ince his arrival at the head of Parmigiani Fleurier on January 26, 2021, Guido Terreni has reasserted the brand as a maker of highly desirable watches that are the epitome of quiet luxury. This strategist took ten years to establish Bulgari as a legitimate watch brand but only two years to triple sales at the Fleurier manufacture.
Introduced in September 2021 and typical of this discreet approach to luxury, the revamped Tonda PF became a victim of its own success. As demand outstripped supply, production was increased from 1,500 units in 2021 to almost double that. In an interview, Guido Terreni discusses the thinking behind the rebirth of the brand.
- Guido Terreni, CEO Parmigiani Fleurier, with the brand’s founder, Michel Parmigiani
Europa Star: Michel Parmigiani is one of a rare breed of watchmakers. What was your first meeting like?
Guido Terreni: It was a special moment. My first contact [with the brand] was through a recruitment firm, before discussions with the Sandoz Family Foundation. I met Michel two days after taking up my new function. We passed each other in the corridor at the manufacture and he started talking to me in Italian. I knew he had Italian heritage but had no idea he was fluent in the language. It was very spontaneous and natural, like bumping into a family member. Michel was remarkably modest given that he is a living legend in timepiece restoration. I found out his father is from Milan, which is my home city.
Talk turned to watches. You can’t question Michel outright on a subject. He isn’t someone who will tell you the “ten most important things he’s learned in his career”. You have to engage in conversation, show interest, be curious. Only then will he start to open up and drop little nuggets of information. He’s interested in so many things. He has an artist’s sensibility but is also extremely cerebral. He’s able to rationalise certain aesthetic elements thanks to his passion for maths, geometry and architecture. He told me he’d thought about becoming an architect rather than a watchmaker, which struck a chord with me as I’d also considered architecture as a career. I chose a different path but I still understand the architect’s mentality: the fascination of transforming a blank sheet of paper.
- The world-first Tonda PF Minute Rattrapante, introduced at Watches and Wonders 2023
How would you describe the heart of Parmigiani?
It’s an educated brand with great depth that is anchored in two extremely important values, both of which come from Michel himself. The first is know-how. Michel is fully versed in the cultural heritage of mechanical art. When you restore an antique clock or watch, you must do so using the techniques of that period. This means you must master watchmaking as it is practised today but also as it was practised in the past. This applies to movements, cases, dials, everything. I often say Michel has a black belt in watchmaking! [laughs].
In restoration, you’re working on something that someone else made, which brings us to the second value: non-ostentation. Restoration puts the watchmaker in a paradoxical position. They must be extremely gifted in order to do their job yet at the same time make themselves invisible. The aim of restoration is to give new life to another person’s work. You must put your ego on hold. The brand is founded on these core values. We mustn’t forget that it was created with the help of the Sandoz Foundation. The Sandoz are a wealthy and discreet family. There was a meeting of minds between them and Michel Parmigiani. The brand they created is imbued with non-ostentation. It is a brand for connoisseurs, individuals with an appreciation of profound luxury.
You mention non-ostentation. Quiet luxury is a trending topic in the media.
Quiet luxury has always existed. It’s interesting that it’s taken this long for the media to become aware of it. George Brummel declared that “to be truly elegant, one should not be noticed.” The wealthy elite looks for other things than price. This is one of the reasons I came to Parmigiani Fleurier. Two years ago, long before this trend emerged, I sensed we were coming back to these timeless values.
What gave you the idea for the Tonda PF Minute Rattrapante, which is a world first?
The idea was to reinterpret the dive watch not as a tool watch or a sports watch, but in an understated and elegant fashion. I asked myself why must we use a rotating bezel to measure short elapsed times and, working from that question, we developed a movement that performs the same function as a rotating bezel but with three hands: an hour hand and two superimposed minute hands. The time to be measured will have elapsed when the classic minute hand has caught up with [“rattraper” in French] the concealed minute hand. We wanted this to be an on-demand function that remains discreetly out of sight when not in use. It allows you to master a certain moment by indicating the time you have at your disposal. This can be a conversation that mustn’t run over 30 minutes, or how long you have to get from the airport lounge to the gate, or cooking your pasta al dente.
The function must be intuitive and user-friendly, hence the two pushers, at 8 o’clock and at 10 o’clock. The pusher at 10 o’clock advances the concealed minute hand minute by minute, whereas the one at 8 o’clock advances the hand more rapidly, in five-minute increments. This “minute rattrapante” is a world-first. People think there is nothing left to invent in watchmaking but that’s not true. There are still countless ideas that can see the light of day. You have to have them and believe in them.
The Tonda PF Xiali Complete Chinese Calendar is an extraordinary achievement. What can you tell us about it?
The first thing to ask is “why”, the answer being that it’s always interesting to offer a different way of telling the time. We all have a certain amount of time here on Earth and different cultures have developed different means of calculating that time. Initially, this involved archaic, short units measured by water clocks and sundials. We then looked for ways to measure longer periods as a means of regulating time within a community. Michel Parmigiani often says, “the calendar is the x-ray of a civilisation.” Our ancestors used calendars to organise social, political and religious life.
No-one knows why some civilisations chose a solar calendar, others a lunar calendar and others a combination of the two, like the Chinese calendar. It’s impossible to make a perpetual Chinese calendar because it doesn’t follow cycles. It runs over a period of 60 years, which we have broken down into twelve-year cycles. This means that every 12 years, the watch will have to be serviced to replace a single element in the movement. Michel Parmigiani developed a passion for calendars after restoring so many of them. Creating this watch is a mark of respect: you place yourself at the service of another culture.
