Jean-Marc Pontroué became CEO of Panerai in 2018, bringing new ideas, energy and a more contemporary approach to the brand. Although changes within the company were inevitable, the core values and instantly recognizable aesthetics remain intact. During the digital Watches & Wonders week, I talked with Jean-Marc about Panerai’s plans and challenges in 2020 during this unprecedented Coronavirus pandemic. New models will launch as planned, while others will wait until next year as the company adapts to global boutique closures, cancelled events and a big shift to a single, major fair in Geneva. With a focus on the environment, partnerships and long-term ambassadors like Mike Horn, Panerai is poised to emerge from the crisis stronger than ever with exciting new projects and innovations in the works.
While the interview was conducted some weeks ago, one of the first announcements made by Panerai’s CEO could already be seen yesterday when the brand introduced a new blue dial edition of the Luminor Marina with automatic movement. Moreover, this marks the reorganisation/rationalisation of the collection, now grouped into four pillars – Submersible, Luminor, Due and Radiomir – and sort of a relaunch of the Luminor Marina in the Panerai collection. Among other details, the Luminor Marina will no longer feature the fauxtina luminescent material. And again… an apology to those who don’t like 3,000-word interviews. For everyone else, enjoy!
Frank Geelen, MONOCHROME Watches – Last year, Panerai had a specific focus for the new timepieces that were released. Will we see a similar focus on one collection this year?
Jean-Marc Pontroue, CEO of Panerai – You’ve probably seen that after 2019, which was the Submersible year, we decided to make 2020 the Luminor year. We concentrate most of our innovations of new materials and new experiences and new guarantee and so on, around the Luminor.
We haven’t done much on Luminor as the core highlight in many, many years. So I wanted to renew the reference 1312, which is the watch that everybody knows. When you know Panerai, you know the Luminor 44mm, with the crown safety lock system and so on, and we decided to make it stretch in many directions. One is new materials like Fibratech, another one is precious material like red gold, another one is the partnership with Luna Rossa, so each time we try to inject creativity, but keeping our icon where it is. Sizewise, especially!
It’s good to have the ref. 1312, because that is our global bestseller. Whatever market, in Asia, in the US, in Europe or local markets, or with tourists, the reference 1312 is our bestseller everywhere. It is, at the same time, a Luminor that has never been debuted in other configurations than what it is today, always with a steel watch with a black dial. In June we have a blue dial in steel and some more variations, including a bracelet, later on, this year.
So that means you will introduce more new watches throughout this year?
Yes, a lot more now is coming, more or less this year.
I was told you’re going to focus more on the core collection?
Yes, we have no plans for new families in the Panerai collection. So, we keep Radiomir, Luminor, Submersible and Due. These are all families which were existing when I joined the company two years ago. Our mission is to strengthen and highlight what are the existing models, so we can work with bigger dials and work with new materials and we stay within the playground of these four families.
I remember that Panerai’s collection comprised a core collection and Special Editions. Every year, several Special Editions were introduced, often featuring new materials, new designs, different and more complex movements. And when it sold out, it was over. Is this also where you plan to take the brand again? Meaning a split between the core collection and the annual Special Editions?
Well, it’s a mix, because we’re going to launch something like 35 new models this year. You have some which are going to be limited to 70 pieces to highlight the 70 years of Luminor. Some, like the blue dial version of ref. 1312 (which was introduced yesterday, and is ref. PAM01313) that is going to be a standout in the collection. So, we play with different one-shots on standout in the assortment.
Will, for instance, the Fibratech or the DMLS, remain in the collection? Or are these the “one-shot standouts”?
Even though we launch it as a limited edition for the first year, we intend to keep going with Fibratech in the future, in a new model. Fibratech is not something we’ve spent years and years to develop, to have only 270 pieces.
Now we’re on the topic of new materials. We see some interesting materials that I had never heard of, like Fibratech or DMLS. How does this work at the Laboratorio di Idee? Is there a specific focus, a plan, to develop specific materials or to source specific materials? Does it have to be related to a partner like Luna Rossa?
Well, the leading factor when we do our research is always to identify materials which have never been used in the watch industry before, so that we can claim that it’s a first. And the second point is it should bring added value to the customer, especially in terms of lightness, in terms of performance, or the hardness of the material or scratch resistance, and so on. We don’t introduce materials for the sake of introducing materials. The idea is to really introduce these materials so that they improve the lives of our customers.
