The WatchTime Q&A: Officine Panerai CEO Jean-Marc Pontroué

In an interview conducted shortly after the Watches & Wonders 2020 product launches, Jean-Marc Pontroué, CEO of Officine Panerai, spoke to WatchTime about how the company is planning to emerge from the worldwide health crisis, its continuing dedication to bringing new high-tech materials to watchmaking, and its commitment to environmental sustainability.

Panerai CEO Jean-Marc Pontrué

WT:  Obviously recent world events have changed many companies’ plans this year. How have the disruption brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic affected Panerai, both from a manufacturing and from a retail and marketing standpoint?

JMP:  Of course, it has been an earthquake for all the brands and their teams, because unlike other major crises, this has not been local but more or less affecting all the world at the same time. I’m not young anymore, and this is the first time in my life that I have experienced a crisis of this magnitude — after living through the Gulf War, the SARS and Avian flu outbreaks, the 2008 financial crisis, and so on. And we don’t know when it will end. We think the most critical part is getting through April and May, and then we believe we will see some gradual rebound. In terms of manufacturing we closed down, according to the Swiss Regulations, in mid-March, and we have since restarted, first at about 25% of our capacity and at the beginning of each week gradually bringing more people being back, in shifts. Regarding boutiques, as of early May about 80% of our boutiques in the world had temporarily closed. Of course this had a big influence on our business. However, our e-commerce and digital business have been very strong — launching of innovations, staying in touch with the press and our trade partners and end consumers.

WT: So the e-commerce sales have risen while the brick-and-mortar sales have struggled?

JMP:  Our e-commerce business had already been increasing significantly since early 2019, thanks to initiatives like exhibiting more straps and launching the Submersible Verde Militare Edition, which is only on sale on that platform.  America is our strongest market, our number one country in the world, along with China, in terms of e-commerce sales. and when so many of our boutiques in the U.S. are closed, this helps us to maintain our strong presence there.

Panerai Submersible Verde_Militare PAM01055 - reclining
Panerai Submersible Verde Militare Edition (PAM01055)

WT: On to the collection. This year is the 70th anniversary of the Luminor, and the theme of the anniversary collection appears to be built around two elements: one being new high-tech materials, which have become a Panerai hallmark in recent years; the other being a focus on luminescence, which goes to the whole history of the model. How did you arrive at this strategy?

JMP: When we started to plan for Watches & Wonders 2020, after having devoted the previous year to relaunching the Submersible, we wanted to spotlight the icon of the brand, which is the Luminor Marina Ref. 1312 in steel, 44 mm.  All the Paneristi know this reference; it’s the one everybody has in mind when they think about Panerai, the number-one model in almost every country, and somehow it had never been interpreted in materials other than steel. So we decided to exploit that model and stretch it into different materials. One one end we have the Luna Rossa, in a new precious metal exclusive to Panerai; on the other, the material from our partnership with Prima Assoluta, which is Fibratech. As another highlight, we now offer a guarantee of 70 years for the luminescence. It’s a re-focus on the icon of our brand, not changing anything in its size or general appearance, but changing everything in terms of materials. 

Panerai Luminor Marina in Fibratech

WT: Speaking of luminescence, we found this year that there’s a Pantone number associated with the green on Panerai dials?

JMP:  As you know, before Panerai became a dressy sport-casual brand, it was a brand whose major business was providing military equipment to teams in Italy. Our luminescence had a real added value: a diver 10 meters deep had to be able to read the time on his watch. The substance we’ve always used has the same color, Pantone 802 C, called Panerai Marina. There are hundreds of different variations of green, but this is the one associated with our brand. And of course the Panerai brand itself has built much of its character on the reading of its watches in dark conditions. 

Panerai Pam1117 - lume
Panerai’s distinctive luminous green is Pantone 802 C.

WT: On the new Luminor models, you’re showcasing four materials: Carbotech, Gold Tech, Titanium DMLS, and the Fibratech. For someone looking to choose between one of these watches, what are the differences and similarities between the materials?

