Panerai continues marrying cutting-edge technology with traditional craftsmanship with its new, blue version of the Lo Scienziato. WatchTime India editor Neha Bajpai explores the watch and speaks to the man behind it, former Panerai CEO Angelo Bonati.
Swiss watches, for the longest time, have thrived on the romance of handcraft. Generations of watchmakers here have spent long, dreary winters holed up in workshops, hunched over primitive tools, creating the most splendid timepieces by hand. From marketing campaigns to passionate presentations, top luxury watch companies have been spinning stories for decades, around the minimal use of machines in making horological masterpieces.
However, the age of smartwatches and tech freaks is pushing traditionalists to make space for high-tech gadgets in conventional ateliers. While the magic of nimble fingers and delicate tools in high horology can’t be replaced with gizmos, a lot of brands are warming up to the idea of assisted technology to improve precision, perfection and production capacities.
Officine Panerai is one of the first few companies in Switzerland to have married classic watchmaking know-how with cutting-edge technology. From having a robot at the assembly line to swanky test gadgets, Panerai’s manufacture in Neuchâtel is the hip face of Swiss horology.
Under the leadership of Angelo Bonati (who has led Panerai for a remarkable 17 years and handed it over to Jean-Marc Pontroué in April 2018), Panerai has been turning over a new leaf in the luxury watch industry with avant-garde timepieces, year after year. Two years ago, the company unveiled one of its most awe-inspiring watches, the Lo Scienziato Luminor 1950 Tourbillon GMT Titanio. The first watch to use 3-D printing for the case construction, the Lo Scienziato elevated Panerai’s status as a serious player in the upper echelons of haute horlogerie. Almost 40 percent lighter than steel, this watch in titanium used the direct metal laser sintering (DMLS) technique to hollow out the complex case from the inside and make it even lighter. While speculations on the use of 3-D printing within the luxury watch industry were rife for a long time, Panerai was bold enough to take the leap.
This year, the brand is rolling out a new version of the Lo Scienziato with a tinge of blue. Priced at $143,000, the latest model retains all the technical characteristics of its predecessor, including the famed 3-D-printed titanium case and the P.2005/T skeletonized movement with tourbillon regulator. “The new Lo Scienziato is sportier in appearance. The blue hands harmonize perfectly with the metallic tones of the titanium case. We have used the color on the flange and in the sewing of the black leather strap as well. The 3-D-printed titanium case makes the watch extremely light, yet solid and robust,” says Bonati.
Panerai has also patented the watch’s tourbillon system, which is engineered to compensate more precisely for the effects of gravity on the escapement and ensure accuracy. This has been achieved by having the cage rotate on an axis that is perpendicular rather than parallel to that of the balance. The cage also makes a complete rotation every 30 seconds, rather than once per minute as in more traditional tourbillons. The watch is also equipped with a GMT indicator and a day/night indicator.
Over the last two decades, Panerai has recorded a meteoric rise, from being a favorite of fashionistas to commanding high marks in collectors’ circles globally. The credit for this success goes to Bonati, who, in no time, turned a nondescript Italian brand into one of the most profitable ventures for the Richemont group and has led Panerai since Richemont bought it in 2000.
In the early 1990s, when Panerai started selling watches beyond military circles, it was largely recognized for its rugged design and celebrity fan base. The brand was then making around 2,000 watches annually. Bonati wanted to do much more. He wanted the brand to make its own movements.
By 2003, as the demand for Panerai watches far exceeded the supply, and there would be a two-year waiting period for fewer than 30,000 watches, Bonati finally got a sanction for a manufacture from then-Richemont chief Johann Rupert.
The brand introduced its first in-house movement – the P.2002, a hand-wound caliber with a GMT function and an 8-day power reserve – in 2005. Until 2014, Panerai conducted its operations from a couple of disconnected buildings around Neuchâtel. Then came the sprawling, state-of-the-art Manufacture 2.0, bringing all the production processes under one roof. “Our new manufacture gives us umpteen possibilities to retain our exclusivity. It is not just linked with being able to upscale production. Adhering to strict quality control, unique design and innovation in movement creation is only possible when you have your own facility,” says Bonati, who added more than 100 people to his workforce within a year of the new manufacture’s opening.
