Those who consume watch-related content voraciously will recognise most of the names that get cited in various stories. Panerai CEO Jean-Marc Pontroue, for example, will be familiar to not only you, dear reader, but also the Paneristi of course. He will also be quite well-known to Roger Dubuis collectors and probably Montblanc aficionados too. This is a phenomenon not limited to the C-suite, with some brands using the same product presenters year after year. So when Panerai offered us the chance to interview Chief Operating Office Jerome Cavadini, a man I have not personally met or interacted with, and whom we have never featured in WOW (in the last six years at least), we just had to say yes. One of the nice things about our Zoom era is that we get to meet all manner of people who were previously inaccessible.
As a 25-year veteran of the watch trade (11 of those years have been at Panerai), the fact that Cavadini had not taken the spotlight before was unusual. This is perhaps best explained by Panerai’s stance during Angelo Bonatti’s tenure as CEO, when only he faced the press. I recall many a time that we wanted to feature someone at the brand, but there is only one CEO and many who crave an audience. There was a serious cult of personality around the man, which Cavadini explains with just a few words. All we know is that it was just as difficult to get 30 minutes with Bonatti as it was to get one’s hands on a Bronzo! Seriously though, it was all part of the mystique of Panerai — a military secret that had found a second life as a horological icon.
Taking advantage of our circumstances here, we even quizzed Cavadini about this mystique, and what that means for transparency. He gamely addressed this, which is unsurprising given that this is the year of the E-LAB ID (itself a study in transparency). Indeed, operational transparency is much rarer than even a grand sonnerie from a major Maison, and some observers have even told us — on the record — that Swiss watchmaking takes the view that the supply chain is of no concern to the public. Well, supply chains have suddenly taken centre stage so watchmaking will have to adapt, as Cavadini tells us. He also notes that brands are already obliged to confirm where watches are made, as per the Swiss Made laws, and broader European Union statutes.
On that note, it is time to make the acquaintance of Jerome Cavadini, who gives the impression of a man who thinks actions speak louder and offer more clarity than any number of words. Do not take our word for it. His answers to our questions are telling.
Please tell us more about yourself, and your role at Panerai, where we understand you have been for some time. As a second part to this, how do you keep things fresh?
It’s a long journey, I’m afraid to say! I have been in the watch trade for 25 years (which is half my life because I am 50). I started as a case supplier to Cartier, then at Cartier itself. I was there for nine years, and then at Girard-Perregaux (under the legendary Luigi Macaluso) for seven years. I joined Panerai in 2010… my boss was Angelo Bonatti, the guy who rebuilt the brand, and I was in charge of the manufacture. So, it fell to me to create a movement strategy, to find alternatives to ETA (and other third-party suppliers), build a new manufacture building (in Neuchatel, finished in 2013, and covered shortly after in WOW), and come up with a roadmap for innovation.
Now we have new challenges, regarding new materials and sustainability, as we presented during Watches & Wonders. So yes it has been 25 years but I never felt the time pass (or the years as a burden). Every day was (and is) a pleasure, and I am lucky to be in this trade. The products are nice, the network is good, and the ecosystem with journalists, customers, boutiques… you are reinventing your job every day.
It’s a question of mindset, to keep pushing the boundaries as far as the watches will go, in terms of accuracy and materials. It is also about what happens behind the scenes, which customers and journalists do not see. For example, we are on a digital transformation project that has been super impactful in terms of the kind of data we can collect, and analyze.
Speaking of understanding the market better, to what extent does Panerai pay heed to what sorts of watches the market wants?
Maybe this is what makes Panerai unique, because our strong DNA means we are not free to just do anything we want. We have to have clean black dials, big watches… We could not come up with ultra-thin square watches with diamonds! [laughs] So we are limited in terms of what we can do, but it is also true that our customers often push us to add functions and displays, and we listen to them. So take the Luminor Due we showed this year for example. This kind of watch would probably not have happened without the input of customers because it is not what we would normally do.
Most of the time, we are lucky because the Panerai community is positive in their feedback. Even when they are sometimes critical, it is usually (constructive), and we listen to them, especially on the service side.
Leaving aside the matter of servicing, I am thinking of specific watches like the skeleton and the minute repeater. These are watches that we would not have expected from Panerai.
It’s true that you could say that (certain complications)… are not in our base, but some of our customers also love to challenge us… I think it took five or six years to develop the minute repeater movement, and to make the watch water-resistant. This is not obvious (for a chiming watch) but Panerai is about water-resistant watches (and dive watches).
We also decided to have the watch sound the tens and not the quarters, as one might expect, because we also wanted to do something different. Such high complication challenges come from some markets, especially in Asia, like Hong Kong and Japan. These kinds of challenges, thinking about them and developing them, makes every day in the business new (to address the previous point about finding new challenges, personally).
Turning to the themes this year, we have heard different and sometimes conflicting opinions on just how sustainable a watch can be. What’s Panerai’s position, given that the ELAB ID is a pretty interesting proposition?
Soon after Jean-Marc Pontroue joined Panerai, we had a meeting to discuss where we are with sustainability. We had the Ecotitanium planned at that time, and Pontroue wanted to know if we could do a watch that was 100% made of recycled materials. Well, we thought we could get close to 100% in maybe five years, but we had to do it in two. Why two years? Because of the feedback we were getting from customers — their concerns about climate change — and we had to do something [two years was the minimum – Ed]. We did not just want something to communicate (or market) but to show that we are taking action. I can tell you it was not easy.
We were not starting from scratch here, not only because of Ecotitanium, but because basic steel is already something like 50% recycled — there are not copious mining operations to extract enough iron to make 100% new steel all the time. So we wanted to figure out how to get beyond that 50%. In the end, we found we could get to 98.6%, and Jean-Marc asked why not 100% six months ago. To get that 1.4%, we would have to use so much energy that it wouldn’t be saving anything (by doing a watch out of recycled materials). Our idea isn’t to do something at an idiotic level, just to say we did it. No, we do everything that we can, and stop when it doesn’t make sense (to continue).
Of course the E-LAB ID is just a first step, being a limited edition, but then it also allowed us to come out with the eSteel models this year. The next steps are to figure out how to use more recycled materials across our collections (eSteel models are 58.4% recycled materials, by total weight of the watch). Of course, we also have to look at our movements, but will we do this alone? I don’t think so. Many brands work with the same suppliers so if we all band together, I think we can do great things.
How will such a move take shape?
I noticed two things already. First at a panel discussion with Chopard co-CEO Karl-Friedrich Scheufele, Carl F. Bucherer CEO Sascha Moeri, Jean-Marc, adventurer, activist and Panerai ambassador Mike Horn and Ethiwork CEO Celine Dassonville. Mr Scheufele was asked what Chopard will do now that Panerai is opening the door. He smiled a little bit and said that we have succeeded in making Watches & Wonders happen, with many brands coming together for the first time (in a long time), so maybe the hard part is over [laughs]. So I am confident that something good can come of this.
Second, I had a discussion over email with (a representative of the firm) that does the recycled SuperLuminova. He thanked me for advertising their work with Panerai (on the ELAB ID) and told me that he already had three enquiries from parties interested in using the recycled SuperLuminova. So it seems we have already created some buzz here, in the middle of Watches & Wonders.
This interview took place on the second day of the show.
For more watch reads, click here.