Timothy Barber goes behind the scenes at Panerai’s new factory to witness how ultra-luxe is wed with technical brilliance
Seated at mahogany benches in a glass-walled inner sanctum, six elite watchmakers are busy assembling one of the most complex and unusual minute repeaters you’ll find. It’s a one-man/one-watch job, with three months required to put together a single 633-part timepiece, each one a convoluted tangle of skeletonised bridges and plates. Features include a vertical axis tourbillon, a three-hammer decimal repeater (it strikes tens of minutes rather than quarter hours) activated by a push-piece, and the ability to chime the time in two different time zones. The watchmaker responsible for each made-to-order piece will also be responsible for its servicing in the future.
It’s the kind of hushed, studious tableau one might expect to find at august complications specialists such as Vacheron Constantin or Jaeger-LeCoultre. But no, this is Officine Panerai; and even given the brand’s ever-accelerating progress up the haute horlogerie tree, I didn’t really expect this. Moreover the watch in question, the Radiomir 1940 Minute Repeater Carillon Tourbillon GMT Oro Rosso – a 49mm behemoth that’s as sculptural and elaborate as its name is long – still took even the most seasoned Panerai-watchers by surprise when it appeared last year.
Perhaps it shouldn’t have. It’s 12 years since Panerai made its first movement, and a decade since its first tourbillon – the same vertical axis wonder that features in the minute repeater. Since then, the firm has created no fewer than 24 in-house movements across six base calibre families – a truly remarkable rate of development – all to a stylistic and technical blueprint that rather brilliantly melds the utilitarian sturdiness of “old Panerai” with a sense of luxurious scale and finesse.
There are some who still loudly decry the idea of Panerai, with its vivid backstory of navy commandos, diving gadgetry and adventurous escapades, advancing so deeply into ultra-luxe territory. But that argument was really rendered to the sidelines long ago – it has always been the long-held belief of Richemont’s powers that be (and Panerai CEO Angelo Bonati in particular), that longevity as a brand would be rooted in the high-end and in-house manufacturing. Visiting the manufacture, however, does give a new perspective on how far and how quickly things are progressing. This is a brand as fervently preoccupied with embracing the possibilities of the future as it is with paying homage to the past.
The building we’re in, a sparklingly modern, ingeniously designed manufacture on a lush hillside above Neuchätel, opened in 2014, relocating Panerai’s watchmaking from the former Neuchätel police station and doubling its headcount and its capacity. According to the brand, 95 per cent of its watches now feature in-house movements, most of them made and assembled right here (a handful are made at Richemont’s Valfleurier facility).
If one were looking to build a luxury manufacture from scratch, unattached to historic buildings or archaic ideas, Panerai’s would be the blueprint to follow. It’s an airy, white-walled slice of eco-efficient modernity (carbon neutral, recycling rainwater and waste materials), staffed by a retinue of laid-back, youthful employees lurking around capacious breakout areas. See Panerai’s own – curiously soundtracked, we warn you now – video for a better idea.
It feels more like a tech campus than a traditional watch atelier – a manufacture as Jony Ive might conceive it. And that sense is only amplified by the presence of a skunkworks-style studio at the heart of things. Panerai calls this the Laboratorio di Idee (Ideas Laboratory); it’s nothing new to Panerai – Bonati described it in QP several years ago as his “Mind Box” – but it now has a watch named after it: the LAB-ID Luminor 1950 Carbotech 3 Days was launched at SIHH. It’s a timepiece fairly popping with next-gen ideas, including an industry-first-by-bloody-miles service guarantee of 50 years. Fifty. It’s made possible by a lubricant-free movement that eliminates friction via DLC-based coatings on its components; we covered it in depth here earlier in the year.
Panerai is having particular fun with fancy new materials. It has patented for watches the direct laser sintering (a form of 3D printing) of titanium, as demonstrated in last year’s high-concept piece, the Lo Scienziato Luminor 1950 Tourbillon GMT Titanio. It has breathed fresh life into carbon fibre with its stripy, wood-grainy “Carbotech” variant. And in another key release from this year’s SIHH, it’s given us the first watch case made from a metallic glass (boasting, according to Panerai, all the characteristics expected of innovative materials such as scratch resistance and strength) that it’s calling BMG-Tech. The watch in question is the blue-dialled Luminor Submersible 1950 BMG-Tech 3 Days Automatic, and leads out an array of new Luminor Sub models, including the first examples at 42mm.
Of course these are outliers in a collection that still takes its cues – via a 45-strong design team based in Milan – from those peculiarly charismatic diving watches of old. But they point to an ever-increasing sense of technical muscle and ambition, and the manufacturing of Panerai’s array of strong-as-an-ox calibres continues the story.
In the ground floor workshops we’re lead past banks of CNC machines cutting out components for the 24 movements currently in production, plus skeletonised variants (including the latter, the Panerai website lists 33 current movements). Panerai has developed its own, thermally treated copper alloy for its movement plates to ensure extra rigidity; and unusually, both sides are machined at the same time. According to the firm, this actually takes longer but makes for more precise machining (down to 2-3 microns, compared with 5-6 in most watchmaking), which has obvious advantages for performance.
And you see why that’s important when you encounter the exhaustive testing the watches are subjected to – a punishing routine of robotic shock testing, the simulation of deep-water pressure, corrosion tests with salt water and even the application of synthetic sweat to test its effects on cases and straps. In a sealed glass chamber, a busy little Mitsubishi robot arm rushes back and forth, taking the movements through a series of winding and chronometry trials.
Robots also feature in one of the more surprising aspects of Panerai’s watchmaking: the finishing. While hand-executed finissage is generally held up as an artisanal mainstay of traditional watchmaking, it turns out the uniform graining and sharp edge-work of Panerai’s movements is all achieved by machines. Robot arms pick up movement parts and rub them up and down over sandpaper, while the polished anglage is executed at the CNC stage; even the inner dotting of perlage is computerised. This has advantages in efficiency and cost of course, though you might question its validity for a brand that trades so heavily on emotion; on the other hand, the industrial aesthetic is in line with the brawny ambience of Panerai watches, and harks back to that old tool watch style. Somehow it works, and the sheer scale and surface expanse of Panerai movements, with their curving plates and enormous gold wheels, make them hugely satisfying when viewed through the back of a watch.
Back upstairs, on the other side of the Haute Horlogerie Studio’s glass wall, is the service centre, where experienced watchmakers work on both modern and vintage Panerai watches. There, we spy recent Radiomirs and Luminors lying side by side with the extraordinary watches that inspired their design, including a couple of 70-year-old-plus legends. Among all this cutting edge horological endeavour, they don’t seem even slightly out of place.