What do you do when a charming 59-year-old chief executive officer of an exclusive Italian watch company—Officine Panerai—asks you for shopping advice?

You chortle, pretend to rack your brains, and stop yourself from offering to take him on a shopping expedition. And even as you’re doing that, the Italian assistants accompanying Angelo Bonati insist Mumbai would be a better place than Delhi to pick up trinkets for Bonati’s wife and 25-year-old son.

Bonati, dressed in an immaculate handcrafted, double-breasted pinstripe Italian suit with a dark pocket square, cocks his head to one side, hears the murmur of dissent and then politely squeezes/shakes my hand twice. Like any other man on a mission, Bonati, whom I met at The Oberoi, New Delhi, bowed to the logic that assistants know best when it comes to sparing time to pick up a pashmina for your wife, especially if you are on a two-day whirlwind “first tour of India".

Client list: Bonati says that while trendsetters are good to have as customers, he really looks for loyal clients. Jayachandran/Mint

Panerai will open its first boutique in India (the company does sell its watches through distributors and in multi-brand watch showrooms) by the end of the year at the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower, Mumbai. Bonati was in India to oversee progress on this. His next target for the Indian market is to finalize a boutique location in Delhi, hopefully within the next six months, because this year the company plans to increase the number of stand-alone Panerai boutiques worldwide from the current 25 to 100. Panerai considers Asia a key market and is planning to open a slew of stores across countries like Singapore, India and Taiwan.

“The feedback from our distributors in India is that the well-travelled Indian knows about our watches but we are not on top in their consciousness. With Panerai to open boutiques here, we hope to change that," says Bonati. With prices starting at €3,000 (around 1.88 lakh) and going up to 1.10 crore, having a high recall value in your potential customer’s mind is imperative. Panerai watches are heavy and usually have large dials, with diameters ranging from 40-47mm, and going up to 60mm for special editions.

Bonati and his team seem to have figured out something that takes others in the luxury market a while to understand: In India, you have to be in both the major markets—Delhi and Mumbai—to make an impression.

Making an impact comes naturally to Bonati, who started working at Panerai 14 years ago as the CEO. “It was one-man show. Just me behind a solitary desk with a watch. I had to try something new and yet keep the DNA of the brand intact," he says.

Panerai watches trace their lineage to 1860 when Giovanni Panerai, a businessman, craftsman and innovator, opened the city’s first watchmaker’s shop in Florence, Italy. Until World War II, Panerai was the official supplier of precision instruments to the Italian navy, in particular designing products to meet the needs of the submarine diving corps. Some of the company’s state-of-the-art pieces, like the Radiomir and Luminor watches created for the navy, were regarded as military secrets until 1997, when Panerai was acquired by Compagnie Financière Richemont SA (with interests in some of the world’s most prestigious luxury goods brands, such as Cartier, Montblanc, Alfred Dunhill and Piaget). It was the year Bonati joined Panerai too, having already spent 16 years with Richemont.

“I had spent many years at Cartier in the marketing department," says Bonati. “It was a prestigious brand with one goal: to maximize sales. But things were different at Panerai; we knew that the brand had potential and that we had to make it go from a state of deep sleep to wakefulness. There were two ways to do it: become a mass producer or become exclusive."

Bonati, whose tryst with luxury started with working at a departmental store and later selling lighters for Cartier, says when he and his bosses at Richemont decided to work at becoming an exclusive luxury brand, some of his business acquaintances laughed. “They said ‘Ah! Mr Bonati, your idea is not stupid but difficult.’ We did have a peculiar product in the 1990s when all watches were moving towards smaller dimensions and less weight."

It was not easy convincing watch-boutique owners to sell the Panerai as an exclusive line, but the fact that Bonati had worked earlier in the luxury business helped. The 14-year-old village boy who once worked in a jewellery factory by day and studied economics at Milan university at night, had assessed the mindset of luxury shop owners correctly. Only 1,000 watches were available for sale in 1997 and just 30 boutiques had them. “Within a week, the stock was gone and they wanted more. I said, ‘Sorry, you will have to wait for six months for the next lot.’"

Panerai is indeed the Spartan of the watch business.

It took Bonati just a three-page business plan in 1997 and a healthy imagination to build a high-end luxury brand in the last decade and half where none really existed. “I had nothing to lose when I started out with Panerai except perhaps my face (professional reputation) if my ideas did not work out. I just knew we had to stick to the core values of the brand—exquisite and exclusive designs, highest quality of mechanics, a great distribution network, and keep the inspirational value and the history of the brand alive." And, of course, have the patience to wait for it all to come together.

Mostly, a watch is just a movement in a steel case that tells the time, says Bonati. “Your customer has to connect with the watch brand at an emotional level, especially if they are going to pay a lot of money for it. What sets a Panerai apart is its history, the way it looks and feels. That’s why we have never been tempted to compromise with the dimension and the weight of the watch, even when the watch world has been aiming to go smaller and lighter," he says, taking off his Panerai and insisting I try it on.

As I fumble with the clasp of this really heavy watch, Bonati makes another case for the large dial: “Why must you squint and take out your glasses every time you want to see the time, eh?"

Four weeks every year, Bonati goes “chasing the wind". A sailing enthusiast, he lets the wind chart the course for his yacht and take him anywhere on the Mediterranean. “I took up golf recently because I am the kind of person who cannot sit around doing nothing. But if you like to sail, you must wait for the wind."

Just as Bonati is passionate about his sailing, he is also particular when it comes to the people he recruits. “I watch people’s eyes and hear carefully what they have to say. Passion for Panerai is important but I am unlikely to hire someone just because they came in wearing a Panerai to an interview. It makes me think: You are an opportunist and trying to show off something." Incidentally, all the Italian assistants, and even the Indian one accompanying Bonati, were sporting Panerais.

One lesson Bonati has learnt from the recent downturn is to wait and postpone plans if necessary. “I come from a small village, you have to be humble and survive however you can" is advice he often gives to his staff and son. “I also tell my son, who is studying economics, to never do what his father did. I tell him to try and be an entrepreneur, not a manager. Being a manager is tough; besides he does not have my attitude and he may not be as lucky as I have been—getting to do a job you love for 14 years."