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Feb / Mar 2014
Silver Lining

WRITER: Nadine Khalil

When the demand for bespoke cars means you can have your Rolls-Royce laden with gold, this sterling collaboration between silversmiths Robbe & Berking and BMW shows that precious metal can still be used with taste.

 

From where I’m standing, a mahogany yacht hangs from the ceiling, massive and impressive. My eyes follow the way the wood striations run in parallel to meet at the curving bow. Its width is remarkable and gazing from beneath, I take it all in.

I am in the harbour city of Flensburg, at the northernmost tip of Germany. From the hotel I’m staying at by the waterfront, there are boats that take you to Denmark but contrary to what you might think, I’m not here for anything to do with boat making.

I’m actually standing in the Robbe & Berking shipyard, along with other journalists from around the world, to see a car, the fruit of the silvermaker’s recent collaboration with BMW. I am a little unsure about this event as I have never learned to drive but I soon realise that driving isn’t what today is all about.

On the face of it, Germany’s premier automobile manufacturer and Robbe & Berking aren’t the most obvious partners. Founded in 1874, Robbe & Berking is steeped in a long tradition of silvermaking – they only began making and restoring motor boats and yachts in 2008 – and even now, their core competence remains the production of flatware, frequently for those born with a silver spoon in their mouths. I’m not kidding. A single Robbe & Berking spoon costs several hundred dollars and they’ve been commissioned to make cutlery for the likes of Putin, the King of Malaysia, the German chancelleor, Omani royalty and Aga Khan.

With such sterling credentials, it’s easy to understand why BMW chose them as partner on their new 7-Series. Robbe & Berking’s intervention is immediately apparent. I notice as soon as I reach for the door handle that it’s elaborately finished with a martelé inlay, a hammering technique used exclusively in silver. This gives the reflective surface a rippled appearance, nicely blending the handcrafted with the industrial. Inside, enjoying the fine-grain Amaro Brown Merino leather interior, I notice another R&B addition: a pair of silver goblets along with a carafe on the back seat. Even the BMW logo on the bonnet and the boot lid is their work. Cast in 925 sterling silver - meaning they are 92.5 per cent pure silver - they mark the first time that BMW has entrusted another company with making their famous blue and white emblem in enamel and silver.

Oliver Berking, the fifth generation of his family to own the company, explains how this partnership came about. “I was at the Monaco boat show and saw what BMW did with Steinway & Sons, the piano-makers,” he says, referring to the limited edition BMW Individual 7-Series Composition. “So I wrote a letter to the CEO of BMW, Mr. Reithofer, asking him, how about a sterling silver BMW?”

It was as simple as that. Reithofer agreed and the idea led to the car I am here to see, BMW’s Individual 760Li Sterling, inspired by Robbe & Berking. The silver element is more tangible than the ‘musical’ aspect of Steinway’s limited series, which was confined essentially to a high-end audio system and black and white contrasting finishes reminiscent of a piano, for the exterior and interior design.

Another difference is that Robbe & Berking didn’t want to make a limited series. They were more interested in a one-off. “Our first concept was not to be built. We thought we would just make one to show people what is possible, what can be made out of a car,” Berking continues.

As part of the BMW Individual Manufaktur range, which began with a bespoke model for Karl Lagerfeld in the early 1990s, these cars are completely customisable. They go well beyond the scope of standard accoutrements like different finishes or trims and include the possibility of customising your steering wheel and roof liners and introducing unconventional materials. Like sterling silver. Some 20,000 are sold each year. Berking tells me that one BMW Individual Sterling has already been sold to the United States and other customers have asked for specific parts.

The latest creation is the most expensive 7-series to date. At 320,000 Euros (430,000 USD), it’s decked out in more than 10 kilogrammes of silver but is still far from being the showiest BMW. “Adrian [van Hooydonk, Senior Vice President of BMW Group Design] and I sat down in Munich to see how we wanted to do it,” Berking says. “At first, I wanted to add more silver but then we thought, it has to be less about the glamour and more about the power.”

True to its twin turbo 6-litre V12, the car is mechanically identical to the standard 760Li, which I got to experience when I was driven from the airport on a long, exhilarating drive along tree-lined roads, where the robust, roomy sedan shifted gears and speeds effortlessly upon each thrilling acceleration.

An aesthetic of motion seems to be integrated into the car as well, especially in the way the slightly undulating surface created by the hammering scatters the light, appearing to move depending on the angle from which you look at it. “Martelé is a very special technique in the way it reflects light,” Berking adds. It is actually an ancient method of hammering where no two blows should fall on the same spot and they should be of relatively equal force.

Additionally, where you’d normally expect to find wood, aluminium or chrome in a car, like on the kidney grille, the rear trim strip, tailpipe embellisher, door sill finishers or interior trim strips, there’s either silver plating or a hammered finish instead. Although the silver accents make for an arresting counterpart to the Singapore Grey exterior paintwork, it’s still subtle, both contained and striking.

As discreet as these touches may be, this is not to say a customer cannot ask for what they want in an Individual, however extravagant. In her presentation, Martina Starke, Head of BMW Individual Design catalogued some of the requests received in the past, like the Indonesian customer who wanted ostrich pillows and a leather basket for his dog and the journalist, who asked for an integrated magazine rack with reading lamps in the front.

“Anything is possible,” Berking explains, “but at the end of the day, it must have timeless elegance. People have to like it a hundred years from now.” Which brings us to practical considerations about durability.

“We made a plasma cover so the silver doesn’t tarnish,” he continues. “You know, silver and wood are two materials we love but there is nothing more pure and real than a silver sheet.”

As I leave this town of sailing boats and the murmuring sea and other allusions to movement, I resolve to learn how to drive this year.

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