Like every reader of LUSSO, I can tell the difference between a Pouilly Fuissé and a Pouilly Fumé without inhaling. I can distinguish between Gucci and Pucci with my eyes closed. I am, in other words, so profoundly sophisticated and so preternaturally cool that it sometimes gives me a headache.
But very occasionally I wake up and realise that there are a few very small gaps in my encyclopaedic knowledge of the finer things in life. And so it was one day when, walking down Bond Street, I realised that maybe and perhaps the Italians could do more than make spaghetti and Formula One racing cars. I had seen a sign which referred to an Italian watch company named Panerai and I began to wonder whether it was possible that a country which invented the pizza could also make a decent chronograph.
One telephone call to the London office of Panerai was all I needed. The lady at the other end was politeness personified. She would be happy to tell me about Panerai, but she would be even happier if she could show me the watches and better still if I could actually see them being put together. I was pondering this prospect when she dropped her bombshell. I suppose, she said in her bewitching Italian accent, that you know about our latest range. There was a pause while I tried to think of a reason why I did not. They are our Ferrari watches, she went on. I think you will like them. Another pause. I know you will.
Two days later another telephone conversation took place. It appeared that no less than Angelo Bonati, the CEO of Panerai, would like me to visit him in Milan where he could explain why I should be excited about Panerai in general and the new Ferrari watches in particular. It took me rather less than a nanosecond to accept the invitation.
Then came the tedious logistical details. How did I plan to get to Milan? Knowing my editors traditional generosity, I explained that it would probably be by means of Easyjet and, if I was lucky, a bus.
We at Panerai have been thinking, she announced. There is really only one way for you to look at our Ferrari watches. Forget planes, forget buses. You must come in a Ferrari.
All of which explains why, on a sunny day in late winter, a cool and impossibly sophisticated (but inwardly rather nervous) man was to be seen waiting for the Channel Tunnel at Folkestone beside his dark blue Ferrari 599.
I was nervous because I had been given one of the greatest automobiles the world has ever seen. Being a sophisticated but cynical member of the human race, I knew perfectly well that the car could not possibly be as good as the reviews have all claimed. With 615 horsepower under the bonnet it must inevitably be difficult to control, uncomfortable to sit in and tiring to spend a day in.
500 miles and eight hours later I arrived in the heart of the Beaujolais countryside feeling more excited and more relaxed that I had ever been before. The car is simply the finest automobile I have ever driven in my life. No ifs. No buts. It is totally and utterly magnificent. I had expected it to be eyeball-flattening fast, and indeed it was. One twitch of my right foot sent me squirting past a convoy of lorries in less time than it takes to draw breath. The gearbox, operated by paddles behind the steering wheel, was surely going to be one of those jerky affairs which loosens your fillings every time you change down a gear. On the contrary. This gearbox was a total delight to use. It was smoother than a conventional automatic and changed gear faster than a manual box could possibly achieve.
The seats were deliciously comfortable, the noise level restrained unless one deliberately changed down (preferably in a tunnel) to deafen all other road users within a kilometer radius. My only serious problem was keeping the speed down to below 85mph so as not to attract the attention of the vigilant gendarmes. In doing so I managed to travel nearly four hundred miles on a single tank of petrol, which worked out at a consumption of around 18 miles per gallon. Not bad for an intergalactic hyperspeed vehicle.
The next day promised to be a lot of fun because between the Beaujolais and Milan was the Mont Blanc Tunnel and some of the twistiest roads in Europe. Once again the Ferrari excelled like no other car I have ever driven. The road holding was uncanny, and although the suspension is firm, it manages to be comfortable at the same time. The 599 manages to achieve what I would previously have thought was impossible. It combines the raw power of a supercar with the comfort of a grand tourer. Unlike so many cars of this ferocity, Ferrari has managed to produce a machine which is actually easy to live with on an everyday basis. For example, the boot is big enough to contain two peoples luggage for a weekend.
