A few days before the horological world descended on Geneva for the annual Watches and Wonders fair last March, the city’s Bailly Gallery was hosting an evening party. But this was no ordinary vernissage — it was a gathering of some of the most influential figures in the watch industry.

A relaxed-looking Thierry Stern, president of Patek Philippe, was accompanied by several of his top managers, including Laurent Bernasconi, Jérôme Pernici, and Patrick Cremers.

FP Journe founder François-Paul Journe and auction supremo Aurel Bacs were photographed with Tiffany & Co watch boss Nicolas Beau.

Then, there were guests from afar, such as retailers Michael Tay of The Hour Glass in Singapore and Ahmed Seddiqi of Dubai and Nasser Al Majed of Qatar, along with leading distributors and other retailers in some of the fastest-growing markets for watches.

They had gathered to celebrate the launch of a new luxury goods marque, S by Salanitro, which was presenting its first objets de luxe, alongside works by Pablo Picasso and Pierre Soulages. There was a sculpture in gold and precious stones inspired by a Mesoamerican mask from 1,500 years ago; a “vanitas” mirror decorated with a huge skull made from 1,277 precious and semi-precious stones; and a backgammon board set with black diamonds and blue sapphires. Their creator, Pierre Salanitro, an engaging 57-year-old Genevan of Italian descent, describes them as “objects to make you dream”.

Salanitro, owner of the brand, was the reason for the high-level horological executives in attendance. His name had meant little outside the world of watch industry suppliers until last September, when Patek Philippe announced that it was investing in the business.

Thierry Stern, president of Patek Philippe (left), acquired a stake in Pierre Salanitro’s gem-setting business. © point-of-views.ch

But, within the industry, Salanitro is recognised as one of the leading gem-setters there is. He employs 230 people, has invested SFr50mn-SFr60mn ($56mn-$67mn) over the past 30 years, and puts the value of his company at between SFr70mn and SFr100mn.

Stern is full of praise for Salanitro’s creativity. “When we talk together, we talk about creation. For example, he said we should do diamonds on dome clocks. And he’s right — it’s beautiful,” Stern says. “He also has great ideas for designing watches and has the same aesthetic as I have in terms of watches. That means that, when he creates a diamond watch, it has to be ‘aggressive’ for men and not just bling bling.”

He adds with a chuckle: “The only thing with him is that he can go off like a firework. He is a very creative guy and sometimes you have to bring him down to earth.”

a diamond and sapphire backgammon set
The brand’s diamond and sapphire backgammon set © Aurélien Poncet

It is to harness that excess creativity that S by Salanitro was launched. “I have so many ideas in my head, and I have wanted to do this for many years,” Salanitro says. He insists that this new venture is neither a hobby nor an indulgence, but a business fulfilling a need, albeit a rarefied one at the top of the market: the backgammon set, for example, starts at SFr70,000-SFr80,000 ($78,000-$89,000.)

“I was convinced that there was demand when I went to Bangkok to have a meeting with a client,” Salanitro says. “They wanted unique things and were prepared to pay anything to have something different.” Commissions that have come in following the launch appear to have added further validation.

Salanitro began his working life at Swiss Bank Corporation, which became part of UBS, but it was only when he visited the gem-setting atelier belonging to the father of a friend that the former investment banker experienced a coup de foudre.

“I like making things with my hands and seeing the results, especially when you are working with noble materials,” he says. He asked for a job and, for a few punishing months, worked at the jeweller’s bench for three hours in the morning before going into the bank — then returning for a further three hours of stone-setting at the end of the day.

His friend’s father took him on in 1987 when demand for gem-set pieces fell, but Salanitro found himself out of work. Undaunted, he set up a workshop at home and carried out repairs for local jewellers. His break into the watch industry came, when he did some work for Piaget.

“When I started working for Rolex and Patek Philippe, doors opened to me,” says Salanitro. “Because their quality standards are so high, everyone trusts you.”

An S by Salanitro sculpture inspired by a Mesoamerican mask
An S by Salanitro sculpture inspired by a Mesoamerican mask

He opened his first workshops, taking on 12 employees, in the Acacias district of Geneva, near Rolex’s headquarters. “The big brands wanted to deal with one partner and not with many different suppliers. As a result, some of the smaller businesses were using subcontractors,” he explains.

Salanitro saw an opportunity to establish a one-stop-shop, offering prototyping, case fabrication, bracelet-making and polishing services with a single standard of quality, under one roof. He began acquiring smaller workshops.

“I first purchased Serti Concept, because the proprietor wanted to retire — that cost about SFr900,000 ($1mn) — then a small polishing business called Polifer, which had seven people, for about SFr300,000 ($334,000),” he recalls.

Salanitro’s biggest investment was in Sertis Créations, which employed 50 staff. “They were my main competition, but they got into trouble,” he says. “It was an investment of SFr6mn ($6.7mn), but it also brought me two clients with whom I was not yet working.”

In addition to Richemont, Rolex, Patek Philippe and Audemars Piguet, Salanitro also works for LVMH. “I have a great working relationship with Alexandre, Frédéric and Jean Arnault,” he says, referring to the sons of LVMH chief executive Bernard Arnault who are, respectively, executive vice-president at Tiffany & Co, Tag Heuer chief executive, and head of Louis Vuitton’s watch marketing and product development.

“And I have the highest respect for Stéphane Bianchi [head of LVMH’s watch and jewellery division], who is a true gentleman,” Salanitro continues.

As for Patek’s investment in the Salanitro brand, “Pierre is still in charge”, says Stern. “I didn’t buy the whole company; I just bought a certain percentage. We don’t say how much and it’s not really that huge, but it’s enough to guarantee me the capacity. The jewellery side of Patek Philippe is increasing, not only for ladies but also for men.”

But, for Stern, the deal was about more than securing capacity for gem-setting. “It was a little bit like my grandfather in the old days: we just shook hands, and we knew it was done,” he says. “But it’s not only about business, it was also about friendship. We met just after we had left school.”

Stern, who is four years younger than Salanitro, adds: “He grew up in his business. I grew up with Patek. We trust each other. I would say we have the same philosophy, and the same friends.”

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