer, we’re all in.

tagheuer.com

Read more about this year’s Watches & Wonders exhibits from Rolex and JLC.

 

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Property of The Week: Swing Into Seclusion in Otago

Looking for the perfect marriage of seclusion and sophistication? This home’s proximity to world-class skiing and wine region makes it an irresistible asset.

By Belinda Aucott-christie 12/07/2024

Located in the charming hamlet of Arrowtown this six-bedroom country home offers plenty of room to breathe. With its proximity to pristine ski fields and world-class wine regions, the two-acre estate will appeal to active city-slickers seeking a sustainable tree change.

Just a putt away from the social life of the renowned Hills Golf Club, 214 McDonnell has private access to a world of laidback leisure.

Manicured gardens and luxurious minimal interiors makes 475 sqm of house feel even more expansive and cinematic. Adding to the dream is the property’s sunny north-facing position. Each of the main rooms has breathtaking views up to Mt Soho and Coronet Peak, then across to the stunning Crown Range. 

A grand entertaining terrace centres on a log burning fire with a layout that encourages indoor/outdoor dining.

Residents will never be lonely. They can expect to welcome children home for the ski season each winter, and to welcome friends to Otago’s excellent wine regions in summer.

The home’s interior has been kept minimal and maps perfectly to the awe-inspiring location. Modern integrated technology, heating and convenient fixtures deliver a fresh take on country style. Open-plan living invites easy contemplation of the mountain views, while interstitial spaces help to keep life uncomplicated.

The opulent master bedroom, with ensuite and walk-in wardrobe, enjoys a chilled L-shaped layout with commanding views of snow-capped mountains beyond the window frames. The master’s inviting nook not only caters to owners who are fans of 5-star hotels, but also situates the love nest in a sun trap perfect for reading.  

The three extra guest bedrooms and two bathrooms are meticulously presented; the fixtures and fittings recede from view with materials that meld flawlessly with the nature-first vibe.

The piece de résistance is the stand-alone guesthouse, featuring its own private entrance and terrace. Here the interior mimics the main home, with pleasant open-plan living, separate dining, kitchen and bathroom. And it boasts its own private, outdoor zone. 

The village itself is equally inviting. With a tree-lined main street featuring heritage row cottages and a good selection of restaurants, shops and cafés—you’ll never want for attraction beyond the front door. 

With the Alpine tourist hot spot of Queenstown just 20 minutes away by car, you can be at the airport in under half an hour: Either taking off on your next adventure, or collecting treasured guests to deliver back to your private estate.

Learn more from Sarena Glass at Sotheby’s New Zealand. Email: sarena.glass@nzsir.com

 

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Why BMW’s First Electric Cars Are Future Classics

Many things still feel contemporary about the BMW i3 and i8.

By Raphael Orlove 11/07/2024

In 2008, BMW committed to a multi-billion euro plot. It would retool its Leipzig plant to assemble two of the most environmentally-conscious cars ever designed, with carbon fibre passenger cells holding electric, plug-in hybrid, and gas-powered range extender drivetrains. Not until 2013 did they begin production. You could say they were a decade ahead of their time, but we’re still not ready for cars as daring as the i3 and i8.

Years before cries that EVs are too heavy and that plug-in hybrids offer a better compromise for the average car buyer, BMW poured resources into making an EV without the typical downsides of a battery electric vehicle. The idea was to make an electric car that didn’t require a gigantic battery pack, one that wasn’t perilously heavy. To do so, BMW would make the i3 into the world’s first mass-produced car made out of carbon fibre. This was no small feat.

The earliest uses of carbon fibre in cars go back to British race cars from the 1960s, and the first complete chassis to be made out of carbon fiber dates to the early 1980s. It wasn’t until the ’90s that we saw a carbon fibre chassis in a production road car, and that was with the Bugatti EB110, which cost around 3.2 million and required outsourcing the carbon work to the rocket division of French aerospace company Aerospatiale. Even in 2008, BMW’s plans for what it ultimately called the i cars really were at the leading edge.

The first of these to make production was the i3, a hatchback city car that would look at home parked in front of the Guggenheim in Bilbao. Big windows gave great visibility, and while the car was too short for four full doors, BMW squeezed suicide doors behind the fronts. With both opened up, the i3 was outstandingly bright and airy. The light interior, seats finished in wool and the dash finished with eucalyptus, certainly helped. BMW also used a plant called kenaf in the interior trim; it’s a natural fibre similar to jute. Kenaf had been used as a backing material underneath a synthetic coating. With the i3, BMW put it up front, lighter and more sustainable.

