How we made it big time

How we made it big time

The iconic – and unashamedly macho – Panerai brand of oversized wrist watches have become ultra cool almost by accident, as Josh Sims discovers talking to the company’s enthusiastic CEO, Angelo Bonati.

Whichever way you look at it, Panerai is big – culturally, horologically, but, above all, literally. Size has become its calling card. While other companies use gold or diamonds, heft is the factor that gets a Panerai watch noticed on the wrist – that and the fact that its wearer, finding few shirt cuffs will button up over their chunk of metal, will doubtless have no choice but to wear it nicely exposed. Among its bigger wrist-watches is one that sizes up at an impressive 60mm diameter. Its smallest is 42mm, still enough for Panerai to lay claim to having pioneered the trend for out-sized timepieces which, over a decade on, is still with us.

“Size is what made Panerai feel very new. Panerai’s personality is about being large. And it’s still working that way for us. Big matters and makes us stand out,” says Angelo Bonati, the dapper don who was appointed CEO of the company 14 years ago, when, frankly, mostly only Loope-wielding nerds had really ever heard of it. “Of course, big is not for everybody, and it means we’re not going to do ladies’ watches any time soon, even though around 15% of all our sales are to women buying for themselves. I’m not sure what the appeal is to them. Maybe they think of these watches as being protective, like wearing a good piece of armour.”

You could certainly do a lot of damage with a Luminor 1950 Left-Handed 3 Days (47mm), a Radiomir 1940 Chronograph (45mm) or a Luminor Base 8 Days (44mm), among the company’s 2014 models. For each, almost inevitably, demand has been enthusiastic. But why? Panerai, after all, was the brand from nowhere, largely invisible until the 1990s and now a powerhouse watch label owned by the Richemont luxury goods group. It had history on its side – it had been founded way back in 1860 by one Giovanni Panerai, putting it on a par with many other esteemed watch companies. But for decades its output had been minuscule, verging on non-existent. Geography arguably offered a point of distinction: the re-born Panerai may have been made in Neuchatel, one of Switzerland’s watchmaking centres, but it hailed from Florence and, tellingly, was headquartered in fashion hub Milan. Certainly Bonati argues that this made Panerai memorable, but it is hardly the makings of a cult.

“When people buy Panerai they buy history – and then a watch. So that Italian background is 100% important to the success of the company I think. The best way that we have built the brand is by putting that Italian element first,” he says. “It even helped that originally Panerai was from Florence, of course, because that is one of the best cities in the world for art and culture, so there is always that stress on the beautiful and aesthetic, which is very Italian.”

Panerai 2

Not that beauty was high on the agenda of Panerai’s only customer come its last glory days, during the 1930s, when it was making diving watches, as well as compasses and depth gauges for the Italian Navy, and more specifically – and more exotically and marketably – for its commando units, those  heroes of national survival during World War Two, once the British fleet had won control of the Mediterranean. In this, in its distinctive lever bridge device, and in its size – which Bonati chose to retain, even exacerbate, when Panerai was relaunched – the brand clearly had a certain appealing machismo, which Bonati doesn’t deny.

“I suppose that, yes, you would have to call Panerai a rather macho brand – it’s just part of its heritage,” he says. “It’s not so macho these days perhaps. As every other brand went through a phase of adopting Panerai sizing, to extremes in some cases, we learned to be more balanced. But sure, an Italian masculinity still comes out. And that tends to be on the particularly macho side – though I like to think it’s nicely rounded too.”

But is a Boys’ Own tale and what some might call the gimmick of scale really enough to explain Panerai’s revival? After all, not only is Panerai one of the most sought-after watches – in part a product of carefully and cleverly controlled supply, from a company that could make and sell many more watches – but it has also become one of the most collectible. And not just to the militaria buffs who favour its Marina Militare and Radiomir models (with its innovative radium-based luminosity), nor the Rolex fanatics who knew that their brand of choice had supplied a version of its Cortebert pocket watch movement for the Panerais of the wartime era. Rather, it has become a Patek Philippe for the 21st century young gun, and an investor favourite: a pre-1990 Panerai could once be bought for $1,000 or less. The same would now cost you well over $50,000.

“For some 60 years of its history Panerai only produced perhaps 300 units a year – and we continue to keep the quantities low in order to keep that exclusivity. And now there are a lot of people who can afford a lot of watches – so they want something very exclusive,” argues Bonati. This was something recognised early on, when Richemont, celebrating the Radiomir’s 60th birthday, conveniently uncovered 60 dead-stock examples of the original Rolex movements, fitted them in a platinum replica and promptly made back its money; one of these too would now be worth at least 15 times its original price. “I know we could sell a lot more watches than we do, but we’re careful to keep it rare, so to speak. We want to expand more by upgrading what we do rather than by selling more of what we already do. We’re not really into just building market share.”

Although the ingredients are all there, how they so successfully mixed seems a mystery, and that’s even to Bonati – the watch industry veteran who can be credited with reinventing Panerai after Johann Rupert, executive chairman of the Richemont group of swanky brands, bought it in 1997 for next to nothing; the veteran who, for the first six months following, ran the company by himself – that is, literally, on his own.

“Sometimes things happen in your life and you really don’t know how. You can make an assessment of it in retrospect but sometimes you still can’t look at a luxury brand and know how it became luxury,” says Bonati, looking genuinely perplexed by it all, but also rather pleased. “There’s no mathematical equation to it. There’s an element of process you can manage. You have to be careful to see luxury status when it comes and work on it – so if being Italian is fundamental to the brand, you have to make sure you keep it there.

Yet even so not all luxury brands are successful and that’s not to say the people running them are stupid at all. It’s just a very complex happening.

“The fact is, if you can’t manufacture cool, which you can’t – or at least, not very easily. From a business point of view, all you can do is make sure you make good watches and that the watches aren’t everywhere. You can follow the cool rules but, really, coolness just comes from the market.”