From Piguet To Panerai, The Influence Of Italian Taste On Watch Design

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From Piguet To Panerai, The Influence Of Italian Taste On Watch Design

Words by Mr Timothy Barber

23 September 2020

As the lockdown eased in Switzerland, a meme circulated among the watch business community. Swiss people, went the gag, no longer needed to stay two metres apart – they could now revert to their usual five. OK, it’s a cheap swipe, but inevitably there’s a kernel of truth in it. After all, it’s arguably that mindset of clinical froideur that makes the Swiss so phenomenally successful at something as brain-achingly tricky as watchmaking. Were things left entirely to them, the watches would be spectacular, of course, but the watch world might be somewhat sombre. As it once was, in fact. Making watches is one thing, but making them into a culture – or even a cult – that ripples with style, fun, emotion and plain old sex appeal, is quite another. For that, you need the Italians.

Italy all but invented watch collecting as we know it now. Italian collectors were treasuring, amassing, pimping and peacocking watches back when such ideas were not simply anathema elsewhere, but completely unheard of.

“In Italy, nearly every man from 17 to 70 is interested in watches,” says Mr Danny Pizzigoni, founder of the Mayfair vintage dealership The Watch Club, whose Parma-born father got into the trade back in the 1970s. Back then, Italian dealers would visit London to snap up Rolexes on the cheap that they could sell at a profit back home.

“It’s all about what you show,” says Mr Pizzigoni. “A guy sitting at a bar in a café, with a nice white shirt and a beautiful watch, looking a million dollars – he might be bankrupt, but everything he has is on show. I know so many Italians who are not wealthy people, but when they have any money at all they put it into a watch.”

The Italian attitude to watches – as items to obsess over, to express oneself through, to parade and to trade – has been ever-present in the background as the watch industry has evolved. The vintage market in which sought-after Patek Philippe and Rolex models can now command millions? It was established by Italian dealers meeting local demand – and they’re still the ones cutting the biggest deals on the biggest watches. The sports-luxe steel watches that are ragingly popular today? Invented to meet Italian demand in the 1970s. The emergence of the big watch trend that helped reinvigorate wristwatches as prestige items in the 2000s? Spearheaded by Panerai, the Florence-founded firm whose rebirth and rise mirrored that of the luxury watch industry itself.

And how about the contemporary notion of wardrobing your watches, customising them for different moods via changeable straps and other modifications? My friend, the Italians were sticking tool watches on inappropriate leather straps and textile bands, just for the fun of it, back when your dad’s boardroom ticker was a £25 Sekonda because “it tells the time, and that’s all I need”.

For Italians, it’s never been about telling the time. Although there are those who claim that the reason ­the 20th century industrialist, richest Italian ever and superhero of suave Mr Gianni Agnelli wore his watches strapped ostentatiously over his shirt cuff, rather than under, was because he was simply too busy to pull up his sleeve when reading the time. That, surely, is bunkum. Mr Agnelli, who no doubt could rely on an army of assistants to maintain punctuality, was the ultimate self-stylist, and his watches, displayed as boldly and uniquely as they were, formed an essential component of his attire and indeed his aura. There were many of them: gold dress watches, world timers, chronographs, digital watches and more, sitting proud on his immaculately tailored sleeves. But no image better embodies the Italian approach to watches than that of Mr Agnelli attired for 1970s Alpine life in double denim and ski goggles, with an Omega PloProf, an asymmetric horological beast built for saturation diving, wrapped around his forearm.

“It’s what Italians call staccare, which means to detach or remove,” says Mr Pizzigoni. “It’s used in architecture, where you might combine something historic with something ultra-contemporary. In watches, it’s similar: it’s not just the watch, but having the courage to wear it in a bold and unconventional way. Having a tool watch on a strap it shouldn’t be on, or turning watches that were considered ugly into a statement – all of a sudden you’re showing your inventiveness, your creativity. Italians love that, and Agnelli was the ultimate example.”

Audemars Piguet’s Royal Oak, the octagonal watch on a steel bracelet that birthed the now-dominant sports-luxe genre, was certainly considered ugly by most when it was presented in 1972. Even, in fact, by the company’s CEO Mr George Golay, who had deep misgivings about this oversized curio, dreamed up in a single overnight session by designer Mr Gérald Genta, to meet a request from the brand’s Italian distributor. The Royal Oak merged the bracelet-bound robustness and chic modernity of steel sports watches with the handcraft, quality and allure of prestige watchmaking. This was an almost nonsensical proposition for someone like Mr Golay – like asking a city gent of the era to match a boilersuit with his bowler hat. But for Italy’s bon vivant class, a watch you could wear on the beach, on a yacht and in the office – potentially on the same day – was an exciting notion.