The beauty of Luna Rossa is that it brought us to the potential resourcing of materials in an industry not related to watches. Since Luna Rossa is associated with the world of superyachts – or aerospace or supercars – this opens the doors of giants in this industry. Giants who work with the same constraints as us in the watch industry, but who have much bigger budgets to work on new materials. And that was just a very good example of an industry which is much bigger, which is very much after lighter materials to sail faster, and making sure materials don’t break, so it meets exactly what we are looking for.
And how did Panerai come to use DMLS and Fibratech?
DMLS is a titanium that has been used in the 3D printing process for the tourbillon. So, when we claim at Panerai, or at Laboratorio di Idee, it’s the same principle of having a possibility to enrich the industry. So, it’s something which we have used already three to four years ago with our tourbillon. We have sold so far, since the licensing, like 150 of these tourbillons with this principle. That has worked very well using this type of manufacturing principle on this watch, which by the way, you can visit when you come to Neuchatel, our manufacturer is producing these pieces.
Being a pioneering brand, we want to enrich the industry with new experiences or new services, like the 70-year guarantee. You have seen that on the Fibratech, with no less than a 70-year guarantee on the watch. So, it’s how much we can be a pioneer as a brand in many aspects of the watch industry.
Is material research and development executed in-house?
Yes! We wanted to have the Laboratorio di Idee in-house so that our dealers and our customers can visit it and see for themselves. You can see that we have our own manufacturing process. Of course, our manufacturing out of Laboratorio di Idee, where we are testing ideas, of which 90% would fail, but 10% would bring products of the future.
Mike Horn upon giving Panerai a part of his boat, Pangaea: easier to put that in the garbage or you use it to make watches
It’s interesting to have a brand that claims Laboratorio di Idee, and even though it’s Italian, you can understand it whatever you are, Dutch, French, English, Greek, Chinese and so on. But how can we give roots, how can we give some reason to justify that claim, beyond the marketing claim. That’s why we have a room dedicated to this Laboratorio di Idee manufacturer, which is testing, evaluating, etc. for all the potential future ideas we have for future products.
And then there’s the EcoPangaea tourbillon GMT, which is quite a beast, 50mm, complex movement, and related to Mike Horn again, who is a returning thing for Panerai. Tell me more.
Mike has been a brand supporter for more than 15 years and he was a fan of Panerai before. When he spends a couple of months alone in some of the most regal parts of the world, he’s always with his Panerai. It’s the only mechanical instrument that survives expeditions, like he does, somewhere in the world. And a year and a half ago he gave me a part of his boat, Pangaea, and he told me: easier to put that in the garbage or you can use it to make watches. I was surprised when he made me this offer, but he said, “OK, why not, let’s try to see what you can do with this piece of steel”. And I went on to say, “Well, with that we can do five watches”.
That’s how the idea started of using it on a watch, it’s a 50mm as you have seen so you need a big wrist to wear it! But we could do only five pieces with the type of metal he has given us. It allows us to introduce the very first tourbillon skeleton Submersible into our assortment. All of these pieces already sold out, and because it’s also an experience with Mike, he will take all five people with him to give them a flavour, for three days, of the beauty of the North Pole.
So you want your customers to freeze on the North Pole? Do you require the customers to do some sort of physical test before they go with Mike to the North Pole?
Before selling the watches, we did that already with the Marina Militare a year ago. If you remember we had the experience with the Marina Militare, which was for 33 people and my biggest worry was that everybody would survive the experience and have fun. At the end of the day, you pay for this concept and the idea is that you live by having learned something and having enjoyed something. If it’s just to suffer for two days it’s not really fun.
So, I was very happy with the Marina Militare because first, everybody survived. And we got very good coverage of people who were very enthusiastic, whether it was customers or even some journalists and we have decided to continue in this direction to introduce in the future even more experiences because we strongly believe that if you want to experience the best of Panerai, beyond visiting its historic boutique in Piazza, beyond visiting its manufacturer in Neuchatel, beyond visiting any of our 150 stores in the world, the best way is to be able to test your watch in the toughest conditions.
That’s why we did this with the Marina Militare and we continue to do it with Mike Horn and we have many other projects. But yes, back to your first question, we had a test with doctors before starting Marina Militare, a test for everybody. They were tested by a doctor before starting the next day, where he tested all of the critical things like your heart, etc., so we were qualified to go. I have to say that most of the people did about 80% of the experience, so it was very good, very fun.
