I was aware of Davide Cerrato when he was at Panerai, but he really commanded my attention when he joined Tudor. I always had a soft spot for Tudor and so when the dynamic duo of Philippe Peverelli and Cerrato took over the maison (as Managing Director and Head of Marketing, Design and Product Development respectively) and turned it around I was thrilled. Now Cerrato has moved on to join Jérôme Lambert at Montblanc as head of watches: a move that was made official at this year’s SIHH where I caught up with him at the Montblanc booth.

Turin-born Cerrato is an engaging character, who conforms to the better Italian male stereotypes: a fondness for clothes, an interest in design, an easy gregarious manner and a winning charm. Moreover, he is representative of the new generation of executives making their way to the top of the watch industry, once upon a time the men running watch companies were people who had their name over the door, who had been born into the watch industry, or had signed up for life as a young man. Today of course everything from a career in nance, the automotive industry, the champagne business or, in Cerrato’s case, advertising and marketing, is deemed as suitable preparation for the world of gear trains and mainsprings.

I am somewhat wary of the culture of the multipurpose interdisciplinary manager. I think it risks turning the wonderfully idiosyncratic world of watchmaking into just another branch of commerce: reducing these micromechanical marvels, into which makers and wearers pour their emotions, into units of production, skus, cost centres and figures on a balance sheet.

Happily, there are many over whom watches cast their spell. As any reader of this magazine knows watches have a strange effect. It is not for nothing that the popular image of hypnosis has the hypnotist swinging a watch in front of the hypnotee’s eyes. One may have started out, as Cerrato did, in the food industry and then wandered into fast-moving consumer goods, electronics and car advertising before coming to watches and finding oneself transfixed by these tiny ticking machines that by rights should have become extinct a generation ago.

The language of things

The hour of the day apart, we all see different things in watches and for Cerrato it was that emotions were bound up in the design of an object. “I was born in Turin, which is the centre of car design, and I’ve always been in love with that. I think the first time I went to visit a motor show with my father I was around six years old and ever since I’ve liked luxury products because those are the ones in which both the design and the communication side are the most valuable in terms of transmission of the emotions.”

And then he was approached by a headhunter representing a maison where distinctive design was inextricably linked to a compelling narrative seasoned with more than a dash of Italian style. “It was Officine Panerai, an Italian brand with a very strong Florentine DNA, and it perfectly fitted both my interest, and my experience. It was very interesting.

“I was the International Head of Communication. And it was the time when we were trying to express the strength of the brand. We found a very talented photographer, who was incredibly passionate about industrial items from the beginning of the 20th century. Together we found this way of shooting the watch sitting on an aged, brushed metal, background, it was stark monochrome and with a dramatic touch. Communication was, at that time, everything which was about the retail identity of the brand, and it was also the moment of the concept of the wooden-tech boutiques with the portholes in metal, subtly leveraging all these myths of strength, honour and virility.”

But arguably the most instructive part of his three years at Panerai was the chance to work with two of the legends of the Richemont Group, Franco Cologni and Giampiero Bodino. “Cologni was the one who had the vision of what to do about Panerai. He’s a very talented man with a great culture and he was really able to get the zeitgeist of the brand. Giampiero is an incredibly talented designer.” And working with these these two outstanding individuals, he developed and refined his understanding of industrial heritage and patina. And as his next job would show he learned the lesson about the value of patina brilliantly.

“I shifted from Panerai to Tudor. Nine years ago Tudor was really in the very early stages of the product. At the beginning mine was a similar role: the global responsibility for marketing and communication. But after one-and-a-half years I also got the responsibility for product development.”

Giving the people what they want

It was, he says, a dual role that suited him perfectly. “It was particularly successful, because I handled both at the same time: the communication and marketing side and the design and product development side.” He describes himself as having an equal balance between left and right brain. “Normally people are right prevalent or left. In my case it’s even, and in my life and my career it has always been a little bit of a question of whether to go more into the business development side or into the creative side. But with this fusion in the responsibility in Tudor for the first time I was doing both. And this allowed us to have an incredible speed to market in terms of time of product development: on average one year, but we did even less than ten months for a particular brief.” He also oversaw the development of the Tudor movement, although he does concede that “was a little bit longer, it took four years.”

However, what he became known for at Tudor was not so much the speed at which he worked, but the results, particularly the incredibly successful series of Heritage watches. “We presented the first result of the conceptual approach in 2010 with the Heritage Chrono and that was really the very first product with which I could express myself and, in developing that, we were in reality also concreting the approach.”

He had learned his lesson well at Panerai and I still remember the excitement with which I looked at this watch which, while not a pastiche of the Tudor chrono of the late-1960s and early- 1970s was instantly recognisable as carrying the genetic helix of its idiosyncratic forebear. I was not the only person to which it appealed. “It went beyond price categories and beyond age. All of a sudden we got different clients coming from all over: very young people; very sharp expert collectors; and people who were actually buying more expensive watches found that those particular watches were really hitting the spirit of the moment.”