From component production to prototyping to testing, Panerai is now fully equipped to make its watches in house. The 250 employees at the manufacture include six specialized watchmakers who work in the high-complication department, creating super-complications like the Lo Scienziato. The most significant department at Panerai’s Manufacture 2.0 is the “Laboratorio di Idee,” or the research and development wing, where 50 people work on ideas and innovation across vertical channels. “The credit for the ingenious minimalization work on Lo Scienziato’s sophisticated P.2005/T movement goes to the Laboratorio di Idee. It has helped us turn around the brand’s image from being known more for design and assembly to being a consistent watchmaker now. The specialists at the Laboratorio di Idee work very closely with the design department based in Italy, which draws inspiration from the historical archives of the brand, thus ensuring that every new creation is consistent with the unmistakable Panerai identity. Ninety-five percent of our watches will soon be fitted with in-house movements and we are gradually working toward that goal,” says Bonati.
With 26 in-house movements, experiments with new materials and technical innovation, Panerai has established itself as a leader in modern watchmaking. Last year, the brand surprised everyone with the launch of the Lab-ID Luminor 1950 Carbotech 3 Days, one of its technologically most advanced watches, which runs without any oil or lubricant in the movement and comes with a guarantee of 50 years. The Caliber P.3001/C in this timepiece has its bridges and mainplates made from a tantalum-based ceramic with a high percentage of carbon, which makes the movement lubrication-free. The lever and escape wheels are made of DLC-coated silicon and do not need oiling. “Right from Bronzo, which adapts to the wearer’s lifestyle, to Carbotech, an extremely high-resistant material never used before in the world of watchmaking, we have been very active on the research and development front. Our focus is on high-performance materials that are durable and aesthetically pleasing, and, of course, on the creation of in-house movements,” says Bonati. “This project is an experiment, and if it continues to give us satisfactory results, we would certainly work on some pathbreaking projects in the future. At the moment, we would like to see this watch work for 50 years.”
While Panerai always had an edge over others in terms of its iconic design, it lacked proficiency in movements. With Bonati’s perseverance, the brand has overcome most of its shortcomings and is now playing strong in the U.S., Europe, Italy, Hong Kong and Japan. “Panerai has a network of over 70 exclusive boutiques around the world and the distribution is well balanced between Asia, Europe, the Middle East and the U.S.,” says Bonati.
Over the last two years, most brands have been struggling to survive market fluctuations and the drop in demand for luxury watches. However, Panerai has been consistently expanding its retail network, focusing on its best-selling Luminor 1950 series. “The range has the highest offering of references. We launched the Luminor Due collection last year and we have seen a strong traction for these watches as well. The last two years have been difficult for everyone, but this year, I am positive of good results. Our strategy is to produce fewer watches and we will continue to do so,” says Bonati, who has taken up the online retail route as well. “We developed our e-commerce network first in the U.S. and then in China,” he says. “Selective distribution channels have always been a focus for Panerai. The evolution of the international market in the digital segment is facing a new era where qualitative e-commerce platforms are growing fast and building their own reputation. E-commerce represents a way to further expand international trading, which is rapidly changing. In order to be more accessible to our clientele online, we are also available on Mr Porter.”
Lo Scienziato was the showstopper for Panerai two years ago and this year, too, Bonati is hoping to strike gold with the new version and its impeccable technology. “The skeleton design and the lightness of the titanium case were the key highlights that were well received by watch aficionados. While we have made titanium cases in the past, the Lo Scienziato received exceptional admiration from collectors. It has paved its way to becoming highly collectable and a grail watch for Paneristi,” says Bonati, who is looking forward to building a strong bridge between the past and the future. “Look at our products – a link between strong Italian design from the past and current technologies!”
Panerai Lo Scienziato Luminor 1950 Tourbillon GMT Titanio – 47mm
Manufacturer: Officine Panerai, Route de Pierre-à-Bot 87, 2000 Neuchâtel, Switzerland
Reference number: PAM00767
Functions: Hours, minutes, small seconds, second time zone, 24-hour indicator, power-reserve indicator on the back, tourbillon
Movement: Skeleton hand-wound mechanical, P.2005/T caliber executed entirely by Panerai, 144-hour power reserve
Case: 47 mm, brushed titanium, water resistant to 100 m