A TimeZone Exclusive Interview

Angelo Bonati of Panerai

Comandante del Tempo

By Michael Friedberg

December 2002

If the Panerai watch represents a military secret, then the commanding secret behind the company is its President, Angelo Bonati. Signor Bonati has created what may be one of the great success stories in the watch industry over the past quarter-century. With the support of Richemont and a talented staff, he has engineered the development of a small brand into an international cult object. Panerai’s business success, and the strategic thinking underlying that success, represents a unique story and one seldom disclosed to the public.

AB: Angelo Bonati, President, Officine Panerai

MF: Michael Friedberg, TimeZone.com



MF: Mr. Bonati, you’re in charge of a brand that elicits strong opinions from the public. You must be a watch connoisseur yourself. Please tell our readers about your background in the watch industry.

AB: I was always involved with the Italian market. I started with Richemont back in 1980; that has been a long time. Mr. Franco Cologni was always my boss. It was always Richemont: at one time Cartier and then Vendome. I was President of Cartier and some other brands.

I did leave the group for two years in mid-1990s, finding other international experience. I re-entered in 1997. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Cologni called me and said “I have an adventure in my hand. Do you want to do it with me?”

MF: I understand that the adventure was Panerai. How did the idea of Panerai as an international brand develop?

AB: Officine Panerai had to face the reduction of the military budget in the early 1990s, as the Italian Navy then was its sole and exclusive client. In 1993, it commissioned about 1000 watches from suppliers and sold them.

In 1994, Sylvester Stallone was working on a movie and wanted to see a different instrument - one that was linked to the military. He wanted it for - how do you say it? - for his "persona".

He saw this watch and immediately said "this watch is a star". He used it in a movie. As gifts to friends, he also commissioned a few hundred watches with the name Sly-Tech.

MF: I guess Richemont saw a brand starting to take off. Was the idea back then to buy the brand and produce more watches, in order to enhance financial returns?

AB: No, no. It was really just a decision of the Group, which wanted to buy a Brand with a real history and a high quality product.

MF: Surely there was more strategy underlying that decision?

AB: Yes, because at the time, Vendome didn’t have a real sports watch. Baume & Mercier, Piaget, Cartier –these really were not sports watch lines. The idea was that we needed a real sports watch brand.

MF: And how was that strategy to be implemented?

AB: We thought that there were two ways we might do it. First, we could do it in quantities, by producing the watch at a low price. That would use the brand strictly to generate cash. We decided not to do that.

Instead, we decided we could play another card and come from history. We decided to do that instead.

The watch was a military secret. There were slightly less than 300 made before the 1990s. Why, then, was the watch famous with collectors? It was because of its unique history and its quality. Historically, it had a Rolex movement. We decided, then, to enter the market based on the exclusivity of Panerai’s history.

MF: But historically these watches were very large. History is well and good, but wouldn’t that inhibit sales?

AB: Size was another aspect of the strange history. At the time of 1997, there really were only two well-known oversized watches, the Audemars-Piguet Royal Oak Offshore and the IWC Portugieser. But for Panerai we decided to respect the watch and its history.

Yes, the Panerai watch is heavy. It is big; it is strange. But it is different and it has a strong personality. Most importantly, there is a history here. There is a history of value, a history of man and a history of hero. This is not a normal history, linked only to a watchmaker.

Here, it is a symbol; the watch is a symbol. We decided that we had to maintain the concept.

MF: But large watches also have become very popular. Some people, however, think it’s a fad –is it a passing fad?

AB: We opened a new segment –the large size. It’s now difficult for collectors to go back. The watches are easy to read; it’s easy to check the time. Clients can’t go back to smaller watches.

MF: How large can a wristwatch go? In January, your 47 mm model will be available.

AB: That’s a special edition commemorating our model from 1950, and is being made over 2002 and 2003 in 1,950 examples. But I think the right size is 44.

We also have 42 mm –in some Radiomir—and 40 mm in Radiomir and Luminor. For the Luminor, 40 mm is the smallest we can go. Because of the crown guard and proportions, we need at least 40 mm. I think 44 mm is right.

