As the person who famously oversaw Bulgari’s transformation from luxury jeweller to pioneering watchmaker, Guido Terreni is somewhat of a legend in the watchmaking industry. He is after all, the man who launched both the Serpenti and the Octo at Bulgari- and now, two years into his role as CEO of independent watchmaker Parmigiani Fleurier, and three world premieres later, he continues to push the boundaries of what modern-day watchmaking should be and more importantly, what it could be.
We’re meeting ahead of Watches and Wonders, what is now the largest gathering of the watch industry, to discuss, amongst many things, the new world premiere that Parmigiani Fleurier planned to release at the event: The Tonda PF Minute Rattrapante, which allows its wearers to use a timer (usually seen on a diver’s watch) on the movement itself.
“It is a function that doesn't exist at all in the watchmaking world,” explained Terreni, who, with 25 years of experience in the industry, still finds himself absorbed in understanding the tiniest of details around how a watch functions.
“We kept this beautiful two-hand look when you don't need the function. And then the function became something else,” he said. “You can use it for anything… so basically, you're setting the minute, and you master the time you're playing with your delay. It could be a speech with 20 minutes with a board to express your ideas. You could be cooking your pasta, where you want it al dente, and then you taste it in another minute. So, it becomes something very playful, very useful and very elegant in the philosophy of what it is.”
Creativity with purpose is what Terreni lives for. “It's a state of mind,” he said, about when confronted with the idea that something is not possible. And he often takes the opposite view. “My answer is: you cannot say it's not possible because you don't know the right answer to that yet. You can say, I will try. And then, after a year, I tried, but I didn't manage. But saying it's not possible the first time, this kind of mindset is part of what triggers me. Because when somebody says it's never been done, it starts to be interesting. And that's what we're trying to do.”
“We are basically refusing (to accept) that everything has already been done in watchmaking,” Terreni continued.” To come up with something that nobody has ever done, it's something very difficult. It's a moment of pride. And it's welcomed by the watchmaking community, especially collectors, because it's not just a variant, and it's not a commercial exercise, it's an intellectual exercise.”
Indeed, what Terreni has done in the past two years has been nothing short of remarkable. Brought in to help usher in a new chapter for the company’s long-term strategic brand realignment, the 54-year-old Milan native helped launch what is now the brand’s star collection: the TONDA PF born from the Micro-Rotor, the father of the line, followed by the TONDA PF GMT Rattrapante, the TONDA PF Skeleton and the TONDA PF Flying Tourbillon.
Earlier this year, Parmigiani Fleurier also introduced the TONDA PF Xiali Complete Chinese Calendar, to reflect the personal passion that its founder Michel Parmigiani has for creating different calendars on a watch. It had previously introduced the Tonda Hijri Perpetual Calendar in 2020, the first wristwatch based on the Islamic lunar calendar, which won the Innovation Prize at the Geneva Watchmaking Grand Prix that same year.
Each cultural expression of measuring time required the kind of mechanical know-how possessed by Michel Parmigiani, a master watchmaker and restorer, and a living watchmaking legend who established the brand 25 years ago after a long career in helping preserve the integrity of others. And the pairing of two industry veterans with such breadth of experience is what makes Parmigiani Fleurier such a compelling brand to observe is how it combines its history of restoration and knowledge, with the modern look and feel of its collections today. Terreni believes it's the powerful combination of both that has attributed to its success.
“Innovation is part of the brand because we are a brand that is rooted in in the mechanical art because Michel devoted his life to perpetrating it, so restoration is your source of knowledge, your source of inspiration to project yourself in the future,” said Terreni, who during his time at Bulgari helped the brand win 57 international watchmaking prizes and 7 world records in ultra-thin movements, including the prestigious Aiguille d’Or award at the GPHG. “It's a way of trying to be interesting, and to saying something deeper, because what we're thinking is deep, it's not just changing the colour or copying your past.”
While as a family-owned company, Parmigiani Fleurier doesn’t share its financial figures, what Terreni was able to say was that the company had tripled the business in two years. “And it's not enough, all our partners are without products in their countries,” he added. “As you say, in Switzerland, you can't go faster than the music.”
He also noted that the company is well-balanced across its markets, which include the Americas, Europe, China, Japan and South Pacific. “We will try to keep the balance in our growth,” he said. “Luckily, we have demand which is much higher than production today. So we can decide to grow evenly. We try to respect equally, the demand and to be as fair as possible. So we're growing quite consistently throughout the world.”
But as with many in the industry, there are challenges that the brand faces. One of the most significant being trying to anticipate demand for the coming year, in order to anticipate what raw materials, components or movements need to be ordered for production.
“It's an industry which is under stress,” notes Terreni. “And manpower is difficult to find and delays have increased. I mean, when we developed it the Tonda PF, a crown was six weeks, today is 26 weeks…And once you've decided that you go for something, and you have to produce it, you're facing investments you're facing how you manage your cash, you're facing some very pragmatic things…So there's a lot of work that is hidden to the eyes of the customer. But it's part of what we do.”
“For us, it's not really a question of capacity, because luckily we have a capacity that serves a lot of brands in the industry,” said Terreni. “It's more a question of anticipating the demand and betting on, which is the right demand to fulfil, because the last thing you want to do is to produce more than needed because that will generate a problem in the real value of the watch today. The secondhand market on a TONDA PF is still above the price list of today's new watch. So that is an indication that the demand is very scarce. But it's also something that we have to understand, because when the demand is so great, and everything you produce sells out immediately, you don't know what the dimension of the brand is.”
Terreni does remain optimistic about the long-term interest in mechanical watches. “The long term trend is growth,” he said, adding that many people continue to be interested in watchmaking, but how they buy and sell will change.
“People will trade the watches, they get something else,” he noted. It is so much easier to access the secondary market than there was before. And this generates a primary market demand. Because when you sell, you have the cash to invest in something else, and you want to have fun and, and buy yourself something else.”
What is integral to its success is its independence, which Terreni believes allows for the watchmaker to express itself in a different way to others. “That's why independence is so interesting in these times because smaller brands can experiment, they can express different ways of interpreting luxury in watchmaking, which is very peculiar, some are very odd to some really niche and specific, others are less,” said Terreni. “That's where the creativity is today, in my opinion, in this capacity to surprise, to excite, based on how you interpret the tradition of mechanical art, which is founded in almost an oral tradition with no books and in explaining what you do, it's really the brands who are carrying out this know-how.”
“To me, luxury should be a continuous evolution of excellence,” he added. “And this is a stylistic evolution but it's also a technical evolution in the respect of the watchmaking tradition, and this is what we strive for.”
It’s clearly working. Terreni has observed younger customers in their late 20s and early 30s showing interest in their watches. “What I'm seeing are people who are younger (interested in our brand), which is fantastic,” he said. “I think that there are a couple of studies that say that Gen-Z is much more interested in watchmaking than the millennials were at the same age. So this is very promising.”
“That means we're doing something contemporary that is relevant for somebody who has means,” he added. “For sure, I don't agree that younger customer has less purchasing power; it's not true. And you have to express your own values and, and try to attract those who have an affinity to the values of the brand.”
But that doesn’t mean that Parmigiani is going to suddenly launch an NFT, or have a space in the metaverse, said Terreni, adding that the opportunity that digital gives the company in helping educate those interested in Parmigiani Fleurier on what it is, what it does and how it does it.
“These are the potential things that we can do. Like having a virtual visit to the factory, where you can have a shopping experience which is virtual instead of e-commerce which can be like a catalogue,” he said. “But I also have to respect our craft; I have to respect our soul, which is a deep watchmaking Maison that does things interesting things in the physical world.”