It’s no understatement to say that Angelo Bonati is Panerai — or at least he has been for the last 21 years. Bonati was the first employee the watch brand brought on after they were bought by luxury group Richemont. Previously, Panerai had been a fairly small, humble Florence-based watchmaker, whose biggest role had been supplying timing instruments to the Italian navy.
“There was one table, one office — and me,” Bonati said of the brand in 1997.
After 21 years with the brand — 18 of them as CEO — Bonati has managed to bring Panerai from the back streets of Florence to the front row of SIHH. Keeping Panerai’s designs relevant, yet staying true to their brand philosophy, Bonati has established a clear brand identity by keeping the stand-out cushion shape case prominent in all of the brand’s central lines.
Today, the Panerai range is widely recognised within the watch community as an icon of design. But it wasn’t always this way. There was some resistance in the brand’s early days but, rather than bowing to market pressures, or making a quick buck and sacrificing design integrity in doing so, Bonati stuck with his dream and vision.
“The dream was to establish a brand starting from Luminor Marina Panerai,” Bonati has said in the past. “That’s what we did.”
What few in the industry could have predicted was that Panerai would champion and popularise the ‘big watch’ craze. Watch cases grew in size exponentially, from the traditional dimensions of 34mm to 44mm and even bigger.
In fact, the very first Panerai that Bonati led the charge on was the Luminor Marina Panerai, which boasted a 44mm case.
Sink or swim
This larger size and thickness was not something that a lot of retailers were very comfortable with. Some even rejected the watch when Bonati asked them to place it in their shop windows. But, while people may not have been utterly convinced that a heavier watch was suitable for everyday wear, Bonati nevertheless recognised that it provoked a reaction.
According to the watchmaker, there were only two reactions in the early days. It was either “that’s fantastic!” or “that’s bullshit!”
But Bonati knew that the extra weight and heft served a purpose. It not only helped the watch survive underwater for long periods of time, but even in war zones — as the Italian Naval Forces could attest.
Bonati built up trust, and some retailers who bought 30 watches found incredible success and asked for 200, even 300 more to stock. Success had struck.
Bonati’s ‘dream’ was starting to become a reality. The brand now stretched across multiple continents, used the latest materials and was making pioneering leaps in watchmaking. One such leap was very recently with the new Luminor Due range.
Panerai took their much loved Luminor watch and shrunk it so the movement was 40% thinner giving the previous chunky diver a much more elegant feel. Perfect for those deskdivers out there who want to wear their divers watch with their suit.
Now, as Bonati is stepping away from the company, he leaves Panerai trend-setting once more, the watch guru’s influence is still very much felt. After all, you can take Bonati out of Panerai, but Panerai will forever be Bonati.