Unfulfilled Promise to Proven Performance: Talking with Parmigiani Fleurier CEO Guido Terreni
Under CEO Guido Terreni, Parmigiani Fleurier is on a roll. After many years of enthusiasts pondering the question, “With all that they have going for them, why hasn’t PF achieved breakthrough success?” the brand has now launched a string of winners and seems to have built a solid foundation for continued prosperity.
How did they do it? “Better product” is the obvious and simplistic answer, but clearly there was a great deal that had to happen behind the scenes to push Parmigiani over the top.
Over the past weeks, I’ve had the great opportunity to probe Parmigiani Fleurier’s recent successes more deeply during two conversations with Mr. Terreni: the first an open-ended discussion during his recent visit to the West Coast, and the second a more structured interaction while serving as a panel participant for Terreni’s keynote session at Watches and Wonders 2023.
I told them so
Before getting into those conversations in more detail, let’s take a step back to this time in 2017, when I provided a completely unsolicited diagnosis in Collector’s View: Parmigiani Ovale Pantographe On The Wrist And What It Tells Us About Parmigiani about the brand’s issues, and suggested actions to address them.
The problems as I saw them:
- Too many notes: a scattered product line with no clear center of gravity
- Product-based thinking: technically based creation unlinked to a clear view of the intended customer’s desires
- One of the crowd: a failure to convert PF’s many assets into a distinctive point of differentiation from competitors’ offerings
And my (admittedly somewhat high-level) prescriptions:
- Play to win: pick the one or two (not five or ten) ways in which you are going to be different, and better, than competitors to your intended customers, and go all in on those
- Become storytellers: first, tell the stories of your customers’ identities and aspirations and make it clear how you fit; second, stress how PF draws on its traditions in restoration and the historical timepieces in its treasure trove
- Focus and win: slash the product line back to one or two core lines that serve as North Stars for your identity
- Design, design, design: refresh Parmigiani’s look and feel and present a coherent set of visual cues across the line
Seeing and doing are two different things
I learned a long time ago that I don’t possess unique powers of discernment; I’m quite sure that many observers, both outside and within Parmigiani, saw at least some of these issues and considered potential solutions. How did Terreni quickly reach his own diagnosis and take decisive action?
Immediately upon taking charge on January 26, 2021, Terreni stopped all development on planned future introductions and started asking his new colleagues some simple sounding, but demanding, questions:
- Who is our client?
- What are our values as a brand?
- What are our design codes?
Of these, Terreni felt that the question of “whom do we want to serve” was the most pressing to answer first, and after considering the views of his colleagues arrived at a view of what he calls the “non-ostentatious, non-homologated” client: someone who is sophisticated and private, yet has confidence in their own tastes and doesn’t feel compelled by conventional wisdom.
With that foundation, Terreni then considered Parmigiani Fleurier’s values and assets and quickly (and correctly, in my view) chose to anchor on the values he saw in the firm’s history in restoration:
- A deep historical understanding of, and appreciation for, traditional watchmaking techniques and complications
- Mastery of multiple methods and styles and the ability to choose among them
- A holistic view of the watch and everything in it, from mainplates to hands to custom screws
- Selflessness and understatement: a realization that the watchmakers of the past devoted themselves to creating beautiful movements or components that would likely not bear their names and that few, if any, people would ever see
He then turned his attention to the firm’s design codes, asking his team to create a list of the visual themes that make a watch a Parmigiani. When they returned with a presentation on the technical features of PF’s movements, he charged his designers with defining a simple, elegant unifying look based on the Tonda line.
Some Terreni viewpoints from our first conversation:
- “I start with design”
- “Designers work better under pressure and with tight constraints. If you allow someone to design anything, they will, and we don’t have time or resources for that”
- “A brand is different from an independent watchmaker. The independent seeks to express himself; a brand must establish and sustain continuity in design”
- “Be willing to discard a design direction that doesn’t immediately engage you. It is better to be born nice than to have to work at improving a weak start”
- “Clarity is the most important thing”
Once you understand the client definition, values and assets, and updated design guidelines, it becomes fairly simple to understand the watches that have come out of Parmigiani’s accelerated development program that began after Terreni’s initial 90-day assessment.
The Tonda PF Microrotor, GMT Rattrapante, and newly launched Minute Rattrapante are all obviously members of the same family. The themes of restraint and subtlety are evident in the openness of the dials, the micro-guilloche that appears almost flat in some light conditions but pops to life in others, the simple oval PF medallion on the dial, the short, thin baton indices, and on the complicated watches, supplemental hands that appear and disappear at the push of a button to impart the desired information and cleverly integrated, shaped pushers.
On their supple bracelets, these watches embody what Terreni calls “impeccable informality.” And when it comes to understated sophistication, using platinum bezels on the Tonda PF line’s steel cases is one of those little luxuries that only the wearer is likely to know about and appreciate.
Not all my watch pals are completely convinced by the open look of the Tonda PF dials, and even I prefer the GMT and Minute Rattrapantes with their third hands deployed into view to add visual interest; but Parmigiani’s target customers will, I think, find the updated classicism of these watches both attractive and enduring in their appeal.
