As a fan of the Officine Panerai brand, it has always been a desire of mine to visit the Panerai Manufacture nestled in the historical city of Neuchâtel, Switzerland. Being a lover of all things mechanical it’s only fitting that I would want to see how these amazing Swiss timepieces are put together using precise machinery and years of hand made expertise. When I was given the opportunity to visit the state of the art facilities during my time in Switzerland for SIHH, it was very difficult to hide my enthusiasm.
Not only was I given the opportunity to visit, I would be one of the first, if not the only media outlets allowed to take actual pictures of the behind the scenes processes at the Manufacture to share with all of you.
Between the time I was in Geneva to cover Panerai’s latest releases, I would be taking a day trip to Neuchâtel. There I would get to see first hand how these instantly recognizable technical works of art are crafted from start to finish. I have to say this blog entry might be a bit longer and more media intensive than you are used to but it is the only way for me to truly convey every aspect of the trip as best I can.
The day started with an early morning meet up at a train station in Geneva where I would meet one my gracious hosts from Officine Panerai North America. From there we boarded and took a very calming, short, and scenic drive through the small towns in Switzerland as we made our way into Neuchâtel. After a very short taxi ride from the station, we pulled up to the building that I have become very familiar with through pictures on the internet. Now I was standing face to face with the building that brings the joy of Panerai to watch enthusiasts all across the world. Of course it was only fitting that I take a quick selfie with the snow pouring down, which of course is rarity for someone coming from Southern California.
The Panerai Manufacture which was erected in 2014 is home to nearly 260 employees. After enjoying a few minutes looking at the building I have seen in photos we decided to work our way to the front door. Before entering the facilities you are are greeting by the iconic “OP” logo created in the steps leading to the front door or the Manufacture. From there you will come up to a set of sliding doors which open you up to a Panerai enthusiasts dream.
When you are granted access you walk into a large area that resembles some of the boutiques you would see around the world with the back wall housing the iconic dial and working clock. On the left side you will notice a reception area, a seating section in the middle, and both sides of the wall lined with different models of watches as well as iconic photos in Officine Panerai history.
At this point I want to jump a bit ahead in the tour that we were given to share some very interesting facts regarding the actual Manufacture’s facilities. Officine Panerai built their factory with the environment in mind and going as green as possible. The 10,000 Meter (100,000+ Square Foot) factory relies on solar power, features a geothermal pump, and any has a system to gather the rainwater to feed the plants in their gardens. Any excess water or energy that is needed to run the facility is bought only from green energy companies. I had to mention this because I found it very responsible of the brand to make sure they reduce their carbon footprint given the sheer size of the factory itself.
Before the information in regards to the facility itself, I was taken to a waiting room where I would be introduced to my hosts and guides on the tour for the day. I was lucky to have the head of repairs and customer relations be my guide for the day. Even though I am very well versed in the history of the brand, they went through a nice presentation to set the backdrop for the rest of the days festivities.
The Officine Panerai process of creating a watch consists of 7 core steps. Idea, Design, Modeling, Prototyping, Testing, Final Product Design, and Final production.
Fitting this process, we started the journey in their Laboratorio Di Idee which translates to “Laboratory of Ideas”. You will notice a reference to this name in the new PAM700 LAB-ID that was released at this years SIHH. We walked through the upper areas of the building which housed a lot of the creation, design, and prototyping of each Panerai watch. It is here that the birth of any new Panerai is started and comes to fruition at the end of the line.
One thing that caught my eye and I felt I had to share with you guys was how the staff keeps up with timelines and what each member of the team is working on. It probably caught my eye because I am a huge fan of legos but I couldn’t resist. Each team member had a little character ranging from a common lego man, Batman, and even Darth Vader. Each job that was being worked on and completed had different color legos to let them know where they are in each step of the process.
As we walked through the different rooms they had display cases with the different parts of the production process for us to see how some of the pieces look before going to the next step as well as 3D printed parts, movements and dials that we have all come very accustom to seeing.
In the next room that we visited we witnessed some of the employees working on movement designs and the large plastic prototypes to test out different mechanisms before they go into final production. You see how they work and test them in the short video I posted as well.
We made our way into a series of rooms, each designed specifically for the testing and quality control of all of the watches that are created by the Manufacture. For now we were shown the room where they do the magnetic testing as well as what we all dread, a 1 meter drop of the watch. Check out the video of the drop below!
After the tour of part of the upper levels of the factory we made our way down to the first level which houses all of the machining for the brand. We started the machining tour with seeing some of the tools that are used to machine the main plates, bridges, and more. Interestingly enough they mentioned that the main plate starts machining and does it from start to finish without ever having to remove it and go to another machine which is not a norm in watch making.
