In Conversation with Angelo Bonati

In Conversation with Angelo Bonati

Pan-ner-ai. The three syllables of the name have come to be synonymous with high Swiss watchmaking prowess, combined with unique Italian design aesthetics born out of the ultra-pragmatic roots of the brand as the supplier of luminous watches to the Italian Navy’s Gamma Commandos, intrepid frogmen that often plied their deadly trade at great depths and in the dark of the night. But Panerai is unique not just in its roots as a military secret but also in that from the moment it was ushered into the world of luxury watchmaking in 1997, it has been brilliantly helmed by just one man, Angelo Bonati. It was Revolution’s pleasure to meet with Bonati in Panerai’s birthplace, Florence, just one year shy of his 20th anniversary at the head of his brand, to discuss the launch of his new slim-profile Luminor Marina as well as his unique minute repeater, capable of striking both local and home time on demand.

It’s almost been 20 years with you at the helm of Panerai. You must look back with a certain satisfaction at how you’ve successfully transformed what was a military secret into a true luxury brand…

No, I’m not satisfied. I would like to fly where I’ve never flown. It’s my character. We don’t like to rest. We are very much working in the spirit of technical and materials innovation at Panerai. I think you will be pleasantly surprised at what we introduce at the SIHH next year. It symbolizes our commitment to enduring progress. It is something totally new. If we don’t progress, we have nothing to do.

This was a monumental year in that you launched your first minute repeater. The configuration of this watch is unique in that it is a carillon with a tone for the quarters, like a ship’s bell, and has the ability to strike either local and home time on demand. What was the inspiration for these unique features?

Basically, we knew that we had to have a movement that was different from the others. Our minute repeater needed to have a raison d’être, a rationale for being born into existence. Do you know what I mean? I am very much aware that there are a lot of brands that have more legitimacy than Panerai to produce this kind of watch. So when I gathered my team to discuss this idea, I said, “We must create something that is, first of all, proper to the Panerai identity, and second, different from the existing minute repeaters on the market. Otherwise, we have no justification to enter into this segment of the market.” Because in the realm of minute repeaters, you have Breguet, Blancpain, Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin, and they have all established their legitimacy through a long tradition with minute repeaters. The reason I wanted to create my watch is to enhance the brand image and the brand identity of Panerai. This is something we can build on for the future. We work on the brand at different levels. Of course, we are focused on the core business of the basic assortment. But a high complication like a carillon repeater with a local- or home-time strike enhances the brand image and helps grow our reputation. The brand image is important because if you really focus on this, you have a return not only in terms of sales, but also in terms of awareness and in terms of increased brand equity.

Each complication you’ve introduced invariably has a nod to your roots in the ocean, or in precision and performance, correct?

Yes. Each time we create a complication, it has to fit the identity of Panerai, which relates to the sea, to chronometry, to reliability and to a purity of design and expression. The repeater’s ability to strike home time or local time refers to the spirit of travel, which is related to the sea. The Tourbillon 30 seconds is meant to enhance chronometry. The sidereal-time perpetual calendar is related to ocean navigation. In the future, we will be launching a GMT perpetual-calendar watch but it will feature a very minimalistic way of displaying the calendar and be highly practical in terms of adjustment through a single crown but with the date going both backwards and forwards. When I work with the team at the manufacture, we always ask how we can make that complication unique to us. In fact, it is often my team that proposes ideas. In the case of the local- and home-time function on the minute repeater, it was the team at the manufacture that first voiced this idea. Once they have a clear idea of what they want to achieve, I leave them to accomplish their goal. Because I have a great and very responsible team at the manufacture.

“In the case of the local- and home-time function on the minute repeater, it was the team at the manufacture that first voiced this idea. Once they have a clear idea of what they want to achieve, I leave them to accomplish their goal. Because I have a great and very responsible team at the manufacture.”

Am I correct that the logo of your new slim Luminor Marina Due is written in your own handwriting?

Yes. When the idea for this watch came about, I immediately thought of the name “Due” and imagined it written in my handwriting. But so as to be fair, I asked the marketing team to come up with their best ideas for names for the watch. In the end, they had a list of some truly interesting names. And it was important I let them experiment a bit because you never know; sometimes you get something really great from the process. But in this case, after we went through all the names, we went back to Due and written in my handwriting. I supposed they like the idea.

Is it true that the idea of a slim Luminor Marina was first voiced to you by Richemont Group owner Johann Rupert?

