When it comes to watches, Jean-Marc Pontroué isn’t necessarily a name which possesses the clout of Biver or Blümlein — but it’s certainly one to look out for in the near future. This year in April, Pontroué ascended to the top position at Panerai: succeeding its long-time CEO and sales guru, Mr. Angelo Bonati. For 21 years, the latter charted a course which saw Panerai transformed from an obscure Florentine brand into an internationally recognised byword for brash, finely made sport watches.
Pontroué mightn’t have had the distinction of introducing Panerai to SIHH, nor of bringing now-iconic models like the Rolex calibre-equipped PAM 21 to market, but the Richemont veteran — who got his start at Givenchy in the 90s — is regarded by industry insiders as an innovator, one whose track record spans a decade at Montblanc followed by six years as CEO of Roger Dubuis. Bearing all of this in mind, we took the opportunity earlier this month to congratulate Pontroué on his new appointment. In this exclusive interview the Panerai capo ruminates on his favourite moments in the brand’s history, the importance of remaining agile and why Hong Kong is still (surprise surprise) the most lucrative watch market in the world.
First off, I firmly believe that the concept of luxury is tied to the quality of the product. It’s like driving a car: of course, you can steer it left and right. Similarly, at Panerai there are many things we do that are warranted, but these are like prerequisites for something more. So, the “more” is the part of our business that we work hard to infuse with luxury: the fact that our watches tell time, that’s not something we think about. Luxury is the added value which we inject into our brand. It can take a number of different forms: it can be a specific product, experience or the treatment of our customers. This is the invisible part of the iceberg, and while the tangible part is important (i.e. the watches) the invisible part is ultimately what makes or breaks a product.
Well aside from being status symbols, I think luxury products have a tremendous ability to highlight your individuality: no matter whether you’re big, small, contemporary, liberal, conservative et cetera. In our particular case, we specialise in watches for sportspeople. So if you wear a Panerai, you espouse a certain Italian mentality when it comes to style — that is to say that you don’t necessarily follow trends.
First of all, when you join a new brand, you have to learn how it operates: so customers, sales teams, distribution, individual products, pricepoint — you have hundreds of discrete elements which qualify for attention. If I look at all of these and conclude that there’s nothing to change, I will not change. The more pressing issue is how we ensure the brand is going to become more appealing, more desirable and differentiable from the competition.
One could argue you’re always in that stage! You are always discovering the new. When you compare the luxury landscape to what it was 20 years ago, it’s barely recognisable. 40 years ago, the China market didn’t exist — yet today, it’s the biggest provider of customers for all kinds of luxury categories. “Digital” was a nothing word 20 years ago; and now, it’s an increasingly big part of almost every industry. We even saw The New York Times switch their business model from print to digital a few years ago. Stuff like that reaffirms my belief that you have to be ready to go full steam ahead everyday.
For me, Panerai is a brand which over the last 20 years has brought a lot of new ideas to the marketplace. That’s especially true when it comes to material innovation. Take for example the success of Bronzo: when Panerai reintroduced it 7 years ago it wasn’t a metal that was widely favoured amongst watchmakers. It was a move that was hugely popular — people were killing themselves to get their hands on the Bronzo pieces. So, that sort of innovation captures our skill in crafting masculine Italian products which always make a statement. We also have the opportunity to be the only watch manufacturer which has a purely Italian identity. When you think about our major competitors, almost all of them come from Switzerland.
Exactly. We want Panerai to resonant with that wider and very positive perception of Italy. In almost everything they do, the Italians are overly concerned with the ideal of beauty: wine; food; living; nature. So of course we want to occupy the same mind-space when people think of the word “Panerai”.
When you’re in the luxury business, the reality is that you can’t say “this is how the world will be in the next 10 years”. The only thing you can know for sure is that you’ll have no idea what the landscape will look like even a year later. So, you fight everyday to create products that are recognisable by all the people in your target demographic: If you are in the watch business that means anyone who owns watches; and if you’re in the shoe business it means all the people who are shoe lovers, et cetera. The creation of icons is every brand’s ultimate target.
In the particular case of Panerai, I definitely feel like we’re in a stronger position now than we were a few years ago. One of our biggest assets is our retail network — we have 80 stores all over the world, which cost a fortune to open. We’re an iconic brand supported by a big parent company [Richemont] — that insulates us from external risk and gives us a much bigger edge over, say, a new brand that has to compete in an industry where there are over 700 other options.
Oh, always. Sometimes you have to “move” your brand because the competition is unanimously pushing the market in that direction. Digital watches are a good example: Many brands have 5-year plans, but they never anticipated Apple arriving with their smart watches. So you have to pay attention to hundreds of different criteria. If a particular national government decides to restrict importation of our products, that’s going to have as big an impact as, say, trade barriers erected in multiple countries. So going back to your question, this whole business is kind of like a plane you know? You have long term targets that you can reach through a developmental strategy but at the same time you have to keep the “plane” in the air.
It’s a market which has always been very active. That’s because Hong Kong has a strong core of local customers, the right kind of platform for selling and a very active tourism industry. All the cities in the world that are “successful” watch markets — at most, you have 10 — possess the advantage of having both local customers and a healthy influx of tourists. On that basis, Hong Kong remains one of the most important cities to our business. You’ve got purchasing power, an interest and knowledge in fine watches and sheer number of customers. Personally, I’m very found of this market because one of our biggest boutiques in the world is located here: our Canton Road store is the biggest worldwide in terms of space, turnover, productivity, team numbers.
The Submersible BMG. It very much represents the quintessence of Panerai: It’s a masculine, sports-orientated watch which you can use on dives of up to 300m. I’ve never actually dived with it, but all the raw ingredients of a great submersible watch are there. Easy to read, easy to wear, simple, handsome — for me, it’s the ultimate choice.