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A deep dive into Panerai with CEO Jean-Marc Pontroué

Panerai’s new CEO Jean-Marc Pontroué discusses streamlining brand’s offering, its new models and the path forward

Our history sets us apart from other brands. If you’re a diver and your watch doesn’t tell you the time or how much oxygen you have left, that can spoil your day.

It’s not always easy to navigate the landscape in modern watchmaking. Once you’ve dealt with style and function, who made it and where comes into play, and then you have the conundrum of how they made it and from what materials. This confusion can oftentimes be localised even within individual brands, with manufacturers’ attempts to cater to as wide an audience as possible leading to a smorgasbord of models that can be daunting to even experienced horologists and fans. 

This, says Jean-Marc Pontroué, has been his greatest challenge since taking the helm at Officine Panerai in April 2018. Prior to being tapped for this role, he ran Roger Dubuis for nearly a decade, after leading product strategy at Montblanc. 

Well-respected within the Richemont family, the Frenchman has just completed a year in the chief executive seat when we talk on a yacht bobbing off the coast of Dubai about the lessons he’s learnt and his strategy for one of the most significant brands in the industry. 

Coming into the brand as an outsider provided him a fresh perspective, Pontroué says, which has helped him streamline Panerai’s offerings into four families — Radiomir, Luminor, Due and Submersible. “The beauty of being a new CEO is that you see things you don’t see any more after a year in the company. When you arrive, you are discovering and you take in everything from the colour of the walls and carpets to the lights. And you also take in the way the assortment is managed.

“I must admit, at first I didn’t find the assortment that clear as an external person.”

Our history sets us apart from other brands. If you’re a diver and your watch doesn’t tell you the time or how much oxygen you have left, that can spoil your day.

Panerai CEO Jean-Marc Pontroué.

What was lacking was a clear entry point to the brand. “I am a very basic person,” he says. “I need to understand the story of the brand without having it explained to me.”

That’s exactly what he set out to do, grouping the historic collections in Radiomir, while Luminor represents the iconic pieces. Due is “a civilised version thereof — an Italian way of expressing the brand”. Rounding it off is the Submersible, which contains the adventurous, performance watches. “We believed that the family was spectacular enough compared to the normal Luminor to create a separate product line and to imbue it with adrenaline.”

This differentiation facilitates every other aspect of the watchmaking process. “When you have these four pillars with these four stories, everything becomes easier, because you can create your strategy, movement, price point, materials, size of dials and everything else according to the four groups,” Pontroué explains. 

“I always say I’ve won if I don’t have to explain anything about the brand. You should understand it by just looking at the four stories.”

Pontroué simplified the brand’s story for new and existing clients even further by choosing to focus only on the Submersible at SIHH. “It’s for the real Panerai guys — adventurers who are into performance. They want to be the first in whatever they do: Diving, running, jumping, sailing, whatever.”

It also connects with the brand’s maritime history of producing instruments for the Italian military. “Our history sets us apart from other brands. If your watch dies, you’ll be fine; you’ll survive the day. But if you’re a diver and your watch doesn’t tell you the time or how much oxygen you have left, that can spoil your day,” he chuckles. “Our timepieces were meant for military divers, not to adorn your wrist. That’s why we call them survival instruments.”

That philosophy still drives the brand, albeit with a softer approach. “‘How do you capture the spirit of the brand but without necessarily going to the extreme?’ That’s the question we’re answering with the new Submersibles,” says Pontroué. 

“If you want to drive a Ferrari, you can get a Formula One car. But not everyone can do that, so you get a Ferrari road car — which is still spectacular compared to other cars in the market. This same principle applies to us.”

That take also explains the introduction of Panerai’s smallest Submersible, at 42mm in diameter. The brand is known for its big watches, but the Submersible 42mm has been well received, in part for the protruding crown guard, which makes it feel a little bigger than that while also securing its deep-diving capabilities. More than that, it’s a comfortable size for most people. 

“If you’ve been wearing 38mm watches your whole life, you don’t just jump to 47mm,” he explains. 

As CEO, Pontroué also leads Panerai’s “Ideas Laboratory” in Neuchâtel, tasked with creating innovative concepts in everything from movements and material to marketing concepts. The department is responsible for two recent Panerai-exclusive materials, BMG-TECH and carbotech. The former is classified as a bulk metallic glass, prized for its strength and greater resistance to corrosion, external shocks, and magnetic fields. The latter, meanwhile, is based on carbon fibre and lighter than steel and titanium. It’s also highly resistant to shocks and corrosion, and its varied, matt black appearance makes each watch aesthetically unique. 

Launched at SIHH 2019, the Panerai Submersible BMG-Tech 47mm combines these innovations in one timepiece, with the case constructed of the alloy and the unidirectional rotating bezel in carbotech. At its heart is the P.9010 automatic calibre, with a power reserve of three days. The Submersible Carbotech also meets the criteria of a professional diving watch, and is presented in two diameters — the historic Panerai size of 47mm, and a more modest 42mm. Both boast a power reserve of 72 hours. 

“My predecessor [Angelo Bonati, who was with the Manufacture for 21 years, including 18 years as CEO], did a great job in bringing these materials to the market,” says Pontroué. “BMG is exclusive to us, and while other manufacturers work with carbon, we’re the only ones to use it in this way.”

In developing new materials, the challenge is always increased performance. “At the end of the day, the car you drive today is very different from the car your father drove. It’s lighter, performs better, consumes less fuel etc. It’s the same with watches: How can we be lighter — especially for us with our big cases — and perform better, be more resistant to humidity, heat, cold, pressure and so on?”

In that quest, the brand continuously looks to other industries, from automotive to aerospace and even the medical field. “These industries spend a lot of money to develop new materials, and they work on micro-micro components,” he says. “Their challenge is the same as ours. The purpose might the different, but we face the same problem. That’s why we always look for suppliers not necessarily part of the watch industry.

“If it works for cars, why not for us? If it works for aerospace, why not for us?”

Pontroué sees a timepiece as a constant companion, something akin to a child’s comfort blanket or stuffed toy. “We call it a doudou in French; you’d keep it in your hands when you sleep because it smells of your mother.

“I compare it to this item because you essentially don’t need a watch — your phone can tell you the time. But if you’re used to wearing watches, you feel naked and disoriented without one.”

That said, the brand doesn’t believe in going after every market. “These are additional experiences,” he explains. “You’ll never have a 38mm Submersible. A Submersible is big, and if you want a small watch you won’t come to Panerai.

“We’re not a brand that makes watches for everybody. I understand some might want a small watch, but there are hundreds of other brands that do that job much better than we could.

“We don’t need to offer 50 families; you can build an incredible story based on one strong product, and Panerai at the end of the day is one product.”

Panerai also stands out in the industry where Swiss manufacturing is often cherished above all else by combining that element with an Italian flair. And while it might date back more than 150 years, it’s really boomed in the past two decades. “It’s a great brand that has been managed extremely well over the past 22 years, because we came from nowhere to be one of the top 25 operators in
the world.

“So, how do we continue to grow in the next 22 years? With products and marketing initiatives by people who are more agile and more entrepreneurial than the rest of the industry,” he says. “Our key challenge is to continue gaining market share every day — without losing our core identity. 

“I could sell many more watches tomorrow if I put them all at €20. Would it last a long time? I’m not sure.”

Pontroué credits the Richemont portfolio with eliminating a lot of the guesswork of what works in which markets, thus placing brands at an advantage. “But it’s always a new story,” he says. 

“Like with kids. It would be great if we had one book on bringing up your children, but that’s not the case. Each brand resonates differently.”

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