Angelo Bonati, chief executive of Officine Panerai since 2000

Angelo Bonati, chief executive of Officine Panerai since 2000

Angelo Bonati: A Constant Presence at Panerai

New York Times, Sept. 7, 2015

 

MIAMI — Reputations in the Swiss watch industry are usually forged over the course of centuries. In comparison, Officine Panerai’s rise to prominence has taken but the blink of an eye.

In the 18 years since the Compagnie Financière Richemont, then called the Vendôme Group, purchased the obscure Italian brand, Panerai has grown from a single historic boutique on Piazza San Giovanni in Florence, Italy, to a global network of 65 stores; attracted a loyal following of collectors, who call themselves Paneristi; and garnered special favor from Richemont’s chief executive, Johann Rupert, who has described Panerai as the company’s “single most profitable venture” and, on a more personal level, “my baby.”

But one thing has remained constant: its chief executive, Angelo Bonati.

Mr. Bonati was sales director of Cartier in Italy when he joined the brand in 1997, at Mr. Rupert’s request. He became its chief executive in 2000.

Besides being Italian, Mr. Bonati, 64, is distinguished among his Swiss counterparts by his aggressive approach to retail expansion and the skyrocketing production during his tenure.

Distinctive watch design, according to Mr. Bonati, is the essence of Panerai’s appeal. But with the January 2014 opening of the brand’s 107,600-square-foot manufacturing facility in Neuchâtel, Switzerland, Mr. Bonati — who splits his time between Switzerland and his home in Milan — intends to place Panerai’s technical capabilities on equal footing.

Since 2002, the brand, eager to reduce its reliance on external suppliers, has been moving its production in-house. Today, Panerai manufactures about 80 percent of the watches in its collection, Mr. Bonati said recently during an interview at the new Panerai flagship boutique in Miami’s Design District.

As a result, the brand’s prices have been steadily increasing.

“When we started, you could buy a Panerai for $1,500,” said Padraig Conway, moderator of Paneristi.com, the unofficial website for brand fans, which celebrated its 15th anniversary this summer. “Today, they start at $5,000 and you’d be lucky to get a really nice one for under $10,000 or $15,000.”

Mr. Bonati, however, insists the brand’s new timepieces, which include a range of complicated models, such as the $184,100 Pocket Watch Tourbillon GMT Ceramica, offer excellent value for money. “Our mission is to create watches very exclusive and unique in terms of movements and technical solutions, cases, finishing,” he said. “That’s why we have to distinguish between what is produced in-house and what is produced using movements coming from outside, which can cover entry-level prices.”

To cultivate Panerai loyalists — be they seasoned watch collectors or first-time buyers — Mr. Bonati has taken a by-now familiar approach in the luxury watch business: Since 2011, the brand has opened more than 40 boutiques around the world.

The store in the Miami Design District is Panerai’s 11th in the United States. Despite an already robust distribution network in Florida that includes locations in nearby Bal Harbour, Boca Raton, Palm Beach and Naples, Mr. Bonati said the Design District store — a two-story, 2,200-square-foot space created by the Spanish-Italian architect and designer Patricia Urquiola — is an important drawing card for foreign visitors.

“Don’t forget that this is the door to Latin America,” he said. “If you are well-placed in this area, automatically you have the same perception in their country.”

That perspective may explain why Panerai hired Ms. Urquiola to develop a new maritime-themed design for the brand’s boutiques worldwide, including recent openings in Beijing; Seoul, South Korea; and Taipei, Taiwan. (The maritime influence is drawn from Panerai’s role throughout the 20th century as a watch and instrument supplier to the Italian Navy — it began selling to the public only in 1993.)

Mr. Bonati said Panerai’s aggressive retail strategy in Asia makes sense despite the recent stock market slump and the continuing crackdown on gift-giving in China that has stalled growth prospects in the luxury watch industry’s biggest market. Like many of his colleagues at Richemont, he is convinced that the lavish boutiques that maintain the brand’s presence in mainland China — and its prestige in the minds of the Chinese — are key to Panerai’s future.

