The CEO role in a global watch brand is often an ambassadorial one too, especially when collectors and retail partners are always seeking a piece of your time. Quite often, these folks complain when the top executive goes too long without visiting international markets. On this note, it has been far too long since we reconnected with Panerai CEO Jean-Marc Pontroué, so when the local public relations arm of the brand asked if we wanted some of Pontroué’s time, we jumped at the chance. Of course, WOW goes a long way back with both Panerai and Pontroué.
In the contemporary era of this magazine, Panerai had the Summer issue cover from 2013 all the way to 2017. This is fitting because the Paneristi – the collecting clique most obsessed with the brand – are particularly strong in Singapore; in 2020 and 2021, amidst the turmoil of COVID-19, we learned that the Panerai boutique in ION Orchard had become the best-performing boutique for the brand in the world (by the brand’s own off-the-record estimation). Given the size of Singapore, this was amazing to learn…no doubt you, dear reader, are one of these hardcore elites since you have made it this far into the story. We probably made some hay out of this fact in the last few years, and it gave us further impetus to reconnect with the Swiss-Italian watchmaker.
Not for nothing, the other reason we relished the opportunity to meet Pontroué in Singapore was that the editors of this magazine have known him since his days at Montblanc, which he joined at the turn of the millennium. I myself recall him leading the press presentation at the brand during the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie (SIHH) in 2008, probably. Pontroué was most likely Product Strategy and Development Executive Vice President at that time. Whatever his title, he was definitely a key person in product strategy and development, having cut his teeth building the leather goods business for Givenchy, an LVMH company. Most of the current generation of editors and writers probably got to know Pontroué much better in his years as CEO of Roger Dubuis, where he developed the idea of HyperHorology, which today defines that brand. He joined the brand in 2011 and quickly became CEO, which was his role there for six years.
At Panerai, Pontroué succeeded the legendary Angelo Bonati, a man synonymous with the brand’s contemporary status. Thus, he had some pretty big shoes to fill, while taking the brand into uncharted territory and shaping his own legacy. To his credit, Pontroué envisioned a future for Panerai that was distinctly Italian, while expanding its core offering beyond the dive and military heritage of the brand. A key example of new challenges for Panerai can be seen in its focus on material innovation, being in the vanguard of brands striving to use more recycled steel and titanium. He also brought the idea of tying special watches with special experiences, which he pioneered at Roger Dubuis, to Panerai. We discuss this, and Panerai’s more elegant turn with the Luminor Due with Pontroué in this extended conversation.
We did not get a chance to speak about Watches and Wonders Geneva so let’s begin there.
You know Watches and Wonders Geneva is one of the only chances we have to present ourselves (and what we do) to the world. It is the equivalent of couture week (in the various fashion capitals) except that we have only one show. Now that we are 60 brands (showing at Watches and Wonders Geneva this year), the competition is getting harder and harder so we have to do a lot to impress the public, the journalists, the dealers… the entire watch community. This is why for me it is a creative exercise…before it was more a selling exercise but now that we are more and more selling out of our own boutiques and retail partners, the Watches and Wonders Geneva show is about making an impression. It is about communicating. The major target of (a major international watch fair) is capturing attention, create buzz, generate social media traffic… we are not only here to sell watches. Maybe 10 years ago, watches were the main attraction…windows at exhibitor’s booths full of watches. Now, watches are still important but the show is more about storytelling. That’s the reason to come to the fair, especially for the public.
I was very impressed by public attendance over the weekend because we had 3,800 people in two days. Some just want to see the booth but we had close to 1,000 people who wanted to test the watches. So they would sit down like we are here, with one of our representatives, to try, to test, to take pictures… So it was a very impressive exposure we have got on the weekend, which was new for us.
So different from the public days of the SIHH then?
We had them then? You have a better memory than me. It was not very impressive because I don’t keep any memories of it! This year, it was very well organized; we had people queuing up to enter our booth because we had, for security reasons, capacity for only 100 people who could be inside (at any one time). So Watches and Wonders Geneva has been a very fruitful exercise for us in terms of brand staging and traffic exposure to a lot of new communities.
For example, I discovered we have a Paneristi community in Liechtenstein (one of the smallest and richest countries in the world – Ed). Do you know where Liechtenstein is? At Watches and Wonders, I met the leader of the Paneristi in Liechtenstein, and I did not know we even had a community there! So, watch fairs are the occasions to meet people you would not have met otherwise, and I always have been a big fan. Having one occasion a year where Geneva is the centre point of all the watch industry makes a lot of sense, right? It is good for Switzerland, good for Geneva, and good for our industry.
