As March 2018 comes to an end, so too does one of the strongest captaincies of the Richemont Group. After 21 years steering Officine Panerai to worldwide success, Angelo Bonati is handing the helm over to Jean-Marc Pontrue (previously of Roger Dubuis). A long-time supporter of Revolution, and a great friend of our two founders, Wei Koh and Dr Bruce Lee, we could not let the occasion pass without a final bon voyage. So, here is one of Mr Bonati’s final interviews as CEO of Panerai.
After 21 years at Panerai, what are your strongest memories of developing the brand?
When we started with Panerai, we were proposing something very different to the market, something that didn’t really exist and we were not sure what the reaction would be. It turned out that people were surprised – they were shocked – and from that time until now, we have always tried to shock people. Not by proposing something stupid or something frivolous, but by delivering serious contenders into the watch market. The watch industry is full of exceptional timepieces and to take market-share is never easy, but we did it. How? Because right from the beginning, we started dreaming. And in dreaming, we found the strength to accept the challenge, to develop the brand.
So, whose dream was it?
It has always been a shared dream and this ability to carry a dream, an emotion, has always been key. Yes, we have had a strategy, but if you don’t put the rationality to one side sometimes, you cannot complete the goal. If everything is easy, you have no motivation. If you come to us, you see that we have the same enthusiasm we had at the beginning. And that is the core of Panerai – it is full of people who love and who believe in Panerai.
And above all, a Panerai will always remain recognisable, despite the new innovations and designs.
Yes. It must be like that. To be honest, from time to time we do try to work on something completely different to what you know. But it the end we take the watch and, if we feel that it is not Panerai, then we stop the project.
Are there a lot of designs that have been rejected?
Yes. You must try to do something different because in this life, you never know. But it is very difficult at Panerai to create something new in aesthetic terms. That’s why we work a lot on content, meaning movements and materials, which are always linked to our brand DNA. Material innovation is something that goes back to the very beginning of the company – always linked to the function of the watch. Today the function is different and is more to do with igniting the passion within our clients, so by transmitting our passion.
Whenever I meet clients, they are desperate to show me their watches and to take a picture with me. Now, that’s amazing. For me, that sums up Panerai. We need to keep creating watches for these people without changing the watch’s signature.
If there was just one watch that you would use to explain Panerai to a novice, which model would it be?
Without doubt, the Luminor Marina. I love all Panerai watches, but the Luminor Marina is the Luminor Marina. It says everything.
Which other models are you most proud of from your two decades at Panerai?
You know, when I dreamed of the tourbillon, our engineers and watchmakers gave me the tourbillon. When I dreamed of the minute repeater, they gave me the minute repeater. Every time I ask those guys for something, they do it, and they do it with enthusiasm. It’s amazing. But, you know, I love everything, because everything presents a moment in time, a story. So, to answer your question is difficult as all the watches are special to me. But there are some extra-special moments like the first in-house movement. That felt like winning a small fight and meant that I could go to battle with other watch brands at a very high level with very high potential. And then came the materials revolution and it was Panerai that led the way with titanium – no other brand has the number of references we have.
Under your leadership, Panerai has gone from being a small niche brand to one of the biggest success stories in the Richemont group and when something is successful, there are always people who want to attack it. How does this make you feel?
I feel sad, especially when these attacks come from within the industry. When someone tries to push you down, it is just wrong. I admire a lot of other brands – their innovation and creativity, their ability to create emotion. I love that there are people who work on Audemars Piguet who own a Panerai and people at Panerai who look up to Patek Philippe, but that does not mean that you betray your brand. Of course, the competition will always analyse what other brands are doing – that’s healthy. However, attacking without reason, that’s not for me. But, if that does happen, I am happy to affirm that we are strong enough to bear it.
When you leave your role as Panerai CEO will you still stay involved with Panerai?
No. With my mind, I will be always close but not physically. I have to hand this place to my successor and let him actualise his own dream – it would be too difficult to silently watch close-up. The transitional phase will be difficult. I would like to have a rocket and go to the moon and only see things from far, far away. But, you know, that’s life and everybody has to follow his path. I worked for 21 years, now it’s time for me to go to my house in Argentario. I have a house there, and I think it is better that I stay there. But I will never be far away – in Italy we have a saying: “You never forget your first love.”
Another love is Eilean [the 22m Bermudan ketch built in 1936 and restored by Officine Panerai]. She was your project and will surely be hard to leave behind?
She was my project, but sadly she is not mine. I have talked to Mr Rupert and, although I haven’t told my wife yet, I would like to compete in in the Transat Classique in January 2019 – crossing the Atlantic on Eilean as a last adventure.
You’ve come a long way.
We were a few good men at the beginning, and now we have 720 people working around the world – 320 in the manufacture. I feel proud every morning of all the people working at Panerai. We have our own micro-universe full of love, passion, tragedy and comedy. Inside this universe, 700 people can grow, can think, can suffer, can cry, can be happy, can love. It’s amazing. People tend to stay at Panerai. In fact, we hold the record at Richemont for staff retention. People love to stay because the show is magic. I hope that this will continue into the future because it is something that distinguishes the brand from the others.
So, what is it that makes Panerai so special?
The ability to believe in a project, to believe in a dream, and to make it happen. People have to feel more than an employee, to be enthusiastic, to be informal. My door is always open and I rarely use the phone. I prefer to call people in to my office and talk to them and that is symbolic of Panerai.
You have established your place in the history of fine watchmaking, but what would you like your legacy to be?
When I think of what I have done in 21 years, I can put a lot of it into words – building the brand internationally, opening the first two boutiques, our first in-house movement, our first complicated watch, the new manufacture – but most importantly, I want to be remembered as the CEO who dared to dream.