NEUCHÂTEL, Switzerland — “The Little Genius.” That’s the nickname that Angelo Bonati, chief executive at Officine Panerai, has given his research and development director. And with good reason.
Since Frédéric Dreyer joined the company in 2012, he has developed 10 in-house movements, nearly tripling the company’s number of patents. At 36, he holds a doctorate in sciences from the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in France, and four masters degrees — in mechanical engineering, material sciences, the environment and business.
Mr. Dreyer, quiet and reserved during an interview, is a dynamo at innovation. “My leitmotif in everyday life is faster, better, harder, stronger,” he said. “I believe innovation isn’t just change. It’s change in a positive direction and attitude.”
Mr. Dreyer doesn’t look like the average tech nerd. His signature accessory is a massive belt from DSquared, with a buckle medallion as large as a prize fighter’s, which he typically wears with jeans and a denim shirt embellished with a pin in a mouse-ears silhouette, the logo of a clothing company he discovered in Bangkok. On this particular day, for some professional polish, he is also wearing a navy sports jacket.
“I love to create my own style and not be too conventional,” he said. “What I appreciate about Panerai as a company is that you can stay as you are, from clothes to spirit. You don’t have to be in a standard box.”
But he does talk like a tech nerd, sprinkling references throughout the description of his work that make a listener nod, then realize later she has no idea what he meant.
Born in Annecy, France, Mr. Dreyer did not always shine at academics. “I was bad at school, a poor student,” he said. “I hated math.” But then he discovered physics. “If you’re interested in knowing why a chair needs four legs, study physics,” he recalled telling some students during his days as a doctoral candidate. “And for physics, you need math.”
That breakthrough ultimately led to all the schools, all the degrees, to working in the aeronautical industry in France and to jobs at Swatch Group and Rolex before arriving at Panerai, where Mr. Dreyer is both the company’s innovator and the manager of its research department of 50 people, many of them engineers like himself.
The department, which fills one wing of the company’s factory, has offices and work stations filled with sleek white furniture. The progress of its projects is charted with Lego figures (workers select superheroes or comic characters, from the Incredible Hulk to Homer Simpson, to represent their work.)
The 107,600-square-foot factory, which opened three years ago, stands on a hill on the outskirts of Neuchâtel. Its walls are glass, so workers can take in views of the city, Lake Neuchâtel and the Jura Mountains beyond. The building was designed to be eco-conscious: rainwater is used to flush the toilets and to water plants; photocells heat the tap water. Lunch time finds employees sitting outside, where they will soon be able to pick fruit from the apple, cherry and plum trees on the grounds.
But even as the company, and its new factory, embrace the future, Panerai executives, including Mr. Dreyer, know they have to protect its heritage, too.
Officine Panerai was founded in 1860 in Florence, Italy, by Giovanni Panerai, an engineer. The Italian Royal Navy charged the company with producing instruments and timepieces for its sailors; the company later adapted the technology to create the first professional underwater watch in 1936. (The navy began allowing Panerai to sell to the public in 1993.)
Thanks to its nautical roots, Panerai watches are known for features such as a luminescent dial for reading the time underwater, a screwed-on waterproof crown with levers for extra security, an all-but-indestructible case, a hefty 42 millimeter-and-more size — all part of the brand’s signature style, prized by its fans.
So in 2014 when Mr. Bonati and Johann Rupert, chairman and chief executive of Richemont, the Swiss luxury giant that bought the company in 1997, decided Panerai needed a thin watch, they asked Mr. Dreyer to work on ideas. “But,” he added, “they told me, it had to have the same shape” that Panerai is known for: squared and substantial.
He managed to shave the movement size to 3.85 millimeters from its original 7.90 millimeters. The result was the Luminor Due, which has proved to be popular with women as well as men since its debut in 2016.
Sometimes the drive for innovation works the other way around. Mr. Dreyer sees a possibility — “I presented the idea of creating a watch that would not need to be serviced for 50 years” — and then asked Mr. Bonati and Mr. Rupert to approve.
“A watch is a mechanical system, like a car,” Mr. Dreyer continued. “You must remove all the lubricants.” He made it sound easy, until he started talking about eliminating 63 oiling points, and explaining how “nanotubes” of carbon, like those used in satellites, had to be adapted to the world of watches for the first time. The result was the Lab-ID watch, a 50-piece limited edition, which required two new patents.
Mr. Dreyer said he often is inspired by materials never intended for horology, like carbotech, a carbon fiber composite that he adapted by partnering with a producer of a high-end polymer used to make cranium prosthetics. The result, which he said is “resistant to shock and temperature, and it’s hypoallergenic,” was used in the Luminor Carbotech Submersible.
He will not say much about current projects, other than that he is working with a California company on a new surprise to be introduced in January at the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie in Geneva, better known as S.I.H.H.
But he did want to talk about watchmaking’s future, which he said lies in “artificial intelligence, and micro-factories in order to ensure flexibility, agility and efficiency in production, especially for personalized products.”
“Today’s successful luxury brands,” he continued, “have to offer value for money to customers. Longer warranty, price positioning, better and better customer service, a focus on PRM,” or product relationship management.
Even as Panerai has moved ahead — it now makes all its own movements, for example — Richemont wants to keep limits on the company’s production.
“When I first met with Mr. Rupert,” Mr. Dreyer said, “he said his nightmare is to go to a cocktail party and see everyone wearing a Panerai.”
But then, the bold designs and nautical references are not for everyone. “It’s binary,” Mr. Dreyer said. “You either love it or you hate it.”