The Unlikely Watch Collector: Gianni Agnelli
Unlikely Watch Collector

The Unlikely Watch Collector: Gianni Agnelli

Grandson of Fiat founder Giovanni Agnelli, Gianni Agnelli became the most influential man in Italy, on both a business and style level. And when it comes to watches, whether choosing the appropriate models or how they should be worn, LAvvocato showed us the way.

By Frédéric Brun

Although I only met Gianni Agnelli twice, before his death in 2003, the memories of my two interviews with him remain so vivid that it is easy for me to attest to his magnetism.

Distinguished in appearance and athletic in stature, he would walk a lithe, cat-like walk. All he would have to do was enter a room or wander down the street for everyone’s attention to suddenly be on him. Conversations would, quite literally, come to a halt.

He was simply extraordinary.

From Playboy to President

Born on March 12, 1921, in Villar Perosa, near Turin, Giovanni “Gianni” Agnelli was named after his grandfather, Giovanni Agnelli, founder of the automobile manufacturer Fiat. Through his father, Edoardo Agnelli, he came from the industrial bourgeoisie, and through his mother, Virginia Bourbon del Monte, from the Italian aristocracy.

Before the Second World War, in which he fought for the Axis on the Eastern Front and in Africa, he studied law in the Piedmont capital at the University of Turin, which would later earn him the moniker of L’Avvocato, “The Lawyer,” even though he never practiced law.

It didn’t take much for the young Agnelli, a keen sportsman, to earn a reputation as a reckless playboy. And after a tumultuous affair with Pamela Harriman between 1948 and 1953, the attractive heir led a life of pleasure and nonchalance.

In 1953, the reveler married Princess Marella Caracciolo di Castagneto at the castle of Osthoffen in Alsace after his father-in-law, Prince Filippo, first Deputy-Secretary for the Council of Europe (the precursor to the Council of the European Union), took up residence there. The young couple soon became a fixture among the international jet set.

But from 1966 onwards, the daily life of Gianni Agnelli ceased being limited to sport and social events when he took the reins of the family group. As head of Fiat, he succeeded Vittorio Valletta, who had presided over the company for almost twenty years, following the death of the founder in 1945.

Agnelli soon made his mark on the automobile industry, revamping Fiat by refining manufacturing systems and forging a tight network of alliances and joint ventures, including international expansion. He notably secured a deal with the USSR to obtain quality steel in exchange for Fiat’s design for the Lada Niva.

Agnelli was a captain of industry but also a man of the world. He collected works of art in his beautiful baroque villa in Villar Perosa, near Turin. In 2002, shortly before his death, he bequeathed to the city an immense heritage of paintings, making his extraordinary art gallery available to his fellow citizens.

Style Icon and International Man of Mystery

Agnelli never lacked panache or style. In the media, Vanity Fair named him "the most elegant man of the year" in 1970. And famed Italian director and screenwriter Federico Fellini once wrote about Agnelli: “Put him on a horse, and he will look like a king.”

One time he attended an IVECO board meeting wearing desert boots with a flannel suit. The following week, all the directors were wearing a pair of Clark's, but by that time, Agnelli had already put on his mountaineering boots or beautiful Miserocchi rubber-studded moccasins. Indeed, the success of the soft rubber-studded moccasins, inspired by those of racing drivers, is down to him. He was the first to wear them with a city suit, that is, if he wasn’t wearing a mountaineer's lace-up boot with a thick, notched rubber sole.

Far from exuberances and extravagances, Agnelli always cultivated a way of life, certainly extraordinarily luxurious but, above all, surrounded by secrecy and discretion.

As one story goes: At dawn, on the short runway of La Môle aerodrome behind Saint-Tropez, a white jet would land. In a chambray shirt and sleeveless goose-down puffer jacket, Gianni Agnelli would saunter down the small ladder of the private jet. No paparazzi were there to photograph him; it was far too early. Besides, everyone believed L’Avvocato was in Monaco for the Grand Prix qualifying sessions. Escaping prying eyes, Agnelli would always be where he was least expected.

