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Interview: Angelo Bonati, CEO, Officine Panerai

Angelo Bonati isn't relinquishing control of his tight stewardship of Officine Panerai anytime soon.

In today’s chop-and-change world of luxury watches, Angelo Bonati is an assuring and familiar sight. He is one of the old guards, having started and stayed the course for Panerai, from overseeing its launch in 1997, to serving as the brand’s CEO since 2000. We’d even call him the Alex Ferguson of luxury watchmaking, if not for the fact that, unlike the former Manchester United manager, Bonati continues to be the main architect of Panerai.  

On hindsight, it appears that there is no better man than Bonati to lead Officine Panerai. The 65-year-old worked in the jewellery trade in the 1970s before joining the Richemont Group (then Vendome) where he was appointed director of sales and marketing for Cartier Italy.  Vast experience notwithstanding, it is Bonati’s Italian roots, that makes him a snug fit for the Florence-born brand.

“There is history, family, values, Florence… we are lucky because we have these elements. When a client comes in to buy a watch, they are really getting inducted into a member of our family. You may say that it is a very Italian thing,” says Bonati, who was born in Milan.

You had a great start with Panerai. Did you love its watches before working for the brand?
I loved Panerai watches but I wasn’t really a collector. If you love something or someone, you give it due respect. My love for the brand is underscored by my respect for it. That is why we always check if our new creations are in line with our history and our DNA. If we don’t do that, we end up confusing ourselves and our clients.

At the core of it, Panerai has only two main collections – the Luminor and the Radiomir. Is that still enough?
I admit that it is quite an unusual way to grow a watch brand – to be so lean with our core collections. A lot of people ask me: "Why don’t you come up with a new case? Or dial?". I ask them back: "Why do I have to do it?" Obviously, the end result is to generate greater sales and volume. Well, Panerai is a high-value brand. If we start polluting it with unnecessary additions, we lose that value.

Radiomir 1940 3 Days Automatic Acciaio from 2016

Give us a sense of what it was like in the late 1990s, before Panerai got big.
We started with very little. We were nothing. We had a desk to work from. We had one model – the Luminor Marina. We had no movement of our own, no sense of authenticity in terms of know-how. And we were not a brand yet. So we had a few options open to us. One of which was to market the brand extremely well, milk it like a cash cow, and then exit the market. Of course, we didn't take that option.

Panerai has progressed very quickly in terms of technical competence. Since 2005, you have made 20 in-house calibres.
It is a very deliberate move for us, to develop in a vertical manner. Meaning that instead of coming up with a huge variety of models, we concentrate on a creating a variety of in-house movements through enhancing our know-how. I believe this is where we give our customers through value, and make them feel like they are a part of an exclusive club.

The P.1000, a double-barrel hand-wound movement with three-day power reserve is Panerai’s 20th in-house calibre in 10 years

Are you happy with how far Panerai has come as a technical brand?
I am an ambitious man and I’m never satisfied. We already have quite an excellent assortment of models and movements, but I always want more – better quality and greater beauty.

Material experimentation is another area that Panerai has expressed itself in, from bronze to ceramic cases. Why this direction?
This is an important way for us to differentiate our offering. On the one hand, the watches are essentially unchanged with the core collections. But we change the material elements in order to offer something different.

Carbotech, a carbon fibre-based composite material that debuted this year on the PAM616

The PAM604, with its ornately engraved case, is one of the most atypical Panerai watches we have seen. Is decorative watchmaking something you are exploring?
The watch is a tribute to Florence, the brand’s home-city. The decorative expression is something new to Panerai, but if you visit Florence, you will find that the artistic style is not all that unusual. Decorative watches are not something that we are looking at in a big way, but I do demand a high level of quality with our finishing. If you don’t take care of the finishing, the aesthetic aspect of the watch, it loses its emotion. That’s why people can fork out 10,000 euros for a watch – because it makes them feel something.

The PAM604, a tribute to Panerai’s home city of Florence, is one of the most ornate Panerai watches ever

After 18 years at Panerai, do you feel that customers want something from the brand today?
I hope not! Until now, the results say ‘no’. Our customers are varied, some are young and cool, others are collectors and aficionados. But when they buy a Panerai watch, they know what they are buying into.

Ex Editor-In Chief

Alvin promises not to be a douche when talking about watches. He may have scoured the Basel and Geneva watch fairs for the past 15 years, and played an instrumental role to the growth of Singapore's pioneering horological and men's lifestyle publications, but the intrepid scribe seeks to learn something new with each story he writes.

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