Watchmaker Officine Panerai has gone global by remaining small.

In the 11 years since Compagnie Financière Richemont SA purchased the brand, Panerai has grown from a little-known shop in Florence to a rising star in the luxury watch market.

Its success prompted Richemont executives to support a global rollout of freestanding stores. Panerai opened its first New York door last week, a 700-square-foot shop at 545 Madison Avenue, and plans call for units in Las Vegas, Beijing, Tokyo, Buenos Aires, Madrid, Qatar and Dubai by the end of next year. Panerai already operates boutiques in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Los Angeles, Florence and Portofino, Italy.

Richemont doesn’t break out sales, but Panerai — best known for oversize watches with spare, masculine details — has posted double-digit gains in each of the past few years, a company spokesman said.

Despite its rise, Panerai has maintained a low profile compared with Richemont brethren Cartier, IWC and Vacheron Constantin. It’s distributed in only 450 shops worldwide and produces just two primary models, the Radiomir and the Luminor. Production is also tight. Demand for Panerai watches far outpaces production, as the company fills only 60 percent of its orders each year.

Even the new boutiques feel sparse. The New York location, designed to look like the interior of a sleek yacht with curved teak walls and portholes, displays just a handful of watches in its well-lit cases. Standing in this modern temple of time-telling, it’s evident the brand has been built on scarcity.

That is exactly how Panerai president Angelo Bonati wants it. He remains committed to the brand’s niche status, disregarding suggestions to add a women’s line, beef up its collection, expand into new categories or push retail plans beyond the 13 scheduled units.

“We do not want to diversify,” he said in an interview.

As for the possibility of leveraging the brand or developing a multiclassification assortment of product, Bonati said, “Our mission is to produce watches, the best watches we can. It’s not about following money, but having a vision for the long term.”

That strategy seems to have worked. The brand has expanded, yet retained its cult status. The watches’ devotees, called Paneraisti, clog message boards with posts on the brand’s vintage pieces and limited runs — waiting lists for some models stretch into 2011 — and the secondary market for new and old Panerai pieces is booming.

“The authenticity of the brand — its simplicity and its quality — are what people respond to,” Bonati said.

If an untroubled rise from local watchmaker to must-have accessory sounds so 2007, Panerai’s future growth, like others in the timepiece market, is tenuous.

Bonati said Panerai will surpass 2007’s results this year because of a strong first half, but he’s cautious about 2009.

“Luxury is under pressure at this moment,” he said. “What’s happening today I have never seen in my lifetime. I frankly don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow.”

Watch sales have already begun to cool. Watch exports from Switzerland were flat in October, ringing in 1.7 billion francs, or $1.4 billion at current exchange rates, according to figures from the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry. This marks the end of a four-year boom of double-digit annual growth that drove the value of Swiss watch exports to more than 14.8 billion francs, or $12.4 billion, in 2007.

Bonati said the global recession won’t affect plans for doors already in the works, but the brand is cutting back. The U.S. advertising budget was cut to $1 million from $3 million for 2009.

Despite his tepid sense of the immediate future, Bonati plans to remain focused on the core values that earned Panerai its early success.

“I don’t know when people will start to go buy again like they did, but when they do, they will want something that is special,” he said.

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