Gisbert L. Brunner was born in 1947 and has worked with every sort of precision timepiece, though mainly wristwatches, since the 1960s. He has now published more than 15 books on the subject. He is also in demand the world over as a public speaker.
THE RED BULLETIN: Dr Bonati, you have been at Panerai for almost 20 years now. You’ve made lasting changes to the brand and have created a reputable factory. That’s deserving of a little trip down memory lane.
ANGELO BONATI: Looking back is always sad.
We’ll look to the future together a little later.
Well, if I really have to look back, let me state that I’d do it all the same way again if I had to.
Even the mistakes, should you want to single any out in this look back?
Even the mistakes, or actually very specifically the mistakes, as they help you improve.
In that case, does a specific noteworthy mistake come to mind?
No, because I’ve always tried to avoid mistakes in what I do (laughs.) But joking aside, of course there are things which I might have done better. I might have gone for a different dial colour here and there, for example, or different price limits. But all in all my team and I have had a great time together. No doubt about that. We can all be proud of what we’ve achieved in a relatively short time for Panerai. The staff went along with me because they were convinced that I was choosing the right path for Panerai.
Let’s go right back to the beginning in 1997. How were things back then?
Back then we had a strategy for the years ahead, where Panerai was coming from and where we wanted to take the brand in order to achieve market success. But let me say how great it was, especially in view of all the great human relationships that were forged and that I’ve experienced. I’d never experienced anything like it before. And now, in retrospect, I’m incredibly grateful for that. I’ve had the opportunity to meet exceptional people in every sense of the word.
What, in your opinion, is Panerai’s very considerable success since it was taken over by Richemont in 1997 down to?
You can’t define that scientifically. Ultimately, success is built on intelligence, enthusiasm, passion, the analysis and pursuit of goals, where possible, none of which includes the usual stress factors of business life. So ultimately, it depends on exceptional people. That’s how I see it when I look back.
What has been the most exciting moment in your long career with Panerai?
That was in 1997 when we tried out our first watch in Italy and a week later the phone wouldn’t stop because so many Italian dealers were calling and wanted to order 100, 200 or even 300 watches. It was exciting but also scary.
That was the first range of watches of fewer than 1000 units, if I remember rightly.
Exactly, those were the ones. I sat on my own in my office, which was really dark, with a telephone, a computer and 50 pencils. And nothing else. In September, I took my briefcase and nine watches – six Luminors and three Mare Nostrums – and went to hawk them to friends I knew from my Cartier days.
What was your sales pitch?
Listen, you’ve got Cartier, Rolex, Patek, so you’re one of the greats of our industry. But today I can offer you this here. Imagine that the project is a train, a very special train that will only leave once. You can get on now without knowing where the train is going or you can stay where you are and watch the train leave. Have a good think about it. If you want to come along for the ride, you’ve got to buy 30 watches at a single price, a price which is nothing compared to what your other items cost. At least when you sell this watch you’ll also be selling an idea.
And how did they react?
Some said, ‘OK Angelo, come back when you’ve got something else’. And others went for it. ‘Let’s give it a try.’
What happened after that?
We showcased our watches at the SIHH for the first time in April 1998 and they attracted a lot of attention due to their size alone. There were queues in front of our small stand. The interest was huge. I’ll never forget that moment. I’ve never experienced anything like it.
How did your becoming CEO come about?
Franco Cologni gave me a call because I’d once been the Director of Sales for Cartier Italy but had worked for two other firms in the interim. Franco asked me to come and see him because he had a new project he wanted to show me. He told me I’d be much better suited to the watch business than the porcelain business where I was then plying my trade. Franco offered me the CEO position and I agreed on the spot.
Were you already passionate about sailing at that point?
Yes, that passion was there long before that. But I’d always loved watches too. Watches are my second passion. When I left Cartier to devote myself to other work, I always missed watches very much. For three years I attended the Basel watch show in a private capacity to see what was new.
Right from the off you had a high degree of freedom when it came to shaping the Panerai brand. Was that on Johann Rupert’s initiative?
