It all began with one watch. And not just any three-hand wristwatch with a forgettable mien — but a Panerai Luminor Marina, an extra-large (by the days’ standards) 44-mm cushion-shaped ticker with a protruding crown protector and faded indices. “Back then, it wasn’t even a brand. It was only a watch,” reminisces Angelo Bonati, CEO of Officine Panerai, of the first time he laid eyes on the Luminor Marina more than 20 years ago.
It was Johann Rupert, chairman of luxury-goods powerhouse Richemont, who not only showed him the watch, but with it, also presented him an offer he could not refuse: Lead a new brand that would sell watches based on that very design. “I was enthusiastic because I love challenges. It was fantastic to have been given the opportunity to create and transform a new brand,” he recalls. When Richemont officially acquired Officine Panerai in 1997, Bonati was made its CEO.
Few envied this monumental responsibility; some even made fun of him. It was the 1990s and back then, even sporty watches were discretely sized. “At the beginning, some friends of mine said: ‘Poor Angelo, you used to do sales for Cartier, the King of kings. Now, you are selling a table clock for the wrist.’ Even though I was upset, I told them: ‘Just you wait and see, you’ll see’,” recalls the director of sales and marketing at Cartier Italy from 1987 to 1993.
Although Bonati proved his detractors wrong, success was by no means handed to him on a silver platter. “Today, brand recall for Panerai is immediate. But at the beginning, it was not easy at all,” he confides.
Having a dogged and tenacious attitude helped; while being Italian and passionate about sailing also made it easier for him to fall in love with the brand. In the following years, Bonati helped forge a brand image that was irresistible — one that was built on Panerai’s military heritage, naval roots, exclusivity and most importantly, its inimitable design. “The design of the watches has always been something either you hate or love. There is no middle ground. People dislike it because they say it’s big or heavy but there are those who love it because it’s different,” he says.
The rest, as they say, is history. The Panerai brand name acquired cult status, garnering a loyal fan base of machismo males, individualists and creative types who call themselves the Paneristi. Its popularity also prompted other industry players to supersize their watches and big quickly became cool. “We created a trend and a new way to perceive a watch. It was from then on that all the brands changed their watch dimensions,” shares Bonati.
Material innovation is another aspect of its identity that other watchmakers wish to emulate. In the past few years alone, the brand has used tantalum, PVD sapphire, titanium powder and black ceramic in its pieces, as well as introduced avant-garde materials such as oro rosso (a unique red gold alloy), carbotech (composite material based on carbon fibre), Panerai composite (synthetic ceramic that is the result of an electrochemical ceramisation process of aluminium) and a special corrosion-resistant bronze alloy.
When the Panerai Luminor Submersible 1950 3 Days Automatic Bronzo, limited to just 1,000 watches, was released in 2011, it was an instant hit with collectors who appreciated the use of a novel material drawn from the brand’s maritime heritage. The watch raised the curtain on a new bronze age and set precedent for many other brands in the following years. “When we introduced the Bronzo, it was not to make money. Bronze was relevant to our history; it followed our DNA and it was for the image of the brand. This is not something that can be easily copied,” says Bonati.
Although Panerai’s unique design and pedigree was, in itself, a winning combination, Bonati’s goal was for the brand to become a formidable contender in the fine watchmaking arena. To achieve his target, he prioritised the development of in-house movements and established the Panerai Manufacture in Neuchâtel, Switzerland in 2002. Three years later, it launched the calibre P.2002, a manual-winding movement with GMT function and an eight-day power reserve.
Other movements followed, such as the P.9000 (2008), P.999 (2010), P.3000 (2011), P.5000 (2013) and P.4000 (2014) base movements. In 2014, Panerai opened the doors to a new manufacture to cater to its expanding portfolio of in-house movements, as well as its growing technical expertise.
“If you want to be a manufacture brand, you have to be able to produce your own movements. Otherwise, you run the risk of losing your originality and authenticity. If you rely on movements from other companies, you are no longer Panerai. You have something else mixed in it,” says Bonati. According to him, 95 percent of all new Panerai watches are fitted with in-house movements and the remaining five percent of watches come with ETA movements. These will be replaced with manufacture movements by 2019. In the past, Panerai watches did rely on movements made by Rolex, Zenith and Angelus.
Even though Panerai’s success is firmly in his clutch, Bonati certainly isn’t resting on his laurels. “My goal is to get the brand stronger. From my point of view, it is not strong enough. I think we are at our 70 percent now and we should achieve more. It’s going to be a challenge and I love challenges,” he says.
Discover Panerai’s 2016 novelties in our April 2016 issue’s Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie report