Panerai CEO Jean-Marc Pontroué talks challenges, innovation and why it’s time to make a difference
From its origins as a military watchmaker, Panerai has become the vanguard of inventive and sustainable horology
As luxury watchmakers go, Italian-Swiss brand Panerai is still seen as something of a new kid on the block. Although Panerai was founded in Florence in 1860 by Giovanni Panerai – his shop on the Ponte alle Grazie served as the city’s first ever watchmaking school – the brand near exclusively supplied the Italian Royal Navy with high-precision instruments and diving watches until 1993.
Among the brand’s early patents was the 1916 radium-based luminosity, Radiomir, a precursor of today’s Luminor. In 1993, Officine Panerai presented its first collection of three limited-edition series to the public – the Luminor (the brand’s best-selling model to this day), the Luminor Marina and the Mare Nostrum – and, four years later, it was acquired by the Richemont Group and finally made its debut on the international fine watchmaking market.
“When Panerai launched commercially in 1997, we were very new to the world of big Swiss watchmakers, but we soon attracted an audience of the true purists,” says CEO Jean-Marc Pontroué. “The beauty of a brand like Panerai is that the product is the hero. We have such strong concepts in each line that we have the freedom to think creatively with our approach.”
Today’s Panerai customer is a mix of the old guard and a younger generation split nearly evenly, Pontroué says, between the West and Asia. And, while the masculine, military-style brand still predominantly attracts men, 30% of its Chinese customers are women, reflecting the rapidly changing trends within the luxury sphere. Panerai has also seen a boom in online interest, particularly during the Covid-19 pandemic, and responded by releasing the sell-out online-only Submersible Azzurro – first limited to 200 pieces but increased to 500 to satisfy customer demand.
“Our biggest challenge over the past two years, since I joined Panerai, has been how to capture the future of the luxury landscape,” he says. “How should we interact with both a new generation of customers and existing customers, and ensure that we are reinvigorating our own niche while creating an emotional impact in all we do?”
The answer, it seems, is actually three-fold: cutting-edge development, unique experiences, and an authentic dedication to the environmental cause. >>
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Panerai’s reputation for invention is well-earned and has grown ever more impressive in recent years. In addition to patenting numerous in-house movements, the brand has created four new materials, developed by Panerai’s Laboratorio di Idee. BMG-TechTM is a metallic glass offering extreme resistance; CarbotechTM is a carbon fibre composite with unrivalled technical performance and matt black appearance; Ceramica, a synthetic ceramic based on zirconium oxide powder, has proven five-times harder than stainless steel; and Composite, the result of an electrochemical ceramisation process of aluminium, is extraordinarily scratch- resistant and lightweight.
This year, to celebrate the 70th anniversary of Luminor, Panerai has released a “firework of innovations” by fusing many of these materials and more with the best-selling model. Novelties for 2020 include the Luminor Marina in a 44mm micro-sandblasted titanium case, the Luminor Marina CarbotechTM 44 mm and Luminor Marina FibratechTM 44 mm with a range of dials.
“What we try to do is create the next generation of watchmaking materials; how do we make the watches more lightweight, or scratch-resistant for extreme sports? How do we solve our customers' problems in a way that’s never been done before?” asks Pontroué. That final question – “how can we be the first?” – is one of the driving forces of his leadership.
“Everybody remembers the winner of the Tour de France, but you never remember who comes second,” he says. “When Panerai launched, it was with these large, military- style watches that were completely different to the trendy, small watches of 1997. We ignored the trends. Instead, we were the first to offer 70-year guarantee, the first to offer new materials, and the first to offer ambassador experiences.” >>
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These exclusive experiences are the second rung of Panerai’s master plan. At 2018’s SIHH (now Watches & Wonders) the brand launched three bespoke buyers’ events for its Submersible novelties, hosted by brand ambassadors. Far from a shopping spree or island getaway, Panerai looked to push the limit of what a luxury brand could achieve for its clients.
Thus, last summer, buyers of the 33 limited-edition Submersible Marina Militare Carbotech took part in a training exercise with serving members of the COMSUBIN – the Italian Navy’s special forces. In September, freediving champion Guillaume Néry hosted the 15 buyers of his Panerai Submersible Chrono Guillaume Néry Edition on an ocean exploration in French Polynesia. Arctic explorer Mike Horn is set to take owners of the Panerai Submersible Mike Horn Edition 47mm on a North Pole expedition in March 2021.
“The beauty of being a lifestyle brand is that you can offer so much more to your clients. The programme has been very well received, and we will have eight more experiences in 2021-22,” reveals Pontroué. “The experience depends on offering an extremely limited-edition novelty, paired with our ambassadors’ ability to produce something completely unique.
“Of course, when we first broached the idea with the Italian Navy that we wanted to offer our buyers an authentic training experience, they thought we were nuts,” he laughs. “They were fantastic at balancing real training with the more experiential side of things – so our guests might suffer, but they’re still having fun.”
As for the final stage of his revolutionary strategy, Pontroué has developed the greatest challenge yet for his talented watchmakers – the creation of a 100% recycled timepiece, with development of the dial, case, straps and movements already underway.
“We’re so used to pollution in our cities, – whether London, Geneva or Milan – but when you speak with a guy like Mike Horn, whose expeditions have taken him to the furthest reaches of the Arctic where few people will ever have a chance to go, and you hear that, even there, the environment is deteriorating... You realise how urgent the problem really is,” he says. “I believe Panerai must contribute to solving this problem, and I hope our developments will be good for many industries.
“In the future, I can see every product we buy containing information on the level of recycled material within it. This will be as fundamental as the words ‘Swiss Made’ on a watch.”