But it was now time to forget cars and instead to concentrate on watches. And here I have to admit I was in for another surprise. Even three years ago if someone had mentioned the word Panerai to me I would have been unable to say what it was. Maybe a type of donkey, possibly a washing machine or conceivably the name of some Italian acrobat.
Only very recently have I been dimly aware that Officine Panerai is a company which manufactures some of the biggest, butchest and beefiest waterproof watches known to mankind. But all this was about to change when I was ushered into the presence of the Chief Executive Officer of the Panerai company, a man named Angelo Bonati.
With his clipped moustache and erect bearing, I would have guessed Signor Bonati had been a military man. I suddenly felt that I should have been wearing a tie, and that perhaps the creases in my trousers were not sharp enough. But it soon became apparent that, far from being a martinet, Angelo Bonati was simply an enthusiast. An enthusiast for watches, and specifically an enthusiast for his own brand of Panerai watches.
The reason for this enthusiasm was not hard to understand. It was Angelo Bonati who has effectively created the brand we know today as Panerai. I stress the word effectively because the Panerai company actually dates back to 1860. It made its name manufacturing instruments, including watches, for the Italian navy. Perhaps its finest hour was in December 1941 when Italian frogmen, largely equipped by Panerai, sank the British battleships Valiant and Queen Elizabeth in the harbour of Alexandria.
After the war the fortunes of the company declined somewhat and in 1997 Panerai was bought by the Richemont Group. Angelo Bonati was given the job of turning a somewhat sleepy Italian company into one of the most technologically advanced watchmakers in the world.
Signor Bonati began by explaining something of the recent history. You must understand, he said, that by 1975 the traditional watchmaking industry was almost dead. The Japanese, with their quartz watches, had revolutionised the business. He paused and stroked his moustache. Today I am not making machines which tell you the time. You dont need to know the time any more. You can see it on your computer, on your mobile phone, on your television set. You can see the time almost anywhere. And the fact remains that a cheap quartz watch will tell the time at least as accurately as an expensive mechanical watch. And here he paused. And maybe even more accurately.
So what on earth, I wondered, was he doing making expensive watches today? That’s easy, said Signor Bonati. I am making dreams. Dreams for men. Or, to be precise, I am making instruments which men will dream about.
I had heard of watches being referred to as toys for boys but I had never thought of them as being dreams. Signor Bonati agreed. You are right. Our watches are toys for men. Maybe not for boys. But a good watch is a toy for a man just as a yacht is a toy for a man. This was clearly a subject which he found exciting because he broke off from this train of thought to tell me something which was at the front of his mind. As it happens, he continued, I love sailing myself. Which is why I have just bought an old yacht from your country which is today being restored to its former glory.
It was perfectly obvious that while Angelo Bonati sat in his office surrounded by traffic fumes in downtown Milan, his heart lay in the harbour of Viareggio one hundred miles to the west where his ancient 72 foot ketch was being brought back to life.
But enough of these nautical daydreams, it was time to get back to watches. I was amazed that this man had been able to persuade western consumers to buy Italian rather than Swiss watches. Surely this had been a difficult task? Signor Bonati disagreed. The Panerai watch, with its naval traditions, and characteristic large size was already a unique product. All that was needed was investment in modern technology and maybe some marketing flair.
And it was at this point that the name Ferrari first appeared over the horizon. Signor Bonati was too modest to claim any credit for the link-up between Panerai and Ferrari but it was clear that he had been the driving force. The marriage appears to have been made in heaven. Both Panerai and Ferrari are, in their own spheres, world leaders. But more importantly both companies have two magic ingredients which lesser breeds lack: name recognition and an indefinable quality which is simply called excitement.
The result has been a new range of watches which are called Ferrari, and not Panerai. All of them have the Ferrari prancing horse at the 12 oclock position on the dial, and some models have red or yellow dials to match the instrumentation of todays Ferraris.
