Italy's Carlo Riva, boat designer to the jet set, dies at 95

Catherine MARCIANO
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Riva, seen here in 2012, turned his family company into an icon of glamour and elegance

French film icon Brigitte Bardot had one. So did Hollywood beauty Elizabeth Taylor. King Hussein of Jordan, James Bond star Sean Connery, Italian screen siren Sophia Loren -- the list goes on.

All of them at one time or another owned a Riva speedboat, a 1950s and 60s icon of "Made in Italy" luxury which became one of the symbols of the Italian golden era of La Dolce Vita.

Carlo Riva, the great-grandson of the shipbuilder who started the company in 1842, under whose stewardship the brand attracted the glamorous jet-set crowd, died Monday in his hometown of Sarnico, in northern Italy aged 95.

Ferretti Group chief executive Alberto Galassi hailed Riva as "a brilliant creator of boats".

"To me, this is a personal loss of a master, an example of brilliance, of commitment and of dedication to work," Galassi said in a statement released Tuesday.

Yacht builder Ferretti bought the company in 2000, bringing it home to Italy after it was owned by a series of foreign firms since the Riva family sold it in 1969.

The high-end speedboats, which included models like the Ariston, the Tritone, the Sebino and the Florida, took workers upwards of 3,000 hours to craft.

In 1962, the company released the powerful twin-engine Riva Aquarama, the last original wooden-hulled Riva model, considered the "Ferrari of the waters" in the boating world.

In production until 1996, the Aquarama -- with its smooth, elegant lines -- became Riva's most famous, most expensive, and most labour intensive work, blending a deep, rich wood exterior with a white and turquoise leather interior.

"All the celebrities of the time wanted a Riva, from Brigitte Bardot with her Florida, to King Hussein of Jordan and his Aquarama to Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton with their Tritone," Paola Procopio, a Ferretti sales manager, told AFP in an interview in 2010.

Ferruccio Lamborghini had an Aquarama built in 1968 with V12 engines taken from his line of sports cars, making it the fastest Riva Aquarama ever built.

- 'Passion in production' -

Ferretti now builds larger Riva boats with hulls made of resin and fibreglass, running from 10 metres (33 feet) to 35 metres and priced between 500,000 euros ($531,000) and 12 million euros.

But in a nod to tradition, "little" Rivas -- Aquariva, the 10-metre descendant of the mythical Aquarama, and the 13-metre Rivarama -- are still finished with mahogany, with no fewer than 20 coats of varnish, meticulously applied by hand.

"Carlo Riva's boats will always be the finest in the world," Galassi said, "a source of inspiration to all of us who feel a strong sense of responsibility for the stewardship of and for taking forward into the future the leading brand in world yachting."

Riva, who told AFP in a 2012 interview in Monaco that he built his first boat at 17, "a little rowing boat," said the most beautiful woman he ever brought aboard a Riva yacht was Loren.

"There was passion in the production," she added. "He considered his workers like his family," Lia Riva, one of Riva's daughters, said.