And yet you will continue to show new watches throughout the year, as you are doing now in Singapore with the Brabus PAM01283…
For us, Watches and Wonders is a platform where we don’t show everything. We have occasions to stage new products all year long. After Singapore, I will be in New York for the big boutique opening there and we have one edition only for New York, which we don’t show here. The same will be true of Watches and Wonders Shanghai (which will have wrapped by the time you read this – Ed).
Coming back to the Paneristi, and fan communities in general, how do you engage with them given that they are not a creation of the brand?
It is a very good question. The Paneristi community was not created by Panerai, yes. It became a movement that started in the US three years after the brand itself restarted (circa 2000). So even today, the boss of the Paneristi in the world is a guy I know very well, based in Chicago. I have a lot of contact with the Paneristi in all the countries I visit where I try to meet with them. Not all the time. I always say that the Paneristi (or a community like them) is the biggest marketing department a watch brand can dream about having right? Because we have 30,000 members who know Panerai better than any of us at the brand.
They are very loyal to the brand; very supportive, and active in defending the brand, and bringing in new members… Sometimes I meet members who are very young people, not the usual guys who are my age, but the new generation, you know, and this is what I like very much. Because the son of the Panerista (the informally accepted singular for Paneristi – Ed) is also now a Panerista. In Singapore, we met some young guys, who came (to a meet-and-greet with the brand) and maybe they stole some watches from their fathers (to wear that evening)!
We had, at one of our Panerai Experiences with (adventurer and conservationist) Mike Horn, a kid who was 12. So, the father couldn’t come (and thus loaned) his Mike Horn watch (we presume this to be the Submersible Ecopangaea Tourbillon GMT Mike Horn PAM01108, but there are a number of Mike Horn editions – Ed) to his son, who came to have the Experience. So, the support we get from the Paneristi is completely organic (and events such as the Panerai Experiences are not Paneristi events, as such). The Paneristi are just here in the background to support us but if they don’t like what we do, they say it also! You know that they can be very vocal when they don’t like what we do.
And so how to explain that? It is cultural… passion is not something you can explain. It is like love. So, I think it is the same dynamic when it comes to the love for a brand. You have a lot of good reasons when it comes to Panerai: the history, our Italian identity, the fact that we are so spectacular. It creates a belonging spirit, which is very unique to our brand. There are brands in the watch industry much bigger than us, even though we are part of the top 15 brands. However, the sense of loyalty of the people who like Panerai is one of the highest in the watch industry.
Why do you think this is?
We have never studied rationally (about) the why. Maybe it is because we are not a huge brand, although we are not small… Maybe it is because we have a certain proximity with many of our customers, though not all of them. There is this warmth (in our relationship with our customers) which is not standardized (or generic); you have still the impression to be part of a family. And we do events with them…
So, we do 400 customer events per year in our company, worldwide. I don’t know how many people we see at each one, maybe 100. So that’s 40,000 a year, in a very intimate way…(such as at the Singapore Panerai customer event where) I think I shook hands with more or less everyone who attended, and it was the same in Bangkok (where I was before coming to Singapore).
This love for Panerai also extends to some of your more famous friends…
You know this movie called “Operation Fortune”? Well the star of that show, Jason Statham, who is a big fan of Panerai, came to our boutique in London two years ago, bought four watches and told the staff there that he needs these watches for his next movie. We had no idea it was Operation Fortune, and you see the watches in the movie presented very nicely. We never did anything, we never paid Jason Statham…I was not even able to thank him. We don’t even have his e-mail address because of course he doesn’t give his e-mail address when he’s at our boutiques. Even through his agent, it is very complicated but it tells you something that a guy like that, who represents very much what Panerai stands for – very athletic, very sporty – putting his own watches into his movies. This is what I call the soft power of the brand.
Mr Statham is a longtime Panerai collector! But what about something new that perhaps you have never seen before?
The phenomena which is new for me is more towards ladies watches and ladies buying our watches…this is new clientele we have. We didn’t have so many products before that were suitable (size wise) but now we have the 38mm assortment, like the Luminor Due for example. We also have small complications like the moon phase. We have the straps from Prada, we have some new pastel dial colours. For the first time, in the boutique in New York, we have a dedicated area for ladies.
This article was first published on WOW Autumn Issue #70
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