JP: To start with Titanium DMLS, titanium is the material and DMLS is the 3-D printing process applied to it, which we launched about four years ago for a high-end tourbillon model. We wanted to “democratize” it for a more modest model. The Goldtech, a special gold alloy created for Panerai, offers a higher resistance compared to the usual rose-gold of other models and a narrower chance of de-coloration. That version of the 1312 is the classiest, dressiest execution. Finally, the Fibratech model offers a bi-material approach with two modern metals, which we don’t do very often at Panerai — combining Carbotech, which Panerai has been working with for 10 years, with Fibratech, which is a new basalt-based material in our ensemble.

WT: How did Panerai come to work with the volcanic-rock-based Fibratech material?

JMP: One of Panerai’s major missions is research & development, and we are connected with universities and many different companies that are not necessarily working with the watch industry. They work in aerospace, on supercars and superyachts, and on medical instruments — all industries that focus on high performance, very resistant construction, providing more power with less weight, and so on. At Panerai, we want to offer something not available in any other watch in terms of material combinations.  Many brands have steel and gold options, but [combinations of Carbotech and Fibratech] are unique to our brand.  The beauty comes from associating the classicism of the Luminor Marina Marina with the modernity of these exotic materials. 

WT: For the 70th Anniversary trio, Panerai took the very unusual step of applying the luminous material on the crown protector, bezel and even the strap as well as the dial. Does this represent the wave of the future for other Panerai models?

JMP: In this anniversary year, we were looking for a way to re-stage the luminescence of the watch beyond the indexes, but we also wanted to show our seriousness about the concept by adding 62 years of guaranteed luminosity in addition to the eight years that Panerai already promises. With this model, we have the first watch that is guaranteed to glow in the dark until 2090! As far as going forward, this process is used so far only for this year’s models, but of course we have a lot of other ideas and another theme for next year. Nearly a third of the innovations that we planned for 2020 will now be transferred to next year.

Submersible EcoPangaea Tourbillon GMT – 50mm Mike Horn Edition

WT: You also debuted the first tourbillon in a Submersible model, the Submersible EcoPangaea Tourbillon GMT, which uses another unusual material called EcoPangaea steel. Can you explain what that is and how your ambassador, polar explorer Mike Horn, is involved with this five-piece limited edition?

JMP:  That watch is a story all its own. When I met Mike a year and a half ago he brought me a piece of his boat, the Pangaea, which we sponsor along with Mercedes. He told me he could either throw this piece away or we could use it to make watches. We had no idea at the time that it was possible to use that material in a timepiece. We brought it to the manufacture and basically asked the watchmakers to try something.  There are only five pieces of this watch because of the size of the metal piece. If it had been bigger, we might have made 10 watches; if it were smaller, perhaps only one or two. We felt because of the rarity that this was the perfect opportunity to bring a tourbillon to the Submersible line. Moreso than any of our other ambassadors, Mike is always warning us about the acceleration of pollution we are facing in the world, and especially the oceans. At Panerai, we believe it’s our mission to protect, on some small level, the environment we’re most associated with as a brand, which is the sea. Recyclability is something close to our heart, so we not only were able to recycle this steel from Mike’s boat for the case, but also made the packaging from 100% recycled materials, and one of the two straps from recycled plastic bottles. And at Watches & Wonders 2021, I intend to unveil the first watch that is 100% recycled.

WT: After the impact of the pandemic on the industry was becoming clear, was there ever a discussion about pushing all new Panerai releases to 2021, or did the brand always have faith that the audience would be there, even in these challenging times?

JMP:  I am a person who tries to always remain optimistic. I know the times are difficult, that it will be a while before we are back to normal business conditions — but at the same time we are in the luxury industry, which appeals to emotions, tells stories, gives reasons to believe in a brighter future. Human beings will always find reasons to celebrate, and I especially think that all of us who’ve been locked at home for many weeks will be very happy to celebrate, whether that’s with dinner at a restaurant, a glass of champagne, or even a new watch.

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