Panerai Officine was a brand without a business in 1997 and now it’s one of the most admired and successful watchmakers in the world with a passionate following in Asia. Angelo Bonati has masterminded the change in the Florentine company’s prospects. 

[dropcap size=small]I[/dropcap]t was a sunny day in March when Angelo Bonati strode towards me with an outstretched hand. “It’s good to see you again,” he said in deep, dark tones that mix the accent of Italy with a hint of cognac and cigars. “We’re going to take the Fast Track.”

And he was gone, but not to an airport lounge. The Fast Track in question was one of two routes through the O’Clock Design Time Time Design exhibition at Beijing’s CAFA Art Museum. Curated by Silvana Annicchiarico and Jan van Rossem with design and graphics by Patricia Urquiola the exhibition was presented this spring by Milan’s Triennale Design Museum and the Italian Cultural Institute in Beijing, with support from Panerai.

“The normal and fast track alternatives raise the question of how to live in the present,” says Urquiola. “Should we follow chronological linearity and be at one with Kronos? Or should we understand time as a series of intervals, instants, and leaps, and so be on the side of Kairos?”Bonati is a man well versed in the ways of kronos, the chronological and sequential time measured by Panerai’s fine timepieces. But he is also a master of kairos, which the Greeks understood as “the right, opportune or supreme moment. Somewhat like carpe diem (seize the day), kairos is all about seizing opportunities, as Bonati did in 1997.

“When Mr. Rupert (Johan, the Richemont CEO and Executive Chairman) decided to buy Panerai he gave us the brand to grow but we only had one watch, the Luminor Marina, and a history that was fragmented,” he says.  “Now the watch is distributed in 22 countries, but in some countries there is only one point of sale, because we are very selective. The key has been writing a new story for the brand that dates back to 1860 and is based on Panerai’s authentic heritage, as a highly robust and technical timepiece created for the Italian navy.”

Detail of The Beautiful Fractional Sunflower Panerai Painting by Damien Hirst

Detail of The Beautiful Fractional Sunflower Panerai Painting by Damien Hirst

Bonati’s policy of exclusivity and an insistence that the brand stick strictly to its core DNA was a key reason for his choice of O’Clock as a vehicle for bringing the brand’s identity to its followers in China, old and new. Not for Panerai the slavish pursuit of multi-brand celebrities (Fan BingBing anyone? Everyone?) as a means of making emotional connections with its market.

“When we thought about this exhibition we thought it was a way to communicate our exclusivity to our clients,” say Bonati. “We are not in partnership with something popular and absolutely not celebrities – that is a bad association for me, that is not the positioning of the brand. We are the kings of the measurement of time and we want to follow another philosophy, one of enlightenment.”

In conversation with Bonati it’s evident that he has explored the roots of enlightenment with some vigour.

“The other day I was thinking about my dogs,” says Bonati. “Dogs live their life without having time. If I leave my dogs for one hour or one month, when I open the door they greet me in the same way. We should learn from the animals, they can teach us to understand the dimension in which we live and the constraints it places on our imagination.”

For Bonati this dimension is one where time has been given more power than it deserves.

“Time is a good servant but a bad master,”

he says. “We continue to measure everything and it’s a cause of stress, but emotion is not time. When you are sad there is no time. We measure time because we don’t want to die and time helps us measure how much time we have left, but that’s a paradox because we never know when our lives might end.”

Deep thinking like this was at the root of all the exhibits at O’Clock. Patricia Urquilo created an installation piece titled The Time Machine – The Bug. She assembled parts of the chairs, lamps and other pieces she has designed in the past to build a life size bug-like time machine with a pilot’s seat at the centre.

In a way, the work is a “time travelling machine” since it allows Urquilo to jog her memory and recall her own artistic struggles and triumphs.

Meanwhile, Susanna Hertrich’s Chrono-Shredder was a play on the destructive power of time. As the day progresses, a single roll of paper displaying the day’s date gets shredded. That paper becomes time past that can never been regained.

Among the Asian works, one that stood out was Yang Xinguang’s Counting Sand. Here, the Chinese artist took a mound of sand and literally counted every grain. When he completed the task, he repeated it. He came up with two numbers: 185,465 and 186,837 grains. It’s a difference of 1,372. The piece raises intriguing metaphysical questions of identity, especially the issue of doing the same thing twice, which as Yang demonstrated is one of the rules of time that cannot be broken.

But it is British uber-artist Damien Hirst’s contribution to O’Clock that does most to illustrate Bonati’s approach to watch making, but also the complicated task of building an authentic luxury brand.

Hirst’s relationship with Panerai had its roots in the years before the O’Clock. A Panerai watch is painted on a table next to medicines and a skull in Skull with Watch from 2005 and is physically present in the installations The Tranquility of Solitude (for George Dyer) (2006), and Killing Time (2008).  When Hirst finally met Bonati the painter (who often wears a Panerai) asked for some dials so he could make paintings on the faces.

“I told him I could not allow him to change my face,” says Bonati. “I suggested he work on the back side but not the face. He was not happy with that and He called and called and called and I always refused him.”

Bonati changed his position by a few ticks in 2011.

“I found we had 2,000 dials that were imperfect and not suitable for production,” he says. “So I sent him the dials and he created two pieces for O’Clock’s premiere in Milan.”

The vivid, colourful paintings Hirst created use the ‘spin’ technique and feature over 1,000 discarded Panerai dials. The Beautiful Sunflower Panerai Painting and Beautiful Fractional Sunflower Panerai Painting explore the relationship between time and design and examine how time can be experienced.

“The watches are timeless and I made this spin painting using black Panerai watch faces without hands in the pattern of the seeds in the head of a sunflower, “ says Hirst.

“I hope the painting makes you think, we are here for a good time, not a long time.”

At first the painting made Bonati think he had made a mistake in giving the dials to Hirst.

ngelo Bonati & Chef Umberto Bombana at the Tai Miao ancestral hall in Beijing where a gala dinner celebrated O’Clock

ngelo Bonati & Chef Umberto Bombana at the Tai Miao ancestral hall in Beijing where a gala dinner celebrated O’Clock

“The first time I saw Hirst’s Panerai paintings I was cold,” he says. “I thought people might see them as something made for Panerai. Something too commercial and not pure.”

Many brands would give a king’s ransom to have Damien Hirst make something with their merchandise but Bonati is cut from a different cloth. He does not look at the power of the celebrity but the strength and authenticity of the brand’s message.

“Now I see the Hirst paintings again I can see they are pure, because they come from inside the process of art, they are not commercial,” he says.

The poet T.S. Eliot wrote in his Four Quartets, “Time present and time past/ Are both perhaps present in time future/And time future contained in time past/ If all time is eternally present/All time is unredeemable.” He meant time cannot be reformed or recovered, it is ever shifting, eternally beyond our reach. But art and craftsmanship may be the exception to that rule. Nothing is truly timeless but Panerai’s watches and Bonati’s engagement with art have sustainable values. Which might just explain why, in a world where the pace of change is accelerating, we are drawn to things that are perfectly made but, like Panerai watches, don’t scream about their achievements from the rooftops – or from the side of a starlet’s handbag.

By Daniel Jeffreys