There are countless anecdotes in the watch industry. One that I’ve always loved is from the early days of diving watches. A few weeks after his purchase of the latest specialist timepiece, a diver wrote to the brand and said, “I love the new watch, I always use it when I dive, but I have just one complaint. There is a small square window on the dial, with a number that changes occasionally. What’s it for?” It was, of course, a date window, introduced by the brand as an added extra.
Another good one concerns Panerai and how it became part of the Richemont Group. In 1997, its head Johann Rupert noticed an unusual watch on the wrist of a Richemont executive and asked what it was. “It’s a Panerai.” Rupert said, “I’d like to buy it.” The executive looked at him and said, “I’ll give you the address of the boutique.” “No,” replied Rupert, “I don’t want to buy the watch. I want to buy the company!”
And he did, to the satisfaction of all concerned. At SIHH this year, Panerai presented a series of new models that are all closely based on the brand’s DNA, with simple shapes, clear dial markings, a sandwich dial construction for better SuperLumiNova luminosity, and the classic crown protector. For example, the Radiomir 1940 Chronograph, based on the 1943 Mare Nostrum, a historical piece that was designed for the Italian Navy but never put into production. One of the vintage details is the Plexiglas crystal; a spare crystal is supplied with each watch sold. A total of 200 will be made, 50 in platinum, 100 in red gold, 100 in white gold.
A lot of people love watches like this. To the point that the entire edition sold out after just two days after its presentation at the Geneva watch show SIHH. Retailers from all over the world eagerly placed orders, knowing – as per tradition – that they had no hope of getting the number they asked for. Panerai watches rapidly become collectors’ items, and their prices rise soon after sale.
Possibly, one of the reasons for Panerai’s popularity is its unique combination of Italian design (the company was founded in Florence) and Swiss watchmaking brilliance. Then there is its famous attention to detail. As in the beautiful alligator straps. Just three straps can be made from a single alligator hide, because only at the very centre of the belly are the scales perfect for the strap.
Panerai can concentrate on simply making its lovely watches, because to a degree, its marketing is performed by the people who buy them. Few brands have such an active community, the so-called ‘Paneristi’ who have their own forum on which they comment every detail of all models old and new. There is no link between Panerai and these on-line communities.
Of course, Panerai has its own communications activities, and these are often linked to their maritime history. For example, the brand organizes an annual classic yachts regatta at Cowes.
I’d like to end with another anecdote: on the origin of the famously eccentric California dial, with Arabic numbers in the top half and Roman numerals below. The prototype was made as part of a commission from the Italian Navy, and Panerai decided to present them a choice of two possible dial designs, either Arabic or Roman. For the sake of easy comparison (and perhaps in order not to have to make two separate prototypes) they presented the two options on the same dial. The admiral responsible for the commission, perhaps thinking ahead to lunch, said absent-mindedly “Yes, that’ll do,” and so the hybrid received official approval and became the final design. Another part of the Panerai legend was born.