“It’s not just the watch, but how you wear it – all of a sudden you’re showing your inventiveness, your creativity. Italians love that”

Or it should have been, but even they were slow on the uptake until one day in 1974 when – who else? – Mr Agnelli was seen sporting it. At which point success was assured, and a new genre was born. Mr Genta formulated similar creations for IWC SCHAFFHAUSEN and Patek Philippe, while other companies developed their own versions. Girard-Perregaux even gave its interpretation an Italian name – Laureato (meaning “graduate”) – and had a Milanese architect design it. It continues in multiple iterations today. Vacheron Constantin, meanwhile, came up with the Mr Genta-influenced 222, which evolved into today’s Overseas. You could argue that this year’s miraculous skeletonised perpetual calendar version, one of this year’s most wonderful watches, only exists because Messrs Golay and Genta had the balls to serve up a nonsensical steel watch for Italian playboys in 1972.

That there is a heady mix of style and serendipity behind Italian watch culture is exemplified nowhere better than at Panerai, the brand that is Italy’s great gift to the world of watches. Who would have imagined in the 1930s that a little Florentine watch retailer with a side-line supplying technical equipment and underwater watches to the Italian Navy would, by 2020, be one of the most recognisable names in luxury horology?

But then, when it was “discovered” by collectors in the 1990s, Panerai was like something lab-grown to hook in Italian watchophiles. This, after all, was the country that had by then taken vintage watch appreciation – and vintage Rolex in particular – to forensically layered new levels. The nicknames that are now an embedded part of Rolex-lore – Paul Newman, Fat Lady, Freccione, Porcellana – were invented by Italian dealers to distinguish watches by the serendipitous visual quirks that to anyone else would have been meaningless, but in Italy meant added value. Only in Italy would the imperfections wrought by both design frailties and years of usage – faded bezel inserts, black dials turning brown or cracked – become desirable qualities, bringing warmth, diversity and the beauty of chance to an otherwise static object.

Panerai ticked the same boxes. It had a mysterious but fascinating history to explore; it had enigmatic quirks, like the luminescent “sandwich” dial and the protruding Radiomir crown protector; it had the bona fides of a connection back to Rolex, which supplied the parts – and more or less the design ­– for those original military watches; it had a consistent, unique design template in which minor variations, invisible to interlopers, meant everything if you were an insider. And perhaps most importantly, and more or less by accident, it had (and has) style – acres of it, spread across the glossy curves of the huge Luminor and Radiomir cases, the luscious expanses of the dark dials, and the beautiful proportions and contrasts of the oh-so-perfect dial markings. The technical tool removed from its context and made into something objectively, impossibly handsome, to be worn as boldly as possible – no wonder it quickly became a cult, with its own “Paneristi” club of hardcore enthusiasts; and no wonder it proved such a potent template on which to build a powerhouse luxury marque. And, while the huge, modern manufacture producing Panerai watches today is located in Neuchatel, Switzerland, its design studio is still in Milan.

In recent years, it has seemed at times as though every Swiss brand had moved its design studios to Italy. The evolution of watch design towards a more laid-back, flexible sense of sprezzatura, with watches that drip with strong colours and sunny charisma, has been a key development of recent years. Think of Oris’ collaboration with the Japanese jeans company Momotaro, matching a faded green dial with a beautiful denim strap on a vintage diving watch template; or contrastingly, the sheer peacocking boldness of Zenith’s all-blue Defy Classic; or indeed the richly colourful, vintage-infused watches of Montblanc’s 1858 and Heritage collections.

It should be little surprise that it’s an Italian who has created the latter. Mr Davide Cerrato, a native of Turin, cut his teeth at Panerai before moving to Tudor, where his harnessing of vintage influences, evocative colourways and interesting straps proved both refreshing and dramatically influential. Leading Montblanc’s watchmaking for the past four years, he’s drawn on the legacy of Minerva, the historic chronograph maker that became part of Montblanc in 2006, to create watches like this year’s green-dial Heritage Automatic in 18k yellow gold or the bronze-cased 1858 Monopusher Chronograph, which blend authentic classicism with lashings of full-fat, dandyish charm. It hardly seems irrelevant, by the way, that Mr Cerrato is himself one of Switzerland’s snappiest dressers, with a fondness for bowler hats, bow ties and immaculate tailoring.

“This sartorial touch is really a part of modern watchmaking,” he told me recently. “Something like the Nato strap was originally just a replacement for a watch that had lost a bracelet, but of course it became a way of giving a watch a strong, more colourful look. It’s about getting out of this tepid soup where everything looks the same – you bring in fun, emotion and pleasure instead.” Spoken like a true Italian.

The Italian job