Panerai's first and only chief executive officer, Angelo Bonati.

HONG KONG — Angelo Bonati estimates he has around 20 watches.

Which is not very many for a man who heads up an esteemed global watch brand. It would mark about one watch for each year of his tenure at Officine Panerai, a chapter that will close at the end of this month as Jean-Marc Pontroué, Roger Dubuis chief executive officer, takes the reins and Bonati, the longest-serving ceo in the luxury watch industry, slips into retirement.

When Bonati first landed at Panerai, known for its heritage as an Italian navy supplier, his focus was even more singular as the brand wasn’t so much a house as a single watch.

“Panerai was nothing,” Bonati recounted. “We had no brand. We just had one product: the Marina, a big enormous watch.”

Albeit it was a very successful model with a hulking size that fueled its popularity. “People were more curious than other things because they bought this watch because they wanted to show ‘look how big it is,'” Bonati said.

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In the two decades since — and following the acquisition of the brand by Compagnie Financière Richemont SA, then Vendome Group — Bonati has built Panerai into a full-fledged maison, one with 75 boutiques on six continents.

While visiting Hong Kong, Bonati reflected on his work. This year is a good one for the brand so far. While 2015 was tough across the industry on pulled back demand in Asia, “now it’s much better,” Bonati said in his low growl. “Double-digit growth.”

The Milanese executive — whose reaction to people who don’t wear watches is “Why? You don’t want time to change?” — is also happy with how he is leaving the geographic distribution of the business. “The biggest market is Hong Kong, and then you have the U.S. and then Italy. We are well balanced, which is important,” Bonati said.

As a Richemont-owned company, Panerai does not break out sales but its parent singled out its performances and that of Piaget and Roger Dubuis in the watches segment as particularly noteworthy in its most recent earnings report.

Bonati didn’t start out in watches. It was jewelry at first, and in 1980 he joined Vendome Group. After working at various brands including Dunhill, Yves Saint Laurent and Cartier, he left to head up sales and marketing at Trussardi Group before returning to Vendôme in 1997 for an interesting proposition: Oversee the group’s latest acquisition, Officine Panerai, which was almost moribund. After helping to reignite interest in the watches by playing up both their size and heritage in the Italian navy, he was formally appointed ceo in 2000, the brand’s first and only to date.

The 67-year-old said that, in a way, Panerai was the first watch brand to harness social media, releasing three watch models exclusively on the Paneristi forum, a site created in 2000 by fans of the brand to rabidly discuss wait lists, resale prices and the latest releases.

The Luminor Base Logo Acciaio 44mm, one of the watches created especially for the Paneristi forum.

The Luminor Base Logo Acciaio 44mm, one of the watches created especially for the Paneristi forum.  Courtesy

“It was a time when there was not a lot of social media,” Bonati said. “Social media is like a big motorway. If you stay in the motorway you [go] fast or else you don’t [go] fast. Panerai is investing a lot in social media but what is important is to keep the quality of the communication.”

Not that it’s always been smooth sailing. Bonati had told WWD he wanted 100 stores by 2013, which hasn’t yet happened, but he is a big believer in the power of the retail store, saying it’s a must for nurturing trust with a new consumer.

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“It is where you enter the kingdom of the brand, you find all the solutions,” he said. Around 40 percent of Panerai’s sales are retail and the remaining wholesale. While wholesale is not disappearing, he observes, it is specializing.

Watch industry insiders believe Panerai has lost some of its cachet in the last several years, saying the company has been over-reliant on limited-edition models — the frequent releases became confusing for consumers and have been bemoaned by even some of the brand’s most ardent fans on the Paneristi forum. But Bonati said the brand is continuously evolving — steering slightly away from its former massive styles — and is targeting a new, younger audience, which he said is yielding good results.

An example of that is the company’s latest version of the Luminor Due model, launched in January. Measuring 38mm in diameter, it marks a departure in style as it is the first time the brand has created something smaller than 40mm. (Panerai has created wristwatches as large as 60mm.) The Due’s thinner and lighter profile is aimed at a younger demographic but also to be more accessible to females.

Panerai Luminor Due 38mm

Panerai Luminor Due 38mm  Courtesy

The key to managing a brand like Panerai is progressive, subtle tweaks, he said, and for that, the ceo likes to look to a certain German carmaker for inspiration.

“Mercedes [Benz], they continue to change but you don’t realize it,” Bonati said. But if you take the Mercedes of 10 years ago and today, you see a huge difference. You continue to see the same watch but there is [actually a difference].”

For Bonati, China still is the newest market. It explains why the brand has worked with just one celebrity face to date, Taiwanese actor Wallace Huo, who became the company’s Greater China ambassador in 2016. Seventy percent of sales in Hong Kong are to mainland Chinese shoppers, although Bonati said extremely exclusive and very complicated watches tend to go to Hong Kong locals or Singaporeans, who have a bit more maturity as connoisseurs.

Panerai ambassador Wallace Huo

Angelo Bonati and Panerai Greater China ambassador Wallace Huo  Courtesy

“Mainland China is what will give us a lot of satisfaction because it’s enormous,” he said. “Until now, it didn’t express the real potential. Don’t forget, Europe will work for the tourists who come to France, Italy.”

South America and North Africa probably won’t matter in a big way for the next ten years, he predicts.

What about India?

“India is a difficult market,” Bonati mused. It has vast size and population in its favor “but the taste and the way to consider luxury in this moment are different. Maybe in five, six, 10 years, who says? But right now no.”

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In an industry that frequently uses generations as a standard measuring unit, Bonati mused that, “Twenty years is nothing. Unfortunately, it is something for me.” He likes to call his upcoming retirement a renovation on himself, although he’s careful to note he will be keeping the friends he made throughout the years.

After attending Baselworld, running March 22 to 27, and the many fetes to celebrate his long career, how he’ll fill his time is up in the air. Bonati, who keeps homes in Milan and Monte Argentario in Tuscany, said, “I don’t know what — sailing, playing golf, reading [and enjoying] contemporary art.”

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