The idea started four or five years ago. Johann Rupert, who is a very big fan of Panerai, approached me and said that he wanted a watch with all the strength of identity of Luminor Marina but that was slim enough that he could fit it under his cuff for an elegant evening. I thought this was a great idea because the original Luminor Marina has become an icon but at a certain moment we need to broaden our reach and find new clients. And there may be many people who like the design of the Luminor Marina but desire a watch that is slimmer and more elegant. More of a sports-chic watch. You cannot propose the same watch to the same client forever. The question that we faced was whether we should create an all-new model, or if we should work on the existing Luminor Marina case. I preferred to work on the existing case because it is such a strong part of our history. Also, working on an all-new design can be a risk — it can either be a great success or it can be nothing; it might even pollute the brand and its identity.

What was the design process for the Due?

Once we took the decision to create a slim Luminor Marina, the first thing we did was discuss with the movement team at the manufacture how to achieve this. We needed to start from the movement first, not create the case then work backwards to find a movement that would fit it. This is the strength of having a truly integrated manufacture with competences in all disciplines.

The new manual-wind, ultra-flat movement in the Due is really cool, what are your favorite features?

I am very pleased with the P.1000. It is a slim movement but it still has many core Panerai features such as the three-day power reserve and the zero-reset mechanism for the seconds. For many years, we had wanted to create a movement with these dimensions but when the Due project came about, the movement became a priority. The P.4000 that is in the automatic version of the Due first made its appearance in the Radiomir 1940 but was a perfect match for the new case because of its slim dimensions, thanks to its micro-rotor.

The Due will not replace the current Luminor Marina, correct?

The Due will be offered alongside the normal Luminor Marina as these two models have very different identities. However, all the watches we have that were using the cal. P.9000 — which was our workhorse automatic movement — will now use the new P.9010. Because of its slimmer dimensions, the watches will also become slimmer. This second-generation movement is a major improvement. We studied all the potential faults of the P.9000 and corrected these for this new movement. We wanted to make the movement slimmer so the dimensions of the watches could be slimmed down a bit. We achieved this but the primary objective with the P.9010 was to make the movement better in every way.

Do you believe in the Darwinian theory of evolution: evolve or die?

A company must think about the future and who its clients will be. If you don’t think about the future, you are dead. Which means you cannot offer to the same client the same proposal every time. You need to create new models and you need to find new clients. At Panerai, we have a specificity regarding our client of today. The Panerai customer today loves a bit of the arrogance of the brand — when I say ‘arrogance’, I mean that in terms of dimension and presence on the wrist. But there are a lot of clients that love Panerai but they want their watch with less arrogance. They want something altogether more discreet. So the balancing act is how to offer them a watch that has the same design integrity as the Luminor Marina, but in a dimension that will allow them to enter into our world. Otherwise, you cannot evolve; you just keep remaking the same thing.

But there are a lot of clients that love Panerai but they want their watch with less arrogance. They want something altogether more discreet. So the balancing act is how to offer them a watch that has the same design integrity as the Luminor Marina, but in a dimension that will allow them to enter into our world. Otherwise, you cannot evolve; you just keep remaking the same thing.

Is the Due targeted at the sports-chic market that would normally be focused on an AP Royal Oak Ultra Flat or a Patek Philippe Nautilus?

Very possibly, because in any case, it’s not an inexpensive watch. It has a very beautiful movement. But my idea is to try to develop this line in two directions. Which means to go up in terms of complication but always with slim dimensions, and also go more simple to provide a more-accessible entry-level price. But it might also appeal to our existing customer. Take yourself for example. You are wearing a Bronzo and it looks good but you are dressed in a sporty way. You cannot wear this watch with a tuxedo for a grande fête, can you? For this, I give you the Panerai Due.

What did Johann Rupert think when he saw the Due?

He said, ‘You’re not giving it to me? It’s not ready?’ I said, ‘I can’t give it to you; it’s not ready, it’s still just a prototype. It hasn’t been homologated yet.’ You know what he does to me sometimes? He takes the watch from me. Then he’ll give the watch to a friend. Then the watch will come back to me with the complaint that it’s not working properly, with the question: ‘what kind of quality is this Panerai?’ So for a long time I wouldn’t give him any watches unless they came from the regular production. But anyway I’m joking because he is our best client.

During the exhibition held in Florence, Dive into Time, it dawned on me how faithful you are to the design iconography from the early days of the brand. Can you deviate from the past?

