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Home >Companies >Milvin George | India is the market where we sell the most expensive watches

On the sidelines of the India Art Fair, Indulge caught up with Milvin George, managing director, Middle East, Turkey and India, Officine Panerai—the Italian luxury watchmaker. George spoke about the brand’s association with the India Art Fair and plans for India. Edited excerpts:

Tell us something about the brand’s legacy.

We are an Italian brand, and Swiss-made. We were founded in 1860 by the Panerai family in Florence and so we have the Florentine heritage and culture. Our founder, Giovanni Panerai, owned a workshop in Florence where we did a lot of repair for watches. We also had a collaboration with the Italian navy and made professional instruments for them like torpedo timers and several other underwater naval instruments and gadgets such as torches and wrist compasses.

In 1936, at the request of the Italian navy, we made the prototype of the Radiomir. And in 1938, we produced the first watch for the navy—the Radiomir, with a 47mm luminous dial, making it easy to read underwater in the dark, and a hand-wound mechanical movement supplied by Rolex.

Between 1938 and 1991, we produced fewer than 300 watches and supplied exclusively to the navy.

So till 1991, you did not make watches for the public at all?

No, we started making watches for civilians only after 1991. Before that, we catered only to the Italian navy. It was kept a secret.

What is Panerai’s USP?

All in the image: Panerai’s Milvin George. The watchmaker was long associated with the Italian navy, making precision instruments and watches exclusively for it till 1991. Priyanka Parashan/Mint

We have a series of movements—automatic movement, mechanical hand-winding movement, etc. In the automatic segment, we have (watches with) three-day power reserve and 10-day power reserve.

On the mechanical handwinding side, and these are watches that collectors love a lot, we have watches with 60-hour power reserve up to eight-day power reserve. And, of course, there is the tourbillon movement, the most complicated mechanical hand-winding movement.

So you know, we have done movements up to that level, where a brand can claim its legitimacy in watchmaking.

How has your association been with the India Art Fair? You have been supporting it for the past three years.

I think, for us, it is the ideal platform to connect with the customers. There is a common ground between people who buy watches or collect them and appreciate the art of watchmaking, and people who also appreciate fine art and design. India Art Fair is about that today.

We would like to show the customer that making a watch is an art.

We are not here to sell. We are here to appreciate art with our customers.

How does India figure in your brand strategy?

We have been here for over 10 years now. We are present in major cities like Mumbai, Delhi, Hyderabad, Chennai, and, in the future, we also have plans to expand further.

The Indian customer today is well-travelled with a keen eye for luxury products. Fine watchmaking is something we know the Indian customer understands, especially the male customer.

There are obstacles in reaching more customers, but we also have to be careful about the fact that we are a very niche brand and, therefore, don’t have enough supply. So we will have to evolve in that niche segment, which sometimes is not found easily in different cities.

Now I think India is reorganizing its distribution network a little bit. More malls are coming up. This is all work in progress and we would like to be a part of that evolution in India.

How has your experience been here?

A photo from the 1940s of an Italian navy commando wearing a Panera.

And we have shown our commitment by opening offices here in Delhi.

We are also looking at a boutique in Mumbai and other projects. We know there is potential here. We know the return could be high, but again, it depends on how the Indian economy is connected with the world economy.

But we are very optimistic and think that India will be one of the countries with China, Brazil and other such fastgrowing economies, which will be the driving force of the world economy.

What are your plans for India?

In the immediate term, we are planning a boutique at the Taj Mahal hotel, Mumbai, in collaboration with a company called Lifestyle Trading. The concept of the boutique is influenced by the sea. Different elements like vintage yachts, lot of steel, teakwood and bronze. The boutique will also have a VIP lounge and a collectors’ club.

What will be your distribution pattern?

We would like to maintain the exclusivity and the rarity factors of the brand. We are a very exclusive brand.

We don’t have enough supply. We are pretty much controlled by the limited production and, therefore, we have to be careful with that. We have to be very close to our customers because they know us very well today. You have to find a way to appease the customers and what better way than providing them with the exclusive experience by having a stand-alone boutique like the planned Panerai boutique in Mumbai or shop of shops in various cities or corners in some stores. We have two corners in Delhi, one each at South Extension and DLF Emporio mall with Johnson Watch Co. and a third one is at the Taj Krishna hotel in Hyderabad with Helvetica. We are also retailed in multi-brand showrooms in Connaught Place with Johnson Watch Co., Express Mall in Chennai with Helvetica and at Taj Mahal hotel with Dia in Mumbai. We would like to be in a strong watch-making environment, where the customer is, so we cannot be in any shop. We have to be among the watchmaking brands.

What is your customer profile? What is the male-female ratio?

The customer can be anywhere from 21-25 to 60-65 years of age. We are a luxury technical sports watch brand. But we also have some very classical pieces. So we have a good mix of young and old patrons.

Talking about the gender profile, because of the original DNA of the brand, as we were associated with the Italian navy, we are perceived as a masculine brand by default. But, of course, today, you have women who also prefer big watches with fine movements.

What are the things you would like to change in India?

The first thing that immediately comes to my mind is not directly linked to the customer. It’s the environment that the customer should be shopping in—the infrastructure. I hope to see more premium retail space in major cities in India. I think this is lacking.

What’s also important is to be able to connect more directly with the customer. That can be done through various occasions and events like today’s. It can also be done through selling directly to the customer if we have our own shops. These are the key things, really. And, of course, we would like to see more support from retailers.

You don’t have a brand ambassador. Any plans for having one?

Yes, that’s correct. We don’t have a brand ambassador. We are involved with a gentleman called Mike Horn, who is a South-Africa born Swiss explorer and adventurer. He is on a five-year journey around the world right now. He is a well-known activist for the environment. We don’t have a plan to get a Bollywood celebrity on board. We want all of them to wear Panerai (smiles).

Does the slowing global economy hurt your future plans?

We have been through 2008-09.

With Panerai, what we felt in those years is that because of the crisis, we were able to fulfil the demand better.

As a brand, we work under a waiting list. You probably have to wait a couple of months before you get the watch. We understand the market well. We have a clear product strategy and have a good distribution network.

So, if things go sour with the world economy, I think it also could be an opportunity for us to readjust a little to review our strategies. But I would not say it will be something that will affect us directly because we operate in a very niche segment. Frankly, we don’t see a negative impact. So chances are that we will meet the demand better (smiles).

You are owned by the Richemont group that houses more than a dozen luxury brands such as Cartier, Piaget, Vacheron Constantin, Jaeger-LeCoultre, IWC among others. What is the nature of the in-house competition?

I would say it is a friendly competition. We all belong to the same group. The group has made many things possible for us as a brand and we appreciate that. There is a general understanding of how we should cooperate with each other. We compete, but it is a friendly competition. A healthy one to be honest. Something that we are proud of…that we can be together and still strive to do the best we can.

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