No, that was Franco Cologni to start with. Then Mr Rupert also gave me freedom because he wanted Panerai to be separate from the rest of the group members. It was a very intelligent idea because if a newcomer enters into a huge machine, it won’t last long. Mr Rupert took us under his wing and allowed us to work and grow in peace as he was keen on the brand from the off. Johann Rupert was absolutely right to call Panerai his baby because he too had a vision for the future.
Did his vision tally with yours?
Not exactly, but Johann Rupert had the wisdom to let us do our own thing. He could sense that the brand had great potential. He noticed right away that Panerai was something special, that it was a gem.
You also got – almost as a dowry – a whole bunch of old Rolex-Cortébert movements. They say the platinum Radiomirs made using those was enough to purchase Panerai.
The movements are a whole other story. We were working on the first Panerai collection when I got a call from Neuchâtel. I had given an order for all the old stock still being held in Florence to be sent to Switzerland without delay. Everything was evaluated there. So I got a call saying that 65 inscribed but somewhat rusty Rolex movements had been found and could they throw them away?
I take it you didn’t say yes.
Indeed. The very next day I travelled to Neuchâtel to examine the find. Then I gave instructions for the movements to be disassembled and all the components to be reconditioned and brought back to working order. I took one movement with me to help reproduce the first Radiomir with a platinum case and double base.
And did that happen?
It did. Some dealers really couldn’t sell the watches and, as promised, I took them back. But others asked me to increase the supply. We sold 60 in all. We kept the rest for service purposes.
That was a good deal for those salesmen. As you know, the PAM21 now sells for over €100,000.
You could put it like that, yes. Thanks to those 60 watches, the purchase of Panerai really did pay for itself.
Panerai watches are generally known to keep their value. How has that come about?
(laughs) I can’t tell you, otherwise other brands will copy our recipe. No, but seriously. It’s not rocket science. We did a lot of work to enhance the brand’s historic profile and bring it up-to-date. And we’ve always striven to be consistent. And we’ve always kept the watches as authentic as they were when we found them. Ultimately we didn’t just work on the watches. The first step we took was to focus on developing the Panerai band further. To start with, the brand itself was not sufficiently well-known. People knew the Luminor Marina or Radiomir. Panerai, in contrast, took a back seat. In our enthusiastic efforts to develop the brand, we always left space for the year ahead and the items that would be launched then. So it was a continuous process.
And what was the second step?
That was to insist on developing a genuine factory with our own movements, as without that we would get nowhere. You’re not a watchmaker. You’re not a manufacturer. You’re just nothing. You can still make good watches if you buy the movements off Eta or Sellita but you’re not a real watchmaker because nothing’s really your own.
In 2005, Panerai finally had its own manufacture movement. You worked with ValFleurier and Eric Klein back then. How did that come about?
We were in Geneva one afternoon. I was appearing before our committee which then, as now, was headed by Johann Rupert. I told them that I would like to develop my own movement.
How did Johann Rupert react?
‘Why are you here, Angelo? You’ve been telling me about these plans for six months. Why don’t you just do it? Get started already!’
Why had you exercised such restraint for so long?
Things aren’t as straightforward within the organisation as you might think as an outsider. But I was indeed effectively forced into getting started.
Panerai has extraordinary calibres without exception. Did you already have a clear plan of what you wanted to do?
The idea began with a blank sheet of paper. I sat there with Eric Klein and Henry-John Belmont, the former CEO of Jaeger-LeCoultre. Belmont was our advisor on the new Panerai calibre. He asked me what vision I was striving for. I said that a good power reserve should form the base of my movement philosophy. There was another vision which saw me insisting on a linear power reserve indicator which astounded the others as they were thinking of something classic.
What was the basis of your argument?
I wanted to create a type of instrument. If it had had the traditional power reserve indicator, it would have just been another regular watch. But we had a military background, remember, and that’s why I wanted a sort of instrument.
Which probably wasn’t all that easy.
You’ll have to wait and see what can be done, I was told. Then there were studies with the Greubel-Forsey designers. Three months later, I was told, somewhat exasperatedly, that my ideas were always so odd and hard to bring to fruition and took up so much of the designers’ time. But all I wanted was something simple and precise.