That was perhaps the key achievement of the Tudor Heritage line: it was a truly classless watch that appealed on its own merits. Pricing is an issue and many contemporary timepieces are placed beyond the financial reach of most watch buyers. However, the Tudor Heritage was not a compromise: the advertising and increasingly evocative mini feature films conveyed a message that was delivered by a watch that was not ashamed of its price point. On the contrary, it revelled in it. Here was a watch with the halo of the Rolex name around it, but which also paid forensic homage to the romance of the past in terms of, say, gilt lettering on the dial, the colour of subdials or the revival of snowflake hands… all for a couple of thousand euros.

“I stayed nine years at Tudor and it was really without any doubt the strongest experience of my career. But after nine years I felt the need for a challenge and to get out of my comfort zone. And that’s when this contact with Jérôme happened.”

Moving and shaking

Jérôme Lambert is now three years into his leadership of Montblanc and it is generally accepted that he has done a remarkable job of revving up the maison, not least with its watches, where his introduction of classically styled complications such as the perpetual calendar have generated much attention and little bit of irritation from within the industry on account of the aggressive pricing. Students of Lambert’s career will be familiar with his energetic style and recall his time at Jaeger-LeCoultre, where among the disruptive activities was the release of a tourbillon at a significantly lower price than other fine watchmaking houses.

“Jérôme has done incredible work in the past three years. He has sped up product development in an incredible way. And he has brought in a lot of very smart technical innovation. I think the watchmaking legitimacy of the brand has really improved dramatically. What has been done makes Montblanc a real watchmaking maison. People are really getting closer to the maison, they are becoming interested in quite expensive, complicated timepieces.”

He believes their talents are complementary. “Jerome brought his very strong expertise in complicated and elegant watches and I have been sharpening my experience in sport watches over almost 15 years. So now there is a perfect match between our experiences to bring some energy to the sports side as well.”

And part of that time sharpening his expertise has been spent studying the past of the sports watch. As such, he finds himself particularly drawn to the newly launched 1858, revelling in the host of references to the past of Minerva, the storied chronograph maker that is owned by Montblanc.

Cerrato clearly sees this long-established marque as something of a neglected treasure and makes no secret of his intention to make more of it. “Minerva is really an incredible value for the maison. They have always been a house with a great legitimacy in counters, in technical instruments. They were already doing a chronograph accurate to one-tenth of a second at the beginning of the last century. They developed a very interesting technical, instrumental approach to investigating timing, with counters for almost anything from water sport to football, to rowing, to even a kind of mechanical application to calculate the productivity of people inside a company.

“I feel that this heritage, this particular approach, fits very well with the German-spirited Montblanc, and the German DNA of Montblanc. At Minerva there’s almost a scientific nature to timekeeping, which is something that has been quite lost. At the beginning chronographs were almost like a PC because instead of making calculations to get the speed or something like that, all of a sudden there was a machine that, just by pushing a button will give the result – a little bit like a very early computer; I find this approach very interesting, very unique.”

The rest is history

It is a heritage that Cerrato has to find a way of distilling into a watch design. “Minerva has a very interesting, rich and radical identity, with very clean instrumental, almost scientific dials, all in enamel, most of them white, and with a beautiful and unique top dial created to measure all these different timeframes. For example, I learnt from looking at a Minerva that water polo is made of times of seven minutes, so you have different sub-dials with partitions of seven minutes each. Or you have watches for timing regattas with backward timing before the start of the regatta, with three different colours – white, red and blue. There are rowing dials to find the rate of stroke and so much more. All of this is very interesting because it really is a story which is told through the graphics on the dial, with specific shades and colours, and this I think would be a very interesting way to bring something new to watchmaking.”

However, his enthusiasm for the depth and variety of Minerva illuminates the chief dificulty ahead of him: aligning the discrete aspects of Montblanc’s very multifaceted personality.

Montblanc is, at the least, three separate brands: the Montblanc name itself covers a hugely diverse horological portfolio from €2,000- 500,000; Minerva brings its history of chronographs; and then there is Villeret – the minute production, high complication microbrand that makes couple of dozen pieces a year.

“In just a couple of years Jérôme has been developing many different lines, with different functions in great depth and with terrific efficiency. Now I think that the maison has to find a common language. There is a kind of ongoing grammar which has been written and structured through the different products,” he says warming to his literary and syntactical metaphor. “Now there’s the opportunity to put all these grammatical elements together and to start writing a story.”

Among the elements he is examining are: “The Montblanc emblem, which is an incredibly powerful symbol.” There are also “different interesting treatments of the surface of the dial that have been developed,” not least what he calls the “exploding star” guilloché that characterises the 4810. And he is currently mining the multitude of different numerals and indicators that have been used by Montblanc to find a powerful house signature. Simultaneously he is looking to identify unifying design traits within the movement itself.

It looks like both his left brain and his right brain will be at their busiest yet.