“If you want to sell to the Chinese, you advertise in China — but you sell in Paris,” he said. “Why? Because the Chinese see the brand, they recognize it, they buy. To conquer the emerging markets, you need a strong image.”

Image wasn’t always Panerai’s strong suit. In 1997, when Mr. Rupert asked Mr. Bonati to take the brand’s reins, it was like asking a seasoned Google executive to go to work for an Internet start-up, albeit one founded in 1860.

“At the beginning, Panerai was not a brand, it was a watch,” Mr. Bonati said. “In fact, people called it Luminor.”

The Luminor, first created in 1950, was very different from the other luxury watches of the era, with a large, cage-like crown guard protruding from the side of its hulking 44-millimeter case. It and its sister model, the Luminor Marina, were not initially well received. “Some people wrote, ‘In a couple years, you will disappear,”’ Mr. Bonati said.

In 1995, Sylvester Stallone, in Rome to a shoot the action film “Daylight,” discovered the Luminor and commissioned a limited edition with his signature, generating publicity that Panerai still credits with helping to vault the brand to international attention. (Mr. Stallone gave one of the watches to Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose 1996 movie “Eraser” included a close-up of the Luminor Marina.)

Some enthusiasts say the chunky Luminor actually brought on the craze for large cases. “Slowly, all the watch brands adapted their size and way to be like Panerai,” Mr. Bonati said, adding that was one of the major reasons he knew the brand had become a success.

Panerai — like all Richemont brands, which include Jaeger-LeCoultre, IWC Schaffhausen and Piaget, as well as Net-a-Porter.com — does not disclose individual sales figures. But the group’s 2015 annual report showed that watch sales during the year that ended March 31 grew 5 percent, to 3.12 billion euros, or about $3.48 million.

Over all, however, the same report indicates that luxury as a sector continues to struggle. While group sales during the same period grew 4 percent, to €10.41 billion, profits were down 35 percent. Mr. Rupert attributed the decline to fluctuating exchange rates.

Given the global climate of uncertainty, how many years of image building does Mr. Bonati think it will take to pay off the multimillion-dollar investment in Panerai’s facility in Neuchâtel?

“Ten years — maximum,” he declared. With in-house manufacturing, he added, “you cannot think to lose, because each watch you produce is something gained, not something lost.”

After a split-second, however, Mr. Bonati revised his estimate: “Five years — we can make it.”

Officine Panerai’s chief executive on:

Chinese shoppers

‘‘Today, in Paris, in Rome, in Milan, Chinese people come into the shop, point to a watch on their phone and ask, ‘How much does it cost?’ They know what they want.

‘‘In the boutique, we are placing Wi-Fi for free because they need Wi-Fi to connect, to check with their friends if the watches are the correct one.’’

Watch sales

‘‘Until last year, we had always double-digit growth. We stopped this year. We grow, but not double digits. Just because of exchange rate. The future is not easy to understand what can happen.

‘‘But my opinion is that the strongest is China. If you take the stock that fell down 30 percent, that’s nothing. For us, it’s a disaster, but for them it was nothing. Yes, someone lost money. But basically, not the people who buy the watches.’’

Paneristi.com forums

‘‘I consider Paneristi a proper universe. But it is a universe where the balance of the system has to be very delicate. That’s why I don’t want to enter. Because to enter means to risk polluting the universe.

‘‘I need them to do what they want. Because sometimes they are right, sometimes they are wrong. But they don’t know if I’m reading.’’

The luxury brand he most admires

‘‘Hermès. (He pointed to a coffee spoon.) If they made this spoon, it would become a success. The way they make the spoon is always different than the others.’’

How long will Panerai sponsor the Classic Yachts Challenge, the international race circuit it has supported for 11 years?

‘‘Forever is a great word. But for the next five to six years, yes.’’

His favorite watch?

‘‘The Luminor Marina. The first love you cannot forget.’’

(Although he was wearing the Panerai 45-mm Radiomir 1940 3 Days Automatic Acciaio, saying he wanted to ‘‘test it’’ while playing golf.)