Can You Build A Watch Brand On Just Two Models? Panerai Says You Can!
I enjoyed a little road trip from Holland to Tuscany with my better half and son last month. We spent some quality time in Florence. Of course, we visited the Piazza San Giovanni, home to the Cathedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore. My fiance and son were gazing in amazement at the massive green and white structure. I was staring in the exact opposite direction. There has been a Panerai boutique right there since the late 1800s, and that is what caught my eye.
I have long been infatuated with Panerai, so this was a bit of a pilgrimage for me. Sooner or later, I will add a Radiomir to my collection. This is a topic of much debate here at Fratello because which one should I get? It also triggered a conversation in the office about whether Panerai is actually floating on only two models. And this is a certainly a topic worth exploring.
Looking at the current Panerai collection
Panerai divides its catalog into four collections: Submersible, Luminor, Luminor Due, and Radiomir. So if you were to ask Panerai, they would probably say, “no, we don’t just have two models; it is four collections with many variations in each.” But looking a little closer, I think there really are only two basic shapes there. The Luminor Due is essentially a lesser-specced, subtler Luminor. The Submersible is also built on the Luminor platform. In fact, between 1998 and 2019, it was marketed as Luminor Submersible.
I don’t think it is much of a stretch to say that Panerai’s collection is really just built up of two basic shapes: Luminor and Radiomir. Now, that is not to say there isn’t a lot of variation available. A Radiomir Quaranta is really quite different from a Radiomir Minute Repeater Tourbillon GMT. Similarly, a Luminor Otto Giorni is radically different from a (Luminor) Submersible Carbotech. But if you just look at the basic shapes (or the silhouettes) they are very similar.
Other Panerai models
Looking at Panerai’s fascinating history, you do find radically different shapes. Think of the 1940s “Mare Nostrum” chronograph, for instance. Contrary to the typical Panerai cushion case, this is actually a round watch. Besides having an interesting backstory, I think it is actually a gorgeous design. It has seen two re-issues since 2010, but there currently isn’t a single one in the catalog.
And then there is the GPF-2/56 “Egiziano,” another distinctly different model, again with a round case. This 60mm dive watch was supplied to the Egyptian Navy, hence the name. The GPF-2/56 is characterized by a broad, domed steel rotating bezel with applied pips. The crown-protecting system we all know and love from the Luminor actually debuted here. This was also the first watch that Panerai developed without the help of Rolex, adding to its significance. There has been a true-to-size re-issue limited to 500 pieces. Currently, however, there is no GPF-2/56 successor in the catalog.
But hold on; it says Radiomir on the dial of both the Mare Nostrum and the Egiziano! If I am going to lump the Submersible in with the Luminor, these surely aren’t actually separate models either, right? Wrong! Radiomir wasn’t meant as a model designation but refers to the radium luminescent compound used on the dial. And you just have to look at the unique design of these watches to recognize them as distinct models in Panerai’s backlog.
Is it rare to have so few brand champions?
Okay, so I think it is safe to say that modern-day Panerai evolves around two brand champions. Naturally, it pushes those two concepts quite far, but they are two basic concepts nonetheless. Is that actually a rare thing in the modern watch world? I don’t know about you, but I am often amazed at the sheer number of models offered by some brands. So how about other brands with a small number of champions?
Bell & Ross springs to mind, with its many variations on the core square-cased design. They do have one round model, but the collection is primarily built around the original square models and the later integrated bracelet model. Perhaps even more clearly, Parmigiani has been rebuilt into an entire collection based on one core shape, the Tonda. But, then again, for a small independent, that is probably more sensible and more common than for a big mainstream luxury brand.
Of course, some brands lean heavily on specific collections, but that is a different matter. Other brands have a very strong aesthetic signature across all collections, think Cartier, but that too, is something else. I think Panerai is quite unique in building an entire brand on just two main pillars. If you have other examples, please do share them in the comments below.
Where next for Panerai?
It makes sense to wonder where Panerai might go next. Perhaps we will see new iterations based on the Egiziano and Mare Nostrum in the future. But, then again, how long can one keep riffing on the same idea?
I think in the end it doesn’t matter. What matters is how well you do it. Rolex is arguably king in this field. They treat their champions with exemplary care. They don’t do a million different Submariners, nor does a new generation shock the world with radical innovations. Rolex just lets it evolve as slowly as possible.
This is where I worry a bit about Panerai. It seems there is just version after version of the Radiomir and Luminor, and not always in a very congruent manner. At the time of writing, for instance, there isn’t a simple black Radiomir with a sandwich dial. Every single model has a pre-patinated case, vignette dial, complication, or all the above. Within a brand built around two champions, you would expect that the base versions would be the absolute heart of the collection.
Closing thoughts on Panerai
I think we can safely conclude that Panerai indeed floats on two main models. There is reason for some critical questions, but there is also reason for optimism. The Radiomir and Luminor are two of the most recognizable watches on the market. As basic platforms, they offer infinite possibilities for variation and evolution. If you had to build a brand on two champions, you could do a lot worse than these.
Might we see entirely new models from the brand in the future? This could be one of the coolest product management challenges in the watch industry today. Just imagine leading a team of designers to take that unique Panerai design language and use it to tell a brand new story. There is plenty of material there to make it instantly recognizable as a Panerai.
And if the brand is just comfortable with its two champions? Well, if they are fostered with great care, I don’t see why they cannot make this strategy last. What do you think? Should Panerai offer different models? Or should they focus on the Radiomir and Luminor? Let us know in the comments below.