Every aspect of modern Panerai is based on the brand’s history. From the typography to the dials, to the shape of the cases, to the buckles. If you don’t do this, you lose your way. Even for the future, if you don’t respect the past, you will have no authenticity. We have some of the most beautiful and important dials in the watch industry. What is amazing is that the basic codes of our dials were all created in the ’30s to the ’50s, and they are still so relevant and modern today. They also have a unique sense of identity. They are simply very Panerai.

I really like the boutique-edition watches with ETA movements, priced at under €5,000. But there are some people complaining on the Internet because the back cases are press-fitted and the lugs use spring bars instead of screws. How do you reply to them?

I have to understand and respond to the needs of different segments of clientele for Panerai. You have some people entering into the brand at the most accessible price. Sometimes, they try the brand first at this price level before they come in more seriously. Others may simply not have the pockets to purchase a €10,000 or €20,000 watch. You have to have some models that can satisfy this need. Otherwise, you risk blocking a potential customer from ever entering into your brand. There is always someone that will criticize what you do. I remember that when we introduced the first in-house movement, the P.2002, there was outcry in the Internet community that they preferred the ETA movement. The in-house movement was too expensive. Now it’s the opposite. There are those on the Internet that call the back case ‘snap fit’. This is totally incorrect — it has to be press-fitted with a large tool and is still water-resistant to 100m. Regarding the spring bars, this is no different from 99 percent of watches in the world.

I’ve noticed that the designs of these accessibly-priced watches — such as the Panerai PAM 632, which I purchased — are incredibly strong…

A lot of time, I try to give the best designs to the lowest-priced watches. The best success in terms of sales we’ve had, has always been with the lower-priced watches as opposed to the most expensive watches. Whereas our haute-horlogerie watches are extremely useful for brand image.

Is the intention with these watches also to engage a younger customer?

Of course. It’s very important to engage the next generation of customers — which is exactly who these watches are targeted at. With these watches, you catch the client when he is young. And if you treat him well, he will stay with you.

Since the inception of Panerai as a luxury brand, it has been helmed by one man — you, namely you. Today it is very rightly considered in the same realm as Rolex and many others in terms of its legitimacy as a true luxury-watch brand. This is all attributable to you. Can we agree that you did an amazing job?

Yes, more or less yes. But I feel embarrassed. Because I am just here to do my job. I didn’t work thinking to advance my own reputation. All the work I did, all the investment I made, all the risks I took — they were always for the company and not for myself. I never put myself in front of the products or the company. It’s probably one of the reasons for our success. Because it is the brand that must be perennial. The people: they come, they stay or they leave, but the brand remains forever. And my task, as the custodian of the brand for 20 years, has been to ensure its longevity. To hopefully leave it in a better condition than when I found it.

Is it really true that by creating and selling the legendary PAM 21 in your first year at the brand, you recouped the entire investment the Group made purchasing Panerai?

What happened was, when we took over the brand, my team went to do an inventory of all our assets. They told me there was a box full of old movements and they were thinking of throwing them away. I told them to stop, jumped in my car and drove from Milan to Neuchâtel. I saw it was the full-bridge Rolex movement that was originally in the Radiomir. So I decided to create our first modern Radiomir watch with this vintage movement inside of it. It had a platinum case to clearly distinguish it as a luxury watch and not a military instrument. This was the PAM 21. By selling these watches, we recovered all the cost of purchasing Panerai. We created 60 watches, and at the time, the currency in Italy was still the Lira. The watch cost 41 million Lira, or about €25,000. If you multiply €25,000 by 60, you have exactly the cost of the brand.

Well, today that same watch is worth at least USD100,000 — another testament to what you’ve achieved with Panerai. Do you have one?

I had one. But not anymore. A friend of mine, a dealer from Hong Kong, called me and said, “Angelo, do something. I need this watch; I want this watch.” So I gave it to him. But in the end, I don’t regret anything. Because the success of Panerai is also the result of many friendships I’ve had. I also had a “Fiddy” (a PAM 127) but I also gave that away. Another friend from Hong Kong, three to four years ago, called me begging me for this watch. I had one but I’d forgotten I had it until someone at the manufacture reminded me. So I gave it to him. And I’m happy because I made this guy happy, and maybe he will come back to buy the minute repeater. But you know, when we found the old Rolex movements, we also found a box of vintage Angelus eight-day power-reserve movements, and with that, we created the PAM 203. I still have a PAM 203. I think I’ll keep this one.