Photo: NurPhoto

BMW even sourced its carbon fibre from Washington State, where the factory could rely 100% on local hydropower. The company was using technical solutions to make a more sustainable new car.

Its styling was daring, as was how BMW put the i3 together. BMW effectively split the car in two. All of the car’s essential systems – battery, motor, suspension, crash structures, and the optional range extender – were carried on an aluminum skateboard called the “Drive module.” The “Life module” that housed the interior and framed the body panels was what was made out of carbon. The top and bottom halves were glued together, or “chemically bonded” if you want that to sound less scary.

BMW did successfully make the car pretty light for what it was, coming in between 1200 and 1300 kilograms depending on the trim. A Nissan Leaf weighed hundreds of kilograms more, a Chevrolet Volt nearly 400 kilos more.

Sticking to low-weight principles meant that the i3 was never going to have a huge battery, and the biggest available pack was still only 42.2 kWh. The EPA rated it at 246 kilometres of range. The “REX” range extender boosted that figure to 320 kilometres, with a two-cylinder engine from BMW’s motorcycle division shoehorned under the trunk. For all of BMW’s investment in the i3, these weren’t earth-shattering numbers.

Photo: picture alliance

All of its innovation was costly, and BMW’s city car ended up relatively expensive. It started at €34,950 in Germany, $61.300 AUD. That went up to $67,000 for the Range Extender model. The most expensive versions of the i3 topped out at nearly $89,000.

(Rather curiously, all range-extended BMW i3s have 10.9 litre petrol tanks. In the U.S., however, to legally qualify as a range-extended electric vehicle, the i3 could not have more range available from its internal combustion setup than its pure battery. At that point, the government would have classified the i3 as a plug-in hybrid, not unlike the Chevy Volt. As such, all range-extended i3s initially sold in America were restricted by software alone to use just 8.6 letters of that 10.9 litre tank. Only in 2017 when BMW introduced a longer-range battery could BMW digitally unlock the full 10 litres.)

Its high price meant the i3 asked a lot of compromises of a luxury car buyer just to have the most environmentally-friendly vehicle possible. A regular 3 Series cost about the same and was much easier to live with, unless you were regularly parking on dense urban streets. Most Americans don’t.

If anything, the rather practical i3 was too good at its job. All the money that BMW had invested in its technical innovations cost it its chance to make a dent in the car market.

That would have been fine if BMW continued to roll its high development costs into future models, perpetually bringing down its own prices, but BMW wasn’t interested in keeping its i thing going. Chief executive Norbert Reithofer stepped down early in 2015 and BMW canceled the car in 2022 with no second generation. The company has gone back to completely conventional ICE, hybrid, plug-in hybrid, and EV options. All of its EVs share their platforms with gas-burning equivalents, saving costs in development and on the showroom floor. They sell better than the i3 ever did.

BMW i3 Photo : picture alliance The i3 Brought Carbon Fiber to Mass Production

The only follow-up BMW did to the i3 was the dramatic i8, with butterfly doors opening up into a low slung cabin, flying buttresses directing air around its mid-mounted three-cylinder turbo engine. A dedicated PHEV, the i3’s engine did actually drive the rear wheels, and an electric motor drove the fronts. What shattered the illusion was that the front motor only made 97.6 kilowatts and the rear engine only 131. It might have looked like a supercar, but it didn’t drive like one. Like the i3, its carbon construction set it apart from its contemporaries, but also made it much more expensive than they ever were. In the U.S., the i8 started at a hair under $136,000 (AUD 200,000), which was a big ask for a car with three cylinders.

Following the same troubles as the i3, the i8 looked like one thing but was priced like another. It went on sale in 2014, not far behind the i3, and soldiered on through 2020, dying without a successor. An open-topped Roadster came in 2018 but didn’t change the car’s fate. Americans bought a grand total of 6,776 i8s through its entire production run. We buy that many Porsche 911s in a single year. Sometimes twice as many.

Photo: picture alliance

Taken at face value, the i8 is still a remarkable machine. A Porsche might be better on track, but the i8 is a dream realized in production form. It looks like nothing else on the road, even now.

And there is something that still feels contemporary about the i3. Its focus on low weight and low-impact manufacturing remains honorable. The electric car vision does us little good if it only reproduces the same more-is-more excess of internal combustion that clogs our roads with oversized vehicles.

