The ocean floor is the final spending frontier for the world's richest people.
Journeying to see what's on the bottom aboard a personal luxury submarine is a wretched excess guaranteed to trump the average mogul's stable of vintage Bugattis or a $38-million round-trip ticket to the international space station aboard a Russian rocket.
Luxury submarine makers and salesmen from the Pacific Ocean to the Persian Gulf say fantasy and secrecy are the foundations of this nautical niche industry built on madcap multibillionaires.
"Everyone down there is a wealthy eccentric," says Jean-Claude Carme, vice president of marketing for U.S. Submarines Inc., a Portland, Ore., bespoke submarine builder. "They're all intensely secretive."
Who owns the estimated 100 luxury subs carousing the Seven Seas mostly remains a mystery.
Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft Corp., warned his boat builder that loose lips sink ships.
"Not really supposed to talk about the sub, but it's a fancy one, a mighty nice piece of work," says Fred Rodie, one of the engineers who designed Allen's undersea yacht at Olympic Tool & Engineering Inc. in Shelton, Wash.
"If I told you, I'd have to shoot you," says Bruce Jones, president and founder of U.S. Submarines, about the names in his client book.
Jones, the 50-year-old son of a marine-construction engineer, built his first diesel-and battery-powered sub in 1993. Every sales contract since then has included a confidentiality clause to protect the buyer's identity.
"This is a nasty cut-throat business," Jones says.
Herve Jaubert, a former French Navy commando, swapped his cutlass for a screwdriver in 1995 to build his first luxury submarine. Now CEO of Exomos, a Dubai custom sub maker, Jaubert takes a more romantic view of the work: "I'm a poet who builds submersible yachts for rich people."
"Spending $80-million for a boat that goes underwater in a market where one that doesn't costs $150-million is a deal," Jones says. "Our Phoenix 1000 is four stories tall, a 65-meter-long blend of a tourist and military sub."
It isn't cheap to run silent and sleep deep.
Jaubert's 10-passenger sub costs $15-million. A gymnasium is optional. U.S. Submarines' mid-size model is the $25-million Seattle 1000, a three-story-tall vessel with five staterooms, five bathrooms, two kitchens, a gym, a wine cellar and a 30-foot-long by 15-foot-wide observation portal. It has a range of 3,000 nautical miles.
"The one thing I won't make for anyone is a yellow submarine," Jones says.
Inside the Exomos showroom at Dubai's Jebel Ali Free Zone, customers choose from 14 luxury models. Since 2005, Jaubert's 170 workers have launched 18 vessels. There are 26 clients awaiting delivery on subs such as the trendy Stingray runabout and the fashionable 65-foot-long Proteus luxury liner.