I have recently returned from a big-game-hunting convention held by the SCI – Safari Club International – in Las Vegas. I am writing a book about Beretta and I was there for a few days to soak up the local colour – and by George, was it polychromatic.
I like a good trade fair and this was something new. It was not the SIHH nor even BaselWorld watch fair, but an agreeably heterogeneous gathering of like-minded individuals. There were scrimshaw experts and knife-makers, furriers and saddlers, along with a great many PHs (professional hunters) offering their services.
Some stands consisted of little more than a table, over which a cloth had been thrown, and a few photographs showing men with rifles posing alongside their trophies. Perhaps the most esoteric promotional approach was a safari operator that screened footage of a man being attacked by a leopard. The little film showed the leopard getting shot at, but that only succeeded in enraging it, so that it flew at one of its assailants and clamped its jaws around the man’s legs. It struck me as a strange way to entice travellers and, quite frankly, scared the life out of me.
Other stands were more elaborate and imparted a greater sense of calm and permanence. Purdey, for instance, which is marking its bicentenary this year, had brought a little bit of its Long Room to Las Vegas. Meanwhile, Niels van Rooyen, creative director of Holland & Holland, presided over the double-Dutch booth, and in his rare quiet moments, he would retire to one of those folding canvas chairs to work on his impersonation of Robert Redford in Out of Africa.
As befitted a firm with almost half a millennium in the business of making long metal tubes into which one stuffs propellant and projectiles, the Beretta stand took on the air of a citadel or one of those compact city states that characterised Italy during the Renaissance. Part of it was the sort of tented area that one might see on safari in Africa, and functioned as a clothing shop; another was a little drawing room, where one could book a safari or bird-shooting trip; a third was the gunsmith’s room, with a small engraving studio; then there was the bit where you would find one of the Olympic medallists who shoots with a Beretta; and finally, on an upper storey, was the leather-armchaired sanctuary, otherwise known as the Hornarium, where the legendary Peter Horn II, former professional hunter, sells Beretta’s best guns.
Presiding over this city state was its ruler, Dr Franco Beretta, a member of the 15th generation of the family to devote itself to making firearms.
Bands often talk about the world they evoke, but I am quite a literally minded person, so I like to have these things spelled out. Here it was, the whole thing: I could buy the clothing to match my gun and book a holiday where I could use the clothes and wear the gun (or do I mean the other way around?). Added to that, Ed the gunsmith could baffle me with technical information about receivers, sight planes and whatnot, and I could listen to hunting yarns while watching the sideplates of an action being engraved and picking up some shooting tips from a five-times Olympic medallist (there is apparently just one thing you have to do: practise an awful lot).
I rather like these sorts of stands at trade fairs, because they provide a little home from home, somewhere that is familiar and hospitable, and I do believe that the family-owned firms have an edge here, as they seem particularly well suited to creating welcoming booths. For instance, at BaselWorld I could quite happily spend several days on the Chopard stand, which, thanks to its VIP lounge/gourmet restaurant with plush banquettes, as well as its central piazza-like café seating area, makes a pleasant break from the horological mayhem beyond.