“Now you can’t be not serious about sustainability,” insists Jean-Marc Pontroué, the CEO of Panerai Watches. Luxury watchmaking has been trying hard to create a space in the world of sustainability, especially in the pandemic era when sustainability is moving out of conversations and into actions. For example, brands like Omega, Cartier and IWC Schaffhausen have sworn to access precious metals from ethical sources. Pontroué is quite serious about this as well.
For the past few years, he’s been directing the Swiss manufacture that specializes in making dive watches to go more green with its creations. In 2021, Panerai announced a watch made 98.6% from recycled materials. At Watches & Wonders in Geneva this year, Panerai unveiled a new collection of 44mm Submersible QuarantaQuattro, that sit inside an eSteel case, with recycled PET plastic strap. Mint had a chat with Pontroué about Panerai launches in 2022, the effects of the pandemic on watchmaking and sustainability, and his plans for India. Edited excerpts.
How was the experience of Watches & Wonders this year?
Exciting. We hadn’t met most of our teams in three years, so it was nice to say hello to each other, and not via Zoom. Showing your creations is like making a film. It’s emotional, watching the world react to something you’ve worked on for months. Also, it was so nice to travel. Before the pandemic, we were used to so much travelling. In fact, I have come to India three times; I don’t think I have been in many countries three times, because I became the CEO only four years ago.
What makes India so special?
I like India very much. More so, because India will not remain the same country that it is today. There are many countries in our business that probably will remain the same, but India, for us, is a market which will only grow in the coming years. We have been here for 10 years, and soon we will have another outlet (third in the country) in a new mall. People have the knowledge and the purchasing power, which is why I believe we are seeing here one of the fastest growth rates in the world. We see a lot of Indians in Dubai, in London, in Paris, in Singapore, buying Panerai, especially the younger ones in the 25-35 age group. In fact, they (the younger Indians) are among the key factors for our growth here. That’s why we are continuing to invest in India and have a third store, which will be a replica of what we have in Europe and in the US. I see a fast development of an alpha luxury landscape in India, very similar to what we had in Europe.
Tell us about Panerai’s sustainability plans.
I think being sustainable is a matter of habit, it doesn’t take much to change if you are sure about your plans. Our plan is to ensure that in the next three years 75% of our units use recycled materials. With eSteel, which we presented last year, we are essentially reusing steel.
How has the pandemic changed the way you create?
Initially, we didn’t think it would affect us in a small place in Europe (Neuchâtel). But one day, we had to just shut everything. It was a major shock; I remember saying to myself ‘How will we continue this business?’ It was bad, really bad for a couple of months. And then in 2021, we did the best business we’ve ever done.
People were clearly shopping more. Covid didn’t change the way we do business, but it allowed us to be more creative. The shape of our watch is already a winner; you can recognise a Panerai from a distance. So, the playground for us is in the materials. We play with the dials, bezels, straps, packaging. Covid allowed us to do that more, and focus more on the sustainability aspect of things.
What were the challenges?
How to keep a team of over 700 motivated. We have offices in 45 countries, so initially it was difficult, but we got used to the online way of communicating, which gave us more time to stay put and think. We discovered that there was no need to always travel to grow the business. It’s strange we often miss the more obvious things and it takes a crisis to make us realise it. The beauty of this crisis was that we stopped running around. There wasn’t any competition to bring new products, open new boutiques. We could really, really concentrate on innovation. In a way, time stopped for us and yet we had more time to experiment.
Time is the beauty of the moment. The pandemic has helped us be more present in the moment because we don’t know what will happen next. A big, big challenge for me was changing the routine. You just didn’t know what tomorrow would be made of. The market was closing, it was reopening, partially opening…So we had as many situations as we had offices. For the HR, that was a nightmare. For supply, it was a nightmare. We had to change, as a company, as a watchmaker, as people. When you are high in the sky, you have to work extra to remain there.
Has the clientele of luxury watches changed in the past two years?
There’s more uncertainty in the world, which is driving consumers to brands that have a history. Or let me put it this way: Both new or old customers are going to brands that can be easily recognised. I’m tempted to say that the unbelievably high-end brands are the ones who have, in a way, benefited in terms of market share during this covid pandemic. When you have uncertain times like today, consumers want to be reassured that what they buy will be timeless, a safe investment, a safer bet, something you would be proud to wear 10, 20 years from now. We don’t develop new products because we want to make good turnover in the next six months. We develop products that we still want to be part of our assortment in the next 50 years.
The pre-owned watch market has also changed in the past few years.
Absolutely. It has always been a market, but it was not structured. Now, it’s becoming better and getting more professional. There is also more trust and professionalism. Consumers know that they will get a genuine product with the right certificate, and not a copy. Plus, it’s sustainable. If you don’t use your watch anymore, because you have a new model, it’s always better to sell it so that someone else can use it. Recycling is certainly the way ahead.