We were promised the booth at Watches & Wonders Geneva would be an immersive experience, complete with an actual shipwreck to show off the fifty-some watches being released this year. It would be a festival of newness, with three unprecedented case materials, a completely new calibre and, as yet unseen at Panerai, bi-material models. The star of the show would be the Luminor, carrying on from the Submersible which is now the brand’s second pillar. Then COVID-19 reared its head, putting a halt to festivities and confining the brand’s Italian staff in their homes until better days. A period of forced inaction that won’t be to the liking of Jean-Marc Pontroué, Panerai’s energetic CEO and New York marathon regular.
Since Pontroué ascended to the top position two years ago, Panerai has been enjoying what could be described as a second youth. It was always a good solid brand, firmly anchored by its Radiomirs and its Luminors, but very much stuck in its ways, afraid to incur the wrath of the Paneristi: the die-hard fans who worship “their” brand in the same way the tifosi love calcio. Not anymore. With Jean-Marc Pontroué at the helm, the brand has been making regular additions to its ranges and has put itself in the spotlight by coupling special editions with once-in-a-lifetime experiences.
When you sell someone a €200,000 tourbillon, you can't just offer them a cup of coffee.
Jean-Marc Pontroué borrowed the idea from Nespresso, as he recently explained to French business magazine, Le Point: “[Nespresso] gives customers a unique purchasing experience when they’re only spending a couple of euros. How do you match that when you’re selling a €200,000 tourbillon? You can’t just offer them a cup of coffee! That’s how the idea of selling watches combined with an out-of-this-world experience came about. It’s something I started at Roger Dubuis and have perfected at Panerai. In 2019 we invited 50 customers to take part in an actual training session with Italian navy commandos or to dive with Guillaume Néry in Polynesia. This isn’t the kind of experience you can envisage on a large scale. It accounts for just 1% of revenue but must have generated 50% of media coverage.” Pontroué has confirmed there will be more of the same this year, with eight comparable experiences in the pipeline for 200 customers – and no shortage of demand.
Innovation is another calling card for Panerai. While it doesn’t necessarily sell more watches, R&D is a fabulous communication tool, knowing that “successful brands are the ones that give their products substance.” Understandably, then, the brand is pushing the “Laboratorio di Idee” (“laboratory of ideas”) label it wants to give itself. A team of fifteen people in the R&D division work full-time to develop movements and materials that further boost the properties that are the added value of a Panerai watch: lightness, shock-resistance, water-resistance, resistance to temperature changes, and reliability. The brand’s partnership with America’s Cup Challenger Luna Rossa also provides technologies from outside watchmaking that can become innovative solutions to technical difficulties.
There will be no increase in annual production, at around 75,000 units, even for those models that are almost impossible to find.
The brand is also in the process of upgrading its collections, though at a measured pace. There will be no increase in production, estimated by Morgan Stanley at 75,000 units a year, even for models such as the Submersible Bronzo that are almost impossible to find. Nor will there be a slew of limited editions, an effective means of focusing attention on the brand but which generate no more than 10% of sales. Increased revenue comes instead from a higher average price: from €7-8,000 when Jean-Marc Pontroué took over the reins to closer to €10,000 today. As part of its move upmarket, the brand also has plans to review its distribution and make it more selective by reducing the number of multibrand retailers, currently 400 out of a total 550 points of sale worldwide, and creating more Panerai stores (currently 150). Last year alone, it opened 15 directly owned stores and also has its sights on airport retail. The spread of coronavirus may be putting these projects on hold, it will take more than that to put Jean-Marc Pontroué out of the race.