I wanted to mention that before moving on to any specific area, they had these great display cases showing you all the different stages and tools that are used in those specific areas. It really gives you a sense of the timeline of the creation process in case you miss a certain part of it while looking at the actual machines. It was really a treat to hold a sample of the PAM578 case which is printed out of titanium powder and hollow as you can see which makes it so light.
The next room we visited was where the bridges were made as well as the printing of the Officine Panerai text was done on a lot of these pieces. On the other end of the room the jewels were being placed into the movement.
From here we all took a trip back up stairs to see where the machinery and human aspects of the process come together. Even though there is a lot of automation involved in the creation process, it is the human touch that creates the movements, inspects, and adjusts the pieces before they are ready to be shipped to the end user.
The first thing that we were shown before moving into the room where the movements are assembled is one of the ways that Officine Panerai has married technology and human interaction to make the process more efficient. Each main plate that will eventually be turned into an in-house movement is placed in a specialized 3D printed housing that is then placed into a special holder which has a RFID built into it.
This is where things get fun. Each of the watch makers desk has a built in rail system underneath it which moves each housing to the proper watchmaker for each step of the process. It moves all the way to the middle of the work bench and a small window opens up rising the movement and all the parts needed for that particular station to be completed. All of the information and needs of that particular movement is passed through the RFID chip and pulls up the proper schematics and instructions if needed on the tablet in front of the watch maker. When the station is completed, it returns to inside the bench and moves along to the next step in the process until it is fully completed.
This method is not proprietary to Officine Panerai, but they are one of only a few brands that have implemented this system to streamline the creation process and tweaked it to their needs.
After the movements have been assembled they are then taken of the conveyer belt to a robot that will place the robots into a storage area and then one by one test the movements a number of ways. The are placed in a special machine that will wind them up and then placed into another machine to have them spin and make sure the rotors and everything works properly on the movements.
Walking down the assembly line the next stop was where the completed movements are married with cases, given hands, and fitted with the iconic crowd guard before moving on to testing. The watchmakers were actually working on the America’s Cup pieces which were released earlier in week at SIHH 2017. It was a real treat to see the final product first and then experience the creation of those very pieces later on.
From this point we moved into the room which houses the next step of the process which they like to call the torture chamber. This is where the DNA of the brand is ensured by testing the water resistance as well as a slew of other tests with other elements. Ultimately making sure that the brand with such a rich diving history can provide a product that will provide the resistance needed.
When I walked in, there were rows and rows of Panerai watches laid out on trays as if they were candy ready to be picked and enjoyed. Round trays of watches ready to be placed into the water chamber to test their resistance to water for starters.
Each watch is subjected to these tests before they can go on to being a final product.
- Helium Air Pressure Testing
- Checking to see if small particles can penetrate the case
- Salt Spray that is set to 25% higher than the normal resistance to ensure it can resist it’s rating.
- Temperate and Climate changes
- 5 year acceleration of the life of the watch to see how it can cope with the elements.
Granted they can not simulate the full life of the watch that will be on the wrist but at least they might be able to catch even the smallest imperfection before it becomes a bigger problem down the road for the client.
The next stop in our journey at the Panerai Manufacture was their Haute Horology division. This division is in charge of some of the most complicated pieces in the Officine Panerai lineup. Pieces that include the Panerai PAM600 Minute Repeater, and other tourbillon pieces past and present. Comprised of only a few master watch makers, the Haute Horology department not only creates these masterpieces, it also tests them and does the quality control. The actual sound booth used to tune and adjust the minute repeater can be seen in the photo below.
Some of the watch makers in this division also work with the vintage and restoration division. That department handles all of the amazing vintage pieces from the 30’s and up making sure they are services and restored delicately to the owners specifications. They work hand in hand with the owner on every aspect of the rebuild process becuase of how rare these pieces are.
The final stop in the tour was to a private room where we were wined and dines with some of the best food I had on the trip created by the private Panerai Restaurant that is housed in the facilities. I was able to enjoy the great company of the Panerai staff as well of some other VIP guests for a bit longer before I had to head back to Geneva for the rest of the show.
On my way out of the building I was given a nice gift bag that had a letter from Mr. Bonati (not hand written or signed), a Panerai scarf, and a copy of the picture we took in front of the lobby with the rest of the group in the tour which was a nice addition.
I have been on a few tours with other watch brands in the past and I have to say I truly enjoyed the whole experience that Officine Panerai set forth on my visit. I would really have to split hairs to find something wrong with my time there if I were to compare it with other manufacture visits I have done with other brands. (Yes it’s hard to imaging that I love other watch brands, But I DO)
Currently the tour is invitation only to VIP clients, dealers, and some media. I am hoping that eventually they will have a version for the every day watch fan that would love to learn more about the brand and see first hand how these beautiful timepieces are created using modern day technology coupled with historic hand made processes. A huge thank you to Officine Panerai and everyone who made this trip unforgettable.