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Lunch with: Panerai CEO Jean-Marc Pontroué

Lunch with: Panerai CEO Jean-Marc Pontroué

panerai ceo jean marc pontroue

For almost 20 years, Angelo Bonati guided and shaped the Florentine brand Panerai. Since just more than one year, there is a new man on board: Jean-Marc Pontroué, who has been with the Richemont group for almost 20 years now, was CEO of Roger Dubuis before.

During a visit in Hamburg’s ‘Hafencity’, we met Pontroué for lunch on the waterside – a good place to talk about the origins and future of a brand, that since the very start produced professional watches for the Italian navy. Pontroué pursues the heritage of his predecessors, however with his very personal hallmarks: he implements innovative materials, launches a new collection and is surprisingly approachable to his Paneristi community, always keeping the brands identity in mind.

1. What does a mechanical watch mean to you? Which watch are you wearing today and which watch are you wearing the most?

A watch for me is always mechanical, otherwise it is not a watch. It is beautiful to wear a piece of art on your wrist. At my former company they let me build a movement with 300 components from scratch, so I very well know about the beauty of it.

– That is impressive. Did it work in the end?

(Pontroué laughs) Yes, it actually did. Well, at least that is what they told me.

Today I wear the Luminor Submersible BMG-Tech™ 3 Days Automatic 47 mm – PAM00692. I have around 3-5 watches that I constantly switch. When we have a prototype, I put it on the wrist to see how it grows on me. One of my favourite watches personally is the Submersible 1950 Carbotech. Also, the Bronzo is a great watch, however I never wear it when meeting people as it is somehow ironic to showcase something during a business meeting that they have to wait to get for some period or cannot get at all. It is a question of respect.

2. You have been working for the Richemont Group for almost 20 years now and you are CEO of Panerai for just over one year. What is for you personally so special about the Florentine brand?

Panerai watches are emotional products that happen to tell you the time. They combine precise Swiss watchmaking with the creative Italian side of the brand. This is quite unique in our industry. It is a very interesting cocktail in terms of creativity and team spirit.

3. In 1997 the Vendom Group (Richemont today) acquired Officine Panerai. Why was this step crucial at that time and how has it contributed to the success of the brand since?

There was close to zero business at that time. Richemont of course had the power in terms of distribution and organisation and has built Panerai to one of the top 20 brands in the world. I think, the group has put all their experience that they learned from their other brands over the years into Panerai – how to position it on a high level, how to focus on icons, how to recreate the design specification and how to make military accessories a timepiece accessible for people who are dressed casual or wearing a suit. At that time people were rather wearing small watches and we came along with 45 or 47 mm cases. It was risky at that time. But Richemont has the historical competence to evaluate if this type of project is what the market needs or not. And they succeeded.

4. Your predecessor Angelo Bonati has taken the brand to great success in the past 20 years. Which legacy from Mr. Bonati will you continue and what is your very personal strategy for the brand?

Angelo is responsible for everything that the brand is today. He was very consistent to not bring the brand in exotic developments. He had one model that he has expanded to make the ‘Submersible’, the ‘Due’ and to continue to enrich the ‘Radiomir’. He brought processes inhouse that were before outsourced and he was responsible in developing new materials. Everything that we continue today is what has been developed by him from 1997 onwards.

I think what Porsche has been doing with the 911 is a benchmark for our brand. They have this specific type of car since 70 years and they have been changing a couple of elements to make it very different from the original one. But what’s so special about it is, that ‘Selbstähnlichkeit’ in this product, a German word that means ‘consistent similarity’. And that is what we try to do at Panerai. The product becomes iconic, just like the Porsche 911. When people hear or see a ‘Radiomir’, in most cases they instantly know the brand behind it. There are not many watch brands where you have a model that is recognizable and linked to a brand to this extend.

5. You have been CEO of Roger Dubuis before, a brand that is strongly driven by innovation. Might this be a reason that new materials and complications enrich the Panerai collection today, just as recently seen on the novelties of 2019?

The innovative spirit has been part of Panerai long before I joined the company. The Carbotech, the BMG, the Laboratorio di Idee or the new recycling theme. So basically, I have just continued what has been done before. At Panerai, there is the innovation on the one side and the Italian spirit on the other. At Roger Dubuis we have no Italian spirit in the brand. It is a Geneva based brand carrying the Geneva Seal. We don’t have that at Panerai because Panerai comes from a different origin. But I agree with you, the innovation in the two brands are very strong aspects in the personality of them.

– Does such an innovative approach fit to a brand like Panerai?

When it comes to implementing new materials into the collection, it had to be done on the ‘Submersible’ because here our innovation journey started, looking at the Bronzo or also BMG. ‘Submersible’ is the field of extreme sports of Panerai. So, when we do have innovation we will most likely introduce it on the ‘Submersible’, where it fits perfectly due to its purpose and history.

6. What is the reason for separating the ‘Luminor Submersible’ line? What does the collection ‘Luminor’ and the collection ‘Submersible’ stand for today?