As we now watch Tesla Cybertrucks lumber down the road at over 3,129 kilograms, GMC Hummer EVs pounding the pavement at over 4350 kilograms, BMW’s post-Recession vision is as relevant as ever.

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On the Crest

Surfing superstardom came early for Jack Robinson. Now Australia’s humble hero is chasing Olympic glory – keeping his head down.

By Horacio Silva 09/07/2024

There is a video on the internet of Jack Robinson at 15. In it, the pint-sized, towheaded Robinson, who was already considered the best young surfer on the planet, sports a cheeky gap-toothed smile and blunt bob to rival Lindy Chamberlain’s. Asked what he likes most about the sport, the shy grommet struggles for words, eventually offering, “Barrels, big hacks and airs.” 

Even at this age, Robinson prefers to let his surfing do the talking. But, as his interviewer surmises, don’t mistake reticence for unpreparedness: “When this young gun hits the surf, even the seasoned pros shake their heads in dismay.”

Aaron Hughes for WSL

Sixteen years later, Margaret River-born Robinson still beggars belief with his ability to seemingly walk on water. The bowl cut is gone (replaced by a new do that Robinson got for a recent photo shoot and that he jokingly refers to as “the full GQ”), but the difficulty in getting his point across remains, though not from a lack of effort. “Sorry, I’m trying to get my words together,” says Robinson, now 31 and based on the Gold Coast. “I didn’t sleep much last night and I’m hurting.”

He quickly explains that he was not out on the town with hard-partying surfer mates—far from it. These days, Robinson and his Brazilian wife, Julia, have a five-month-old baby boy, Zen, whose behaviour did not live up to the serenity of his name.

Beatriz Ryder

“I just woke up from a nap, actually,” Robinson adds. “At this stage, I get sleep wherever and whenever I can.”

He would do well to get some shut-eye. Robinson heads to Teahupo’o in Tahiti next month, where this year’s Olympic Games surfing competition is being held. Though he is currently ranked number three in the world, he has mastered some of the most challenging big-wave conditions, including a win with a late barrel at the Tahiti Pro in Teahupo’o last August, and is tipped as one of Australia’s best chances for gold.

With good reason, says Tom Carroll, the two-time world champion and Quiksilver ambassador. “That wave is up his alley,” says Carroll, who is now a meditation teacher on Sydney’s Northern Beaches. “He knows that break in all its various moods and forms. If the conditions are not favourable on the day, when some of his biggest rivals fall apart, he can still feel it out. He assesses the conditions in a nanosecond.”

It’s that fearless ability to be in the moment, to paddle out in anything and feel at home, that Carroll first noticed when Robinson was 11. “He has an innate sense for the water and the way it moves,” Carroll continues. “It revealed itself from the get-go and to see it expressed is quite extraordinary.”

Beatriz Ryder

These days Robinson is more focussed on the ordinary. “I’m trying to keep it simple,” he offers, “to stick to the same routines, and make sure that I am in a good headspace going into the Olympics.” Beyond countless hours in the water and gym, this means time spent on meditation, yoga and breath work. “It’s a super mental sport now,” he adds. “You have to be a smart competitor. It’s not just about surfing.”

Aside from the boards, gym equipment and yoga mats, the Robinson household is all prams, toys and nappies. “It doesn’t leave room for much of anything else,” he laments. “I love fishing and cars, and really want to get into flying planes but that will have to wait.” His role as a father has given him a different perspective on his sport and his own upbringing. Robinson, like many sporting phenoms, was coached by a domineering parent (his father Trev) and concedes it wasn’t always a swell ride.

“It was challenging growing up for sure,” he says. “But to reach this level you need people in your corner. Even if he was looked at as a little crazy by some people, he gave 100 percent and then some. I have a newfound respect for that.”

Aaron Hughes for WSL

He has the same regard for his competitors. When asked about the chances of his biggest rivals, Americans Griffin Colapinto and John John Florence, he is diplomatic to a fault. “I haven’t really thought about the other guys too much,” he demurs. “I’ve just been inspired by them. Even the last event with John John”—when Florence defeated Robinson in his native Western Australia—“I was just really inspired by his performance. It makes me want to do better.”

Perhaps if the whole modelling caper doesn’t pan out, after he retires from the sport he may want to consider a career in politics. “Nah,” he admits. “Leave that to others. Maybe that’s a path for Zen.”

The Olympic Games surfing competition begins July 27. 

 

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