Another story tells how he would anchor his yacht in a secluded cove rather than on the main pontoon. Half an hour later, he would be at the helm of his sailboat, the Stealth. Sailing was one of his passions, as was diving naked into the Mediterranean to savor the delights of the salty brine after a few jibes and tacks. At the end of the afternoon, he would come back to his office to read the day’s mail or sign a contract worth millions before attending an opera premiere with his wife.

Living Life in the Fast Lane

While he motored around town in top-of-the-range Fiat sedans, often Lancias, he would also drive unique Ferraris, like his specially commissioned 1959 400 Superamerica and his 1968 365 P with center-mounted steering wheel. Both of which were conceived by automobile design legend Sergio Pininfarina. Agnelli also favored a 1980s Testarossa roadster made to measure for him by the Modena manufacturer, which had become the jewel of his empire in 1969.

In 2000, for the wedding of his colleague Luca di Montezemolo, whom he had appointed as president of Ferrari, Agnelli gifted him an F360 Barchetta. And when L’Avvocato died on January 24, 2003, the Scuderia Ferrari F1 car was named F2003 “GA.”

Trailblazing Watch Lover

In terms of watches and fine watchmaking, Gianni Agnelli also greatly influenced contemporary fashions through his assertive, self-confident, and very personal choices.

The current popularity of the Rolex Cosmograph Daytona would not be what it is if Agnelli had not sported one in the early 1980s. When this mechanical chronograph had been somewhat forgotten in the era of quartz and digital watches, Agnelli revived its image. Bringing this watch out of the shadows, he blazed a trail and made it a fashion touchstone in Italy. It was only later on that the distant memory of Paul Newman wearing one while driving would rise to the surface and make this model legendary.

Agnelli was also one of the instigators for the trend of wearing large tool watches outside of their intended purpose. He would like to wear his Omega 600m Seamaster Professional "Ploprof," not for diving, but rather for skiing. While everyone else had designated it for scuba diving, he took it on to the slopes.

Conversely, for boating, he preferred to wear one of the very first Porsche Design chronograph references.

Finger on the Pulsar

Another anecdote I think is worth telling is that of the James Bond watch. In 1973, Giovanni Agnelli was afforded a private preview of the movie Live and Let Die. In it, Roger Moore, alias 007, sports a Hamilton Pulsar P2 2900 LED. Billed as the first digital watch, it displayed the time brightly by a mere push of a button. Plus, it came in a curved case with a spaceship-inspired design. It was a futuristic and trendy watch, like a computer on your wrist.

An enthusiast of technology and novelties, LAvvocato was immediately won over by the Pulsar. And he only needed to wear the watch at a meeting with his staff a few days after receiving it for them to start imitating him immediately. In many period photos, it is possible to see Luca di Montezemolo alongside Gianni Agnelli, both wearing a Pulsar.

The Mysterious Vacheron Constantin Watch

Among the other famous pieces from Gianni Agnelli's rich watch collection is, of course, a very desirable Patek Philippe World Time (ref. 1415 HU), an Eberhard chronograph from the 1950s, and an astonishing Vacheron Constantin watch.

Many observers have long wondered what the reference number or the model name is for this Vacheron Constantin. It is, in fact, a pocket watch that Agnelli inherited from his father and had transformed into a wristwatch. It was not uncommon to see it on his wrist.

The Cuff of Legend

Seeing watches on Agnelli’s wrist was made all the easier since he made wearing his watches over the cuff of his shirt a stylistic signature of sorts. Contrary to popular belief, though, he was not the inventor of this style. The poet and writer Jean Cocteau had already done the same after World War I, in homage to the soldiers returning from the trenches.

It was, of course, during the Great War that the use of wristwatches spread widely, as they were more practical than pocket watches in such conditions. Returning to civilian life, the former soldiers retained the habit. In the countryside, in particular, it was important to keep your Sunday Best in good condition, and so the rural denizens wore wristwatches over the cuff to avoid having the case rub against it.

With his watch-wearing style echoing this countryside tradition, was Gianni Agnelli, this most elegant of Italians, giving a sly nod to his (very) distant Piedmont shepherd origins? Details reveal a lot about a man's character, even if it would be presumptuous to try to sum up a person as complete, singular, and complex as Gianni Agnelli.

(Photography licensed by Getty Images, other sources mentioned)

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