When you join a brand you first start to question everything. One of my questions was, why is ‘Submersible’ part of ‘Luminor’? And people say to you, that it was always like this. But it is my job to question that. We have about 80% of our customers that are new to the brand. So ideally you don’t need to explain the whole range to them but make it clear and simple from the outside what ‘Luminor’, ‘Submersible’, ‘Radiomir’ or ‘Due’ stand for. It needs to appeal to you without explaining to much. When I saw that both models have been mixed up, I decided to split them and give much more power to ‘Submersible’. We wanted to have two different successful stories. We don’t apply the same recipes for ‘Luminor’ as we do for ‘Submersible’. You will see more on this during the next SIHH. First step was to separate the two lines to have ‘Submersible’ as our survival instruments for modern heroes, as we call them.

7. With the new collection ‘Submersible’ you seem to further break away from the Rolex past in order to tell a new Panerai story. Was this your intention?

I never had in mind what has happened with Rolex in the past. This was part of the brands activities at a given time in the past, but Panerai lives on its own since decades already. The idea was much more to create a line that can appeal new potential customers that are in extreme sports business, modern heroes like Guillaume Néry, who was diving at a depth of over 100 meters and joined a partnership with us recently.

8. What significance does the Bronzo have for Panerai? Will you continue to extend the Bronzo theme?

Another main legacy from Angelo is definitely the Bronzo. Hence, we call our new Bronzo model ‘The Original’. He has started the hype around bronze watches despite the fact that many told him it will not be successful. It came from his passion from sailing. Many ask, why we advertise a watch that we cannot supply. It is to remind every brand that is entering this segment, that the bronze theme is a Panerai territory. 

9. Some collectors criticize that the new Bronzo is not strictly limited any longer. What was the reason for your decision? Was it simply profit driven?

If I would be profit driven only, I would have produced 10.000 pieces instead of 1.000 a year. I was in Japan recently and there were 50 people waiting for the new Bronzo. And we only have five pieces in the local store. It is the same with our Panerai experiences. If I wanted to make business only, I would have sold many more. That is the beauty of Panerai – to create fun and desirability with limited quantities.

In terms of Bronzo I could also make 50 different dial colours for the next 50 years. We did dark green, blue and brown in the past eight years. What’s next, pink? But that is not our future strategy. The challenge is how to install an iconic model in an iconic brand, keeping the exclusivity but not changing colours each year. Therefore, I have decided to continue its production in the following years, but with a limitation to 1.000 pieces.

To summarize this: in 2020, we will not present the Bronzo Submersible 47 in a new dial colour. However, we have many creative ideas for the years to come.

10. The Paneristi are a unique watch community worldwide. How do you explain this hype? Do you follow their exchange?

When I first joined the brand, my key intention was to meet with them. We have 30.000 fans that follow us on everything that we do. They are mainly there to support us, of course there are some critics, but we are all on the same mission. To honour their loyalty for so many years, they were the first ones to know about the Experience and in October they were the first ones to see the novelties we showed at SIHH four month later. The Paneristi community comes together every year in a different city of a different country and I want to join them of course. The next meeting will be in Amsterdam in October this year.

– You only recently proved your commitment for the German Paneristi community. They have for many years failed in launching a Special Paneristi Edition under the lead of Mr. Bonati. Only one year after you joined the brand, the community just presented the first PAM01080.

I wanted to honour people that are close to us. Out of the 300 Paneristi that joined the annual meeting in Hong Kong last year, 20 came from Germany, the biggest percentage out of all European countries. We will not necessarily make special editions for every single country, but there are some markets that justify that we do it. We opened our first boutique in Switzerland (Zurich) and it happened to be a good time and occasion to celebrate a German / Austrian / Swiss edition.

The community can also expect further models in the upcoming years. Like the Marina Militare that we launched this year, a model dedicated to the Egyptian Navy (similar to the Egiziano from 2009) can certainly be part of our special editions in the near future. And the ‘Radiomir’ is a line that we have positioned as a homage of the history of the brand. In the next five years, we will present some new products in this line. I am happy to also consider the reference 6154 for this, as it has been requested by the community for some time now.

11. E-commerce against retail. Where do you see which potential for the brand Panerai, now and in the future?

I am a big supporter of e-commerce. E-commerce is a great way to reach our customers who do not have a retailer close to them which happens mainly in India, Asia or the US – and India is a growing market for us. Both, retail and e-commerce are equally important to me and the brand. But we also extend e-commerce in Europe as the purchasing behaviour of people changes. They have developed a habit to primarily buy online. 

12. In which direction does the watch industry move in your opinion?

I strongly believe that the 30 big brands will become even bigger. I think that mechanical watches are getting even more popular than before. Smart watches have not affected the Swiss mechanical market. The challenge is that brands have to be even more distinctive and need to strongly promote their individual DNA. On the other side the story telling needs to be understood and explained in one sentence. If you have too much information to tell, people will not follow.

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