For purists, the link between an old-school luxury Swiss mechanical watch brand and the fast-moving world of consumer electronics might not compute. But, according to Panerai, it’s the new game in town.
Last month, the Richemont-owned watch company, which was founded in Florence in 1860 but makes watches in the Swiss town of Neuchâtel, announced its first watch made in collaboration with Razer — a Singaporean company that sells gaming products to more than 200mn customers in 70 countries.
The Panerai Luminor Quaranta Razer Special Edition is a co-branded 500-piece limited-edition cast in a recycled material, eSteel. And it was launched at Razer’s online convention, RazerCon, on October 15 in front of an estimated livestream audience of 1.5mn people.
The two companies also pledged to make a $50,000 donation to the non-profit environmental organisation Conservation International, to support marine species research.
Panerai’s chief executive, Jean-Marc Pontroué, admits that, on paper, the two companies have “nothing in common”, and says the partnership is “about protecting the environment” — adding, “it’s not more sophisticated than this”.
However, it seems likely that it is. Pontroué also acknowledges that gaming is a gateway to a young, highly engaged consumer that, since the advent of smartphones and smartwatches, has abandoned traditional mechanical watches in favour of connected devices. “Is it our willingness to be exposed to this younger generation, whose prime focus is not to wear watches, and even less to wear expensive watches?” he asks. “Probably.”
Industry data suggest traditional watch brands need ways to connect with a new generation. The Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry calculates that, between 2015 and 2021, the volume of watches targeted at younger clients with an export value below SFr500 (£445) fell from 23.1mn units a year to just 10.9mn.
Meanwhile, according to the German market research company Statista, there are 3.24bn gamers in the world, with an average age of 35. Min-Liang Tan, 44, Razer’s billionaire founder and chair, agrees the link between Panerai and his company — which sells keyboards, gaming chairs and mice, with a much shorter lifespan than mechanical watches — is tenuous.
“It seemed an odd partnership at the start,” says the Singaporean. “But it’s built up a lot of excitement. People say: ‘Isn’t this two completely different worlds?’ But we’ve realised there are customers of Panerai who are customers of Razer, and vice versa.”
Both bosses cite their companies’ sustainability efforts as further common ground. Tan says 45 per cent of the gaming community is female, that his users “tend to be affluent”, and that Razer therefore opens Panerai up to a valuable demographic, perhaps for the first time.
“The gamer has continued to evolve,” he says. “They are now young parents, digital natives who get information from the internet. Many are entrepreneurs, investors, fund managers — but passionate about digital, gaming and brands passionate about sustainability.”
Panerai and Razer insist no money is passing between them and that the donation to Conservation International is not dependent on sales of the watch or any Razer products. Pontroué says the three-way partnership is the next step in what he calls the “Panerai Ocean Conservation Initiative”.
Some in the industry have questioned the collaboration. “There’s no connection, nothing, nada,” says Kristian Haagen, co-founder of the Daily Watch online community. “But commercially, it totally makes sense. Panerai have to sell watches. And why not gaming? That’s where the eyes are, that’s where the attention is.”
Panerai, which began making watches for the Royal Italian Navy in the 1930s and only made them commercially available in the 1990s, has a loyal fan community, self-styled as the Paneristi. Some have expressed bewilderment. “Everyone is now collaborating with everyone else,” wrote commenter Stevie Ray on the influential forum uhrforum.de. “Some are comprehensible, others like this one I don’t understand.”
Others are more circumspect. “People have to get things in perspective,” argues Paddy Conway, owner of Paneristi.com. “Panerai cannot exist by just selling a base Luminor. What we are seeing is the supportive alliance between two corporate giants who are committed to making a difference for the future of our planet.”
Panerai is not the first Swiss luxury watch brand to enter the gaming world. Tag Heuer sponsors the Porsche Tag Heuer Esports Supercup, and last month released a tourbillon watch costing £21,250 that was decorated with figures from Nintendo’s Mario Kart franchise. Hamilton and Frederique Constant partnered with the titles Far Cry 6 and Tennis Manager 2021, respectively.
For Panerai, Pontroué says he is just testing the market. “We may not repeat it,” he says of the Razer edition watch, which costs £7,300. “We don’t want to enter the gaming business, but do we want to be involved with gaming companies for the next 20 years? I’m not sure. But protecting the environment is one of our biggest priorities.”
Panerai may yet prove a pioneer in bringing high-end luxury watchmaking and gaming together. “It’s Italian bravery, interfering with the Swiss conservatism,” says Haagen. “I hate to say it, but I think it’s the right path to follow.”