- The Tonda PF Xiali Calendar is the world’s first complete Chinese calendar
What made you choose Agenhor to work on this complete Chinese calendar?
Laurent Wiederrecht had already helped us with the construction of the Hijri Islamic calendar, using a Hegirian pocket watch and a Hegirian desk clock that Michel Parmigiani had restored as his starting point. With Laurent, we miniaturised the concept to produce a module that we added to the Parmigiani base movement. We later asked him to develop a Chinese calendar according to our wishes. The project started in 2020.
Did you ever imagine the Tonda PF would be so successful?
Never. It took us all by surprise, myself included. It proves the importance of prestige at a brand. My previous experience was very different. I accompanied a brand that had no legacy of watchmaking as it acquired that legitimacy, which is an extremely difficult process. It takes a decade. Parmigiani Fleurier was created as a brand that would respect the finest watchmaking tradition, be this in how the movements are made, the habillage or the finishing. I joined the brand on its twenty-fifth anniversary. It had slightly lost touch with its customers but there was no doubting its values. A month before I arrived, I asked myself, what values does a Parmigiani customer look for? The answer took the form of the Tonda PF.
We took the existing aesthetic codes and made them more pertinent. The PF was originally a maker’s mark and as such wasn’t visible. We positioned it at noon to say who we are. The Tonda PF is a subtle timepiece that doesn’t need a logo. Logos are for others. We made the barleycorn decoration much smaller, more modern. We tend to associate guillochage with a nineteenth-century aesthetic, which we didn’t want. Now it’s so small it’s almost a texture. It implies quality without detracting from the reading of the time. I could talk for hours about the finishes on this watch. This is a pure, essential collection. One that is simple in appearance and uncompromising.
There was phenomenal demand for the Tonda PF as soon as it was launched. What is the situation a year later?
It’s becoming an obsession. The brand has acquired a dimension that exceeds our production capacity. All the watches we are currently delivering are spoken for. We have caught the attention of a very demanding audience who enjoy watches and like the purity of what we are doing. In 2022 we tripled sales and doubled production. Keeping control of orders is the hardest part. You must grow at the same rate as sell-out, not feed retailers’ inventory, which doesn’t help anyone. Demand is currently ten times greater than when I arrived.
Production times have increased since the pandemic. How are you adapting to this?
When I joined the company in January 2021, it was as though the planets had aligned. We were in lockdown, production capacity had been freed up, and we were able to design, develop and produce a collection in-house, in a timeframe that was nothing short of miraculous! Creating seven references in seven months from scratch is unheard-of. During Geneva Watch Days 2021 there were still travel restrictions for certain countries and only twelve retailers were able to come and physically see the collection out of the one hundred or so we had at the time − I’d already halved the network. The others saw it on Zoom but even with high-res cameras, it was impossible to appreciate the details. In October we sent sets to the various markets so they could take orders and we started deliveries in November. By February 2022 we were experiencing exponential growth, then at Watches and Wonders 2022 demand skyrocketed.
Current output is the consequence of our decision a year ago to step up production. We had planned this growth although not in these proportions. We are doing our best to limit wait times and avoid feelings of frustration among our customers. When demand increases this quickly, you must be capable of meeting the demand and responding to the emotional desire of an educated clientele. We are fortunate to have an entire industrial structure behind us, with Vaucher Manufacture, Les Artisans Boîtiers and Quadrance, who also supply third parties, given that their production capacity exceeds our needs. Parmigiani Fleurier won’t become a brand producing a hundred thousand units but its potential is certainly greater than it was.
- King Charles III is often seen wearing his Parmigiani Fleurier Toric Chronograph
You became CEO in January 2021. How do you take over as the head of a company during a global pandemic?
It can actually be an advantage. I’d been in a similar situation before, when I took over Bulgari’s watchmaking division in 2009 at the height of the financial crisis. It’s a time for introspection. When I arrived at Parmigiani Fleurier, I needed to focus on and interpret the values of the brand and of the customer we wanted to serve. It didn’t take long for me to identify the problem: the product had lost the identity Michel Parmigiani had given it. When I saw what was being planned for the twenty-fifth anniversary, I called a halt and in very little time reimagined the brand as I saw it.
We worked on its values and its aesthetic signature. Nineteen days later, we’d designed the entire collection. If the idea is right, the rest follows quickly. The recruitment process takes time, so I’d had three months prior to my appointment to study the brand. My first day was actually my eightieth, so I already had clear ideas. I had to check my intuitions were correct and guide the team, which is the same as before. They are the guardians of the know-how and profound identity of the brand.
You’ve chosen to focus on the Tonda PF, the Tonda GMT and certain complications such as the calendars you introduced this year. Last year you mentioned the possibility of an updated Toric. How far are you on that?
We’re working on it. The Toric was the brand’s debut collection but I didn’t want to start there. The Tonda GT was introduced six months before I arrived and sparked interest in the brand. It was the precursor to the PF, which redefined Parmigiani Fleurier. You can’t do everything at once. The Tonda PF is only a year and a half old, which is nothing in watchmaking terms. Launching a second collection would be premature. We must give the customer time to understand the direction the brand is taking and respect those who have been waiting months for their watch.
Do you feel you have revived a sleeping beauty?
We set out to give clear positioning to a brand that had potential and had been successful in expressing that potential in the past, but had lost its way. When I became CEO, my intuition was that luxury was becoming more intimate, more personal. Parmigiani Fleurier has prestige, the capacity to master what it does and an elite clientele. The combination of the three is a unique opportunity.