The Water Of The Moment

Even though American water is some of the cleanest on tap, bottled water is the country's fastest-growing drink. At the current pace, the amount of bottled water guzzled is on track to outdo milk, beer and coffee. By 2004 only soft-drink consumption will exceed the volume of bottled water Americans gulp down. Even Coke and Pepsi have jumped in, each spending millions launching competing water brands (Dasani and Aquafina). But it gets better: the current bottle of choice, before it wets the lips of celebrities and foodies, is shipped 5,500 miles across the Pacific Ocean, from the Fiji Islands. Superchef Jean-Georges Vongerichten says Fiji Natural Artesian Water is lighter and more neutral-tasting than other water. But he doesn't cook with it as often as he'd like because it's too expensive. "I wish I had a well connected to Fiji."

Even more remarkable than its eminence are the logistics of shipping water from paradise. Turns out the distinctive square shape of the bottle was designed to save shipping costs as well as look cool. Square bottles simply use space in cargo holds more efficiently. Fiji's chairman, Canadian-born David Gilmour, collaborated with HMG Worldwide, the creator of L'Eggs pantyhose's egg-shaped packaging, to create the bottle's practical good looks.

The water is bottled at an eight-month-old plant built right on top of the source--ancient rainwater sandwiched between layers of volcanic rock--use of which is leased from the government of Fiji for a percentage of the water's sales. Every week a container ship from Auckland, New Zealand, swings by Fiji on its way to the West Coast. The elegant bottles share space onboard with "grinding" beef bound for fast-food chain Carl's Junior and frozen tuna headed for a Bumble Bee factory. After two unrefrigerated weeks at sea, the water is unloaded in L.A.

Back in Fiji, where the tap water can make you sick, some natives marvel at the lengths Americans go to quench their thirst. "We just sort of laugh at it," says Elisapeci Tamanisau of the Fiji Trade and Investments Board. But that doesn't make Fijians any less happy about the jobs and publicity the company's brought to them. Gilmour founded the company in 1996, borrowing geologists from his gold business to tap the Fiji source. Since then the brand has ridden high on word of mouth born at his exclusive thatch-roof resort in Fiji, the Wakaya Club, which reportedly sheltered Tom Cruise just last week. After Pierce Brosnan's stay, the distinctive bottle showed up mid sex scene in his film "The Thomas Crown Affair."

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Not even recent studies debunking the purity of bottled water can derail the American infatuation with the product. Fiji water has used the research to its advantage. When HMG focus groups found that people were most concerned with making sure their bottled water was clean and pure, the package designers slapped a map of Fiji on the back of the bottle. The drawing of the stranded little islands is meant to illustrate their safe distance from the contamination of other lands. Now, however, another remote island is providing some new competition. Coming soon from the lower left corner of the map is Cape Grim bottled Tasmanian rainwater. Even Fiji may have a devil of a time beating back such a delicacy.

The Water Of The Moment | News