It’s a balmy early summer afternoon in Antibes. Champagne is being poured, cigars are being lit, and Rolling Stones covers of slightly questionable quality are drifting up on the breeze from the courtyard of Bastion St-Jaume. We are at the start of the 2018 Panerai Classic Yacht Challenge (Eilean, the brand’s beloved yacht is, of course, in attendance) and I am sitting on the upper level of the fort, chatting with Panerai’s new ambassador, world champion freediver Guillaume Néry.
Néry doesn’t talk about diving like someone who’s been doing it for two decades. He speaks with the breathless enthusiasm of one whose love for the sport is clearly at its zenith, even though it’s been 16 years since he broke his first of four world records. He’s almost the opposite of the elegant, graceful figure he cuts in the ocean – excitable and animated. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine the charismatic 36-year-old doing anything else. “I was scared of having a normal life,” says Néry. “Thinking about the future and about what I could do in my life and all of the normal jobs that exist, I was terrified. I didn’t want to go to work from nine-to-five and have a vacation for a few weeks a year – I didn’t want to live that life. When I started freediving, I realised that everything I had been wanting was there.”
Néry began freediving at 14, driven, somewhat amusingly, by being defeated in a breath-holding contest with his friend. “I got pissed off! I thought: ‘OK, well there’s no way I’m losing this challenge, so I’m going to train.’” Holding his breath became a fascination for the young Néry, and soon he was able to manage between four and five minutes. “I realised it was something special, but I didn’t know what to do with it. One day I watched a documentary about Umberto Pelizzari, who was a legend of freediving in the 1990s, breaking records by holding his breath. I was like: ‘OK.’”
Born to Dive
Néry is obviously someone who thrives on challenge, becoming the world’s youngest record-holder at age 20, and breaking many more records since, including three further world records. But it’s not simply the thrill of competition that drives him – for Néry, diving is more than just a sport, it’s something close to transcendental. “Rule number one of freediving is enjoy being in this other world. You’re alone with the sea… the connection you have with nature is so strong, that it can really change your way of feeling and interacting with the world. It’s the most beautiful way to discover the magic of the underwater world – the fish, marine life, dolphins, whales, the light. Everything is beautiful. And it’s right there.”
For someone like Néry, who has spent most of his life competing in and raising awareness for the ocean, Panerai was a natural partner. “When I was approached by Panerai, I could feel straight away that it was the partner I had been waiting a long time for. The brand has a very strong link with the ocean – it’s really at their core. The first pieces Panerai designed for the sea were for submariners and maritime professionals, so they needed the most dependable pieces possible. Having a piece of machinery that’s accurate, that you can trust, is so important, because you need to rely on it when you’re in the ocean.”
For Panerai’s CEO, Jean-Marc Pontroué, Néry represented the perfect “hero” for the brand to partner with. “I’m very proud he is a part of our journey, as he strongly reflects our link with the sea,” says Pontroué. “As a multiple world record holder and the double reigning world champion, Guillaume’s goals go well beyond the simple realm of sport. Guillaume represents our everlasting link with the sea world. This two-time world champion really is made of the same substance as Panerai watches; they were both born to dive.”
Néry’s current watch of choice is the Luminor Submersible 1950 Amagnetic 3 Days Automatic Titanio PAM01389. A standout against Panerai’s more recent downsized pieces like the Due, this has a punchy, modern-industrial aesthetic and imposing 47mm case. There’s no getting around it – this is a big watch, but for Néry that’s also part of its appeal. It is legible at a glance, which speaks of the watch being designed with actual diving in mind. Unlike the comparable PAM00372, which is stainless steel, the PAM01389 is titanium, and that weight saving is a crucial part of its appeal. “Having a dive watch made out of titanium, that is very light and that I don’t feel, but that is also big enough to be able to read under water is very important,” says Néry. “In freediving, it’s all about economy of movement, about feeling naked in the water, and if you have a big heavy piece on your wrist, you aren’t one with the watch. You’re carrying something extra and that’s not acceptable.”
To my great delight, I get the chance to see why Néry loves this watch firsthand, when we take one out off the coast of Antibes and put it through its diving paces, strapped to my own fairly unprepared wrist. And it is marvellous. The Cote d’Azur, it must be said, truly lives up to its name when you’re under water, and even though I only manage a meagre 10m dive, I instantly understand the transportative sensation that Néry talks about (for the record Néry, the showoff, has been as deep as 139m, the deepest freedive ever recorded).
Once I conquered the sensation of being inverted, the 360-degree freedom is truly breathtaking. Despite its size, the PAM01389 feels all but incorporeal on my wrist, so light is it. The dial remains incredibly clear and easy-to-read even at (my admittedly moderate) depth. Néry, of course, has tested it in far more trying circumstances. “I realised that the watch is really the only thing I’m bringing with me from my life on land when I’m diving,” he says of the Panerai. “It needs to be able to follow me across all conditions, and I’m a guy that is in love with extreme conditions. I’ve been diving in the deep ocean, in the tropics, under the ice in Finland where the ocean was several degrees below zero and the watch is always a part of all of those adventures. It’s really become a part of me.”
Of course, since my time with Néry, Panerai has announced a timepiece honoring the world champion freediver, with the Submersible Chrono Guillaume Néry Edition PAM00982 ahead of SIHH 2019.
Néry no longer dives competitively, following his 2015 record attempt, during which his dive rope was set 10m too long, resulting in both his 139m record and him sustaining a lung barotrauma. Most of his time he is dedicated to working with the next generation of divers and raising awareness of our depleting oceans and marine life. But he will never stop diving. I feel that he sums things up for all freedivers as he says: “When I dive, for me it’s as if time stops. Like I open a window and lead another life for a few minutes.”