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Panerai Pits An Old War Story Against Smartwatch Allure

With Apple’s launch of its smartwatch and the rush to market by a whole slew of competitors and imitators, many wondered whether the watch industry might be facing the same fate of the camera manufacturers and alarm clock makers. These specialised industries have now become niche players as the mobile phone industry has rudely elbowed its way to the top as the biggest provider of cameras and clocks.

Rapidly evolving technology that is easily integrated into a single product like the cellular phone has blurred boundaries for a variety of product categories. Cellular phones have long since also breached the borders that once were the exclusive preserve of specialised segments of the entertainment sector — music, video and video games, even books, fitness and hobbies.

So are watches that aren’t “smart” additions to other technology products the consumer possesses, on an endangered list? The answer is, most certainly not. It isn’t about the utility of the product as much as the relevance of the story it tells — and links the consumer to.

The Swiss mechanical watch industry was first threatened by sudden impact of the high-precision, yet cheap quartz watch movement that was first championed by Japanese watch brands. Though battered to its knees, it rose again by changing the story that the Swiss watch had to tell — and what it said about a consumer who owned one.

The Swiss industry first changed emphasis by positioning its watches as style statements that also delivered accurate timekeeping. It sold the idea that owning one elevated the owner above the crowd that was using quartz watches.

That change in emphasis also allowed it to stop competing in the technology arena with all the other electronic products and reintroduce the mechanical watch. The Swiss mechanical watch had already a long established record for accurate timekeeping and reliability. Apart from dedicated and precision craftsmanship, Swiss watches also delivered accuracy due to some of its centuries-old innovations and inventions. The most recognisable one for consumers is the tourbillon (French for whirlwind), the 200-year-old invention of Swiss watchmaking legend Abraham-Louis Breguet that counters the effects of gravity on the accuracy of a mechanical watch. Many Swiss watches today feature two and more tourbillons.

The Richemont Group of Switzerland, which owns the Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels and Montblanc jewellery and luxury instrument brands as well as the Vacheron Constantin, Baume & Mercier, Jaeger-LeCoultre and Officine Panerai watch brands, knows a fair bit about telling a story and keeping its brands and product lines relevant in today’s technology-driven world.

Though its product line is now manufactured in Neuchatel, Switzerland, Panerai is still positioned as the venerable Italian brand that started out in 1860 in Florence. The brand has evoked 80-year-old images of underwater military derring-do to promote its new Submersible brand. It has revived memories of the very first underwater watches it produced in 1936, just before World War II, for frogman commandos of the First Submarine Group Command of the Royal Italian Navy. It brings to mind images of the first "human torpedoes" that these frogmen used.

Featuring the-then innovative luminous dial and full water resistance even at depth, the first “Radiomir” watches were a breakthrough back then. The Panerai campaign cleverly links the image of an 80-year-old technology breakthrough, military derring-do and mystery with the idea of a now venerable, precision-crafted watch brand that is inextricably linked with military history.

The Swiss have done it again. It doesn’t matter that the Panerai breakthroughs of 1936 — making a watch waterproof enough to dive with and having a dial luminous enough to see deep under water — are all now commonplace features in almost every watch brand. It also doesn’t matter that the Panerai watch doesn’t smartly nudge your wrist to alert you of an incoming phone call or remind you to do something. All of that emotional content brushes aside the whole debate of whether or not a wristwatch is relevant today.

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