As you might expect, our initial discussion ranged beyond products and design. Terreni plans to streamline distribution, moving from 200 to 75 outlets worldwide while retaining an emphasis on multi-brand retail concepts such as shop-in-shop rather than going the freestanding mono-brand boutique route. For a brand whose intended customer is an independent thinker of varied interests, the multi-brand model makes great sense to me; and clearly Terreni believes that Parmigiani’s products will more than stand the challenge of being compared with other makers’ watches.
Terreni is also focusing on sustainability, but not as a fad; he told me that Parmigiani will, for instance, move to synthetic strap materials when and if they hold the same allure and impart the same or better wearing experience than traditional natural materials.
Parmigiani and Terreni at Watches and Wonders 2023
I’ve already mentioned the Tonda PF Minute Rattrapante, one of my top two watches at this year’s Watches and Wonders. In addition to the characteristics it shares with the other Tonda PF watches developed under Torrani, it, along with the GMT Rattrapante, has the added merit of presenting a well-known small complication in a fresh and elegant way.
With the GMT, it was the ability to display local and home time separately with the push of one button, and then snap the two hour hands back together with the push of another. The Minute Rattrapante is an even fresher take on countdown watches such as pilot’s and diver’s watches, made simple.
If, for instance, you are cooking and want to set a timer for 22 minutes, four pushes on a button indexed to five-minute intervals and two pushes on a one-minute advance button will magically make a “target time” hand appear and advance to exactly 22 minutes from now. Over the next while, you can glance at your wrist from time to time and see the slice of time remaining narrow, and when the running minute hand “catches up” (as a friend noted, the true translation of “rattrapante”) with the target hand, your food should be ready.
If you let the pot boil a bit longer, you’ll be able to see by the widening slice of dial between the two hands how much extra time has elapsed; and when you’re done, a quick push on the crown makes the target time hand vanish back under the running minutes.
How lovely! And completely consistent with Terreni’s desire to present classic complications in new ways; or as he says, “modernize the history of watchmaking without simply repeating the past.”
The Parmigiani Fleurier Keynote at WWG 2023
It was my privilege to join Mr. Terreni at Watches and Wonders this year as a member of Parmigiani Fleurier’s keynote panel, moderated with aplomb by Wei Koh.
The topic of the keynote, and the focal point of PF’s presence at Watches and Wonders this year, was quite remarkable: a strictly limited group of three sets of three calendar watches, displaying Gregorian, Islamic, and Chinese calendars.
If it seems a daring thing to focus an entire trade fair’s attention on a total of nine watches, it is! Viewed through the lens of Parmigiani’s customer vision and values and assets, however, it all begins to make sense.
Each individual watch draws inspiration from Michel Parmigiani’s experiences restoring classic calendar watches; and in particular with the Chinese calendar watch, the movement construction provides a more complete depiction of the Chinese seasons than any prior attempt. They are also watches made for a discerning wearer; certainly not everyone will find watches depicting the dates and seasons in cultures beyond their own to be compelling, even if they are technically amazing.
Parmigiani and Terreni, however, are making a larger point. Timekeeping is a human invention, and over history, different cultures have chosen to organize their conceptions of the years and seasons differently. Each of the three watches provides a window into a unique culture; and Parmigiani have worked to ensure that each watch shows respect for its respective culture, for instance rendering the moon on the Islamic watch in white metal rather than in colored gold.
As a set, I think these three watches have something even greater to convey: that understanding others’ worldviews can lead to greater empathy, connection, and the reduction of the schisms that divide us.
That’s obviously way too big a task for nine watches to achieve, but I have to admire Parmigiani’s intent and the way they have translated it into mechanical art. I was also very impressed with the spirit of hope and optimism that Mr. Terreni evidenced throughout the discussion, and his ability to weave together disparate threads into cogent arguments.
I imagine that the buyer of each of these sets of three watches will match the proto-customer persona envisioned by Terreni: discreet, understated, self-confident, and self-aware.
It’s one thing to see problems where they exist, and to outline some possible remedies; it’s another altogether to have the ability and backbone to identify specific actions rapidly, make tough decisions, unify a team around a clear vision and strategy, and get to market quickly with winning products in an industry famous for its long lead times.
Mr. Terreni has my respect for accomplishing all the above in a remarkably short period of time; it has been my privilege to get to know him, and I look forward to his – and Parmigiani Fleurier’s – continued success.
For more information, please visit https://parmigiani.com/en/tonda-pf-minute-rattrapante/
Quick Facts: Parmigiani Tonda PF Minute Rattrapante
Case: 40mm x 10.7mm satin finished stainless steel case with platinum knurled bezel; ARunic anti-reflective front sapphire crystal and rear sapphire crystal; water resistance 60m; polished and satin-finished stainless steel bracelet
Dial and hands: Hand-guilloché sand grey dial with applied rhodium plated gold indices and logo; gold skeletonized delta-shaped hands
Movement: Automatic winding PF052 micro-rotor; 48-hour power reserve; 21,600 vph (3 Hz)
Functions: Hours, minutes, and proprietary minute rattrapante
Price: USD $30,600
Production Years: 2023 onward