MF: Even if you’re maintaining a tradition, you’ve developed new models. When you started, initially Panerai had two lines –both the historic and the contemporary. How do you develop a brand yet maintain the basic concept?

AB: Yes, we developed models and the brand. But frankly we were “not in business just to make business”. We wanted to achieve real status. We wanted to stay simple and genuine. Our success is linked to one idea of the watch –its history. Our success is linked to one idea of the watch, to one product --its history, its strong personality.

MF: But with that success comes growth. Will that growth dilute the brand?

AB: Here –with Panerai—we have design and history and content. More than quantity I want quality. There will be even more content in the future. We want to be serious; we have sophisticated clients.

MF: Can you elaborate about your company’s growth and goals?

AB: Because Richemont is a public company, there is a policy not to mention specific production, However, let me say that we produce less than demand and more than in each prior year.

Our biggest market now is Italy. The U.S. is the second biggest market. We have 50 retailers in the U.S. and Canada. But there are 800 for Rolex.

The day that a company doesn’t grow it will fall down. Yet we want to grow slowly, taking little steps. We are investing for the future; we want a brand that will be strong 20 years from now.

I prefer to increase contents more than numbers. And we must maintain simplicity –the essence of the brand.

MF: While your designs are simple, I’ve admired the number of new models Panerai has produced in just a few years.

AB: Actually, we don’t have that many models. Apart from the Special Editions, we have just 40 references: eight historic, the rest belong to the contemporary range. Also, we have only a few dials. Brown for titanium, blue for some special dials and then a few basic dials. I don’t want more. I prefer simplicity.

The Radiomir line can use other content and lets us use more complicated movements. The Luminor line has several models: the “solo tempo” basic model, the GMT, the Power Reserve and the chrono. These preserve the heritage --which is somewhat contradictory, I admit, since in the 1930’s the Radiomir models preceded the Luminor. The Radiomir was the first Panerai.

MF: If you would, please tell us about the company today; its facilities and people.

AB. We bought a building for factory in 2001 in Neuchatel. We develop there and assemble there and control quality there. We are training new people and working on movement and case production there.

We have 30 employees at the factory plus 15 in Milan. There’s 4 people in the U.S. A total of 80 people around the world. Our structure –it’s very simple. We are like a family.

ETA makes most of our movement and we transform them. The GMT and Power Reserve are our developments; Valjoux transformed them and they are now exclusive to us. We worked on this for three or four years. Also, look at the finishing.

MF: I also think many of your watches have excellent design. It’s much harder to design something simple. Who does your design work?

AB: We have an art director, Gianpiero Bodino, who is very good. He does almost everything, even packaging. He designed, for example, our steel bracelet. We talked around the table. We came up with idea that we could produce the bracelet with links like the crown protective device.

MF: Do you get involved in the design process?

AB: See this automatic watch? I switched on the computer one night and composed the dial myself.

MF: What, may I ask, are you wearing? Is it special?

AB: Oh, yes. I’m wearing a GMT Regatta, which is what I wear when I travel. It’s 1 of 300 in honor of the Laureus. In May 2002 we sponsored a yacht in a Regatta in Monte Carlo.

MF: Where is the industry at and where is it going?

AB: A very good question. All watchmakers now are upgrading content and product.

The mid-market now is covered by fashion brands –they are growing up. That’s natural. The industry needs external creativity, especially suited for each brand.

But also it’s important to the watchmaker to put something real inside. There has to be a good balance of content and design. Then you have success. To really move up, you have to give something more.

MF: Where does Panerai fit in this?

AB: The luxury unit has two primary clients. The first are trendsetters, which always are dangerous for a brand. The second is a solid clientele who want strong contents. They are finding brands with content. They want something inside. Also, as a smaller group are the collectors, who want something very exclusive.

The assertion of value is strong for Panerai. There is history and design and originality and the right mix. There is something very simple but strong.

MF: It’s clear to me that you understand where you want Panerai to be.

AB: We have to keep the watch simple and pure to its history. You have to have a clear vision and then follow what you believe.

MF: Thank you very much.

Phillipe Bonay, President of Panerai North America (left), and

Angelo Bonati (right)


Copyright 2002
Michael Friedberg
All rights reserved

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