Then last but not least there was the movement.
The first concept didn’t take hold but gradually we got there with active support from Eric Klein. We started out with a three-day power reserve.
What happened after that?
At Panerai, we live in the sports watch world but we’re not Breitling or Rolex. So we needed simple but useful and user-friendly extra functions. That’s how the power reserve indicator and GMT function came about. Both relied on the fact that most people today travel and do sport. Anyone on the road needs to know the time both at home and locally but doesn’t always have the time to regularly wind his watch. Based on these considerations, we gradually moved on from the three-day idea to the chronograph. The chronograph was vital for me as we couldn’t and didn’t want to stay with Eta and Valjoux long-term. But that was just the first step. Now it’s time to think of our movements for the next 20 years.
We have to move forward based on what we have now. Let me use Mercedes as an example. They come up with completely new cars there in under ten years again and again. But you can still see straight away that they’re Mercedes. It needs to be exactly the same thing with Panerai. The best example is our new, much smaller and flatter P.1000. That’s already a design for the future.
The most ingenious Panerai design in my view is the Regatta chronograph with the countdown function.
We worked on that for six years too. I’m not an engineer but I have a good feeling for sensible functions. If I’m at the helm of a boat with my Regatta Countdown, I can’t consult a book and read the instructions manual. So I need it to be simple. And that’s exactly what the Regatta function is. It’s easy to use and clear to read. That was the philosophy that inspired me and Eric Klein. And we were able to create something unique in the world of watches. I teach my staff that as a lesson over and over again.
Panerai is very forward-looking when it comes to the materials you use for the cases. The best example of that is your innovative carbon case. Are there staff at the factory in charge of that?
Yes, we have people focused solely on that. They don’t just stew in their own juices. They also work with universities and other experts, such as researchers and scientists, in order to keep on innovating. It’s not easy work. If they do 20 different experiments, only one might be of use at the end of it all. But that’s the way it goes in our line of work. We constantly have to put our leading role to the test. It’s a bitter fight. But if you don’t fight, you’ve lost already.
Let’s finish by coming back to business generally. What are your best markets as things stand right now?
If you look back to the late 1990s, our markets have totally changed. Today very few people say to themselves that they need a new watch so they’re going to go to a shop to get one. Markets today are very strongly tied up with tourism. People come to Europe from Asia and the US because Europe is the centre of tourism for its cultural values too. Favourable exchange rates also go hand in hand with that. Purchasing behaviour has also changed. These sorts of clients don’t go to the watchmaker’s on the corner. They go to Galeries Lafayette, say. Paris is usually the last stop on the tour and that’s where Asian visitors get their money out to do a bit more shopping.
Do you design your sales and marketing activities accordingly?
You have to take it into consideration, of course, but we try to consider all cities that tourists come to equally, such as Florence, Rome and Venice in Italy. Within a few years Italy might be number two or even number one when it comes to the number of tourists. The number of visitors has tripled since we opened our boutique in Florence. We now get between 80 and 120 people a day.
And hopefully they all buy something, do they?
Not all do, of course.
What percentage do?
I cannot and will not tell you that. It’s not a huge percentage, but we’ve doubled sales there recently. But what the number of visitors shows us is that Panerai is becoming an increasingly well-known and well-loved brand.
How many boutiques do you have worldwide?
There are 65 now.
Do Chinese people think of Panerai as an Italian or Swiss brand?
I’d say Italian. That’s stuck in people’s minds.
But it says Swiss Made on the dial.
That’s the guarantee that we Italians make watches with Swiss levels of excellence. When I see Swiss Made on the dial, then I’m a happy customer. That’s the same with Cartier. For many people, Cartier is a French brand. But the watches are also Swiss Made. We say Italian ideas, Italian design, Swiss craftsmanship.
You now have a brand new, state-of-the-art factory building in Neuchâtel but it’s currently still as closed as a Rolex Oyster.
We’re sticking to our philosophy there; we won’t go public until everything is fully ready. That completion process is moving forward. And the first visitors will be able to come to our new factory building in conjunction with the SIHH 2016.