Amongst the Ferrari Collection the two watches which made me salivate were the Granturismo GMT Alarm and the Scuderia Chronograph. The former, which is a man-sized 45 millimeters across, has two extremely practical complications which I would use many times each week particularly if I were traveling abroad. The first of these is the alarm function which you set at the time desired and are then reminded by a buzzer which also vibrates on your wrist. The GMT complication enables you to travel to any timezone in the world where you set your watch to the local time while a small aperture in the watchs face indicates the time back home in Blighty.
As with the entire Ferrari range, the watch cases are smoothly rectangular whilst the actual dials are circular.
My other favourite is the Scuderia Chronograph. This is a somewhat smaller (40mms) and simpler piece of equipment which simply tells the time and acts as a conventional stopwatch. It is both stylish and discreet unless you opt for the yellow face to match the rev counter on your Ferrari as I did.
I had spent the best part of an afternoon at the Panerai headquarters in Milan before I realised that it was time for me to leave the city and head north across the alps towards the small town of Neuchatel where the Panerai watches are actually manufactured. The Milan rush hour was at least as bad as its London counterpart but the Ferrari 599 didn’t bat an eyelid as we crawled through the endless jams. It is a tribute to the quite brilliant gearbox that even in heavy traffic I preferred to use the manual paddles rather than the automatic system.
An hour after leaving Panerai I reached my destination, the Principe Leopoldo and Residence, an exceptionally comfortable hotel high above Lugano looking down onto the lake. Here, fortified by a delicate risotto and some very mild grappa, I slept the sleep of the innocent.
The next morning it was time to start some serious climbing again. Alas, the snow had closed St Gotthard Pass so once again I found myself in an endless series of tunnels. This time, however, I showed remarkable restraint and resisted the temptation to let the world hear what a 12 cylinder Ferrari engine sounds like in an enclosed space.
By lunchtime, after obeying all of Switzerlands strict speed limits, I had reached the town of Neuchatel on the shores of the lake to which it has given its name. My hotel, the Palafitte, was a series of modern but luxurious rooms built out over the lake. Here I was welcomed by the head of the Panerai factory, Jean-Robert Martinet, who took me into the centre of town to where his small team actually manufacture the watches I had seen in Milan. A mere eighty people work in the Neuchatel facility, but they are assisted by the latest technology available to the watch industry.
Clad in a white coat, with special overshoes to reduce the dust I brought in from the big world outside, I was taken round four floors of the building as I watched the craftsmen (70% of whom were craftswomen) assemble the tiny parts into the watch movements with a quiet and steady concentration more akin to heart surgeons than an assembly line.
Neuchatel is a mere hour and a half from Geneva where I had promised to leave the car. Everybody who inspected my Ferrari offered the same piece of advice: be careful about the radar cameras which line the road between Lausanne and Geneva. I promised to do just that and said my farewells to the friendly Panerai staff, one of whom insisted that I take a Scuderia Chronograph with a yellow face. It would, they reminded me, match the yellow rev counter on the car. But before I became unduly excited, they asked me to return it to the Panerai office on my return to London.
The Richemond Hotel in Geneva welcomed my Ferrari enthusiastically. One of the advantages of driving a glamorous car is that hotels are only too happy to allow you to park right outside the front entrance and to keep an eye on the car as well. Inside the hotel everything was spotless since the Richemond has just emerged from a two year renovation.
But my brief stay in Geneva was inevitably tinged with sadness because it was here, after 1,500 miles, that my little outing had to finish. I had driven on motorways, country lanes, mountain roads and in city traffic. Everywhere the Ferrari 599 had behaved impeccably. It was both easy to drive and terribly exciting. After a week I could find only two faults. The sat nav was useless and the sun visor was too short. But these were trivial nit-pickings. In every respect it was without any qualification whatsoever – the finest car I have ever driven.
As far as the Ferrari watch was concerned, it did not miss a beat. I liked its weight (what we watch freaks always refer to as heft) and its clarity. To be honest not always a good idea when you are reviewing watches – I would not have chosen a watch with a bright yellow dial. But maybe if I could afford a Ferrari 559 I might change my mind.