Maybe we could imagine the next P-Day as a boot camp?
That’s a good point. Well, why not, I never thought about that. But you know, we don’t organize P-Day. P-Day is like an icon of the Paneristi community. Last year it was in Amsterdam and this year it will be, if everything goes well, in New York, but it’s supposed to be September and there’s this concern we don’t know if it’ll work. But why not? It could be a good idea to test one of the P-Days as a boot camp.
Since we’re talking about the current situation, and the pandemic is still with us, how many of the initially planned new models will be introduced this year?
During Watches & Wonders, we presented a selection of the innovations for 2020 and we have kept a certain number of innovations for the rest of the year. We have kept about two-thirds of the planned innovations for this year and a third we have delayed for next year. In numbers, this means that we kept about 75 innovations and about 15 will be delayed until next year.
Now something else, fairs… What do you think about the latest changes with Patek and Rolex moving to Geneva next year? The entire centre of gravity is moving away from Basel.
Personally, I’m very happy because it strengthens the power of Geneva. You know, we should never forget that the watch industry is probably one of the very few industries to have only one country of origin. In the fashion business, you have different fashion weeks, because you have Paris, you have Milan, you have London, you have New York. Because all of these fashion designers have different countries of origin.
When you come to watches, most of the luxury watches come from Switzerland. So, having a single city and an event that will last longer than the initial four or five days that we had with Watches & Wonders, works very well. Having all of the major names grouped together can only highlight even more the celebration effect. We have more magnitude in what we say and what we do, in press coverage, resonance to customers, making your life easier because you don’t have to travel twice. For journalists and retailers who come from America or from Asia, the two big fairs were very tiring. Press explained to final customers why one fair in three months ahead of or delayed compared to the other one is not easy. So, here we would have one city, one date. On that, it would be a very strong celebration.
One last question from my side. Do you also think that due to the pandemic that we are facing, the industry will have to undergo some changes? And if so, what kind of changes?
Well, first of all, I repeat often to my teams and to the people I speak to when I have to react about this pandemic, is that all we know is what we don’t know. I like to repeat that because I think you have to be extremely clever to be able to foresee what will be post-pandemic. First, we have no idea when it will be over. Even though we have some ideas, for instance, because you restart in Holland, and we restart in Switzerland in two weeks time to come back to a normal activity, which is when everything reopened. That is already something which is more or less known, but will the customers be back to purchase watches? Although we’re restarting, it’s still something which is not as clear in most of the 200 countries in the world.
So, then the question is what’s going to happen to distribution, and to manufacturing, and to all the competencies that make the industry so vibrant before the Coronavirus started? I strongly believe that the strongest brands, before the Coronavirus hit all of us, will become even stronger in terms of market share. I will say that the business will increase, but I will say the market share of the big ones will continue to be there if not increasing. That is valid for brands, it is valid for distributors.
I think people will be more careful about spending their money, and finally, I think that the digital world is no longer something for the next 100 years, but something for now and today! We see it today in our sales results that the closure of many of our stores has led many people to go to our e-commerce activities.
So, it will create big changes industry-wise and in our way of living. I personally don’t work today like I was working two months ago. I use the computer eight or ten hours per day to do all the meetings, which is something I used already at Panerai because having three different geographical sites (Milan, Neuchatel and Geneva) we have stopped travelling in all these directions. And we are using video conferencing, on Zoom, on Skype, you name it, and that we accelerate even with our subsidiaries in the world, by avoiding unnecessary trips, and being much more environmentally driven.
You know, we live thanks to the oceans. The brand wouldn’t be here today if we wouldn’t have this sea environment. When we speak with Mike Horn and Guillaume Nery and all the people we work with, they alert us about the fast deterioration of the planet. We believe that on our small level, that it’s part of our mission to initiate a certain number of developments, which are much more environmentally friendly and I am very committed to being the first brand, next year, to introduce the first100% recycled watch.
That sounds like quite a statement.
Yeah, we have 15 people at the manufacture working on that concept. And today we have watches which are up to 30 to 40 percent of the value made of recycled components. Next year we hope to be the first ones to produce a watch with all components that are recycled.
I’m intrigued! I’d love to see how the hairspring will be made. On that bombshell, it’s time to end this interview… thanks so much for your time, Jean-Marc!