From Swiss Banker to Gem-Setter: The Remarkable Journey of Pierre Salanitro

Nearly three decades ago, when Geneva-based Pierre Salanitro made the unusual career shift from being a Swiss banker to a gem-setter, he probably didn’t anticipate that he would become the most popular gem-setter for the biggest luxury watch brands in the world. From the innumerable rainbow gem-set bezels to diamond-carpeted dials on watches from Piaget, Tiffany & Co, Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet or Hublot, Salanitro has flawlessly executed the sparkle on many iconic pieces of horology.

In 2022, Patek Philippe, one of the most revered watch brands in the world, acquired a stake in Salanitro SA.

Shilpa Dhamija visited Pierre Salanitro, at his Geneva atelier to know more about his journey in the field of gems and his plans to advance his brand beyond the world of horology.

How did you start your journey in the gem-setting business? Did you study gemmology?

I studied banking and was employed at a bank with a job that did not really interest me. It was about 37 years ago when I visited a gem-setting factory that was owned by a friend’s father and found myself instantly attracted to the fine workmanship. I requested my friend’s father to hire me. Well!  He didn’t hire me straight away but offered to teach me and see how I progressed. For weeks, I worked with him three hours in the morning and then again in the evening, before and after my shift at the bank. He finally hired me after 10 months of training.

There are many different techniques for gem-setting. It’s not easy to learn every technique. While some are good with round stones, the baguette shape can be tough to set for most artisans. I, however, wanted to learn all the different techniques.

I did not study gemmology, but I do understand how strong the gemstones are and how to set them.

We have a branch in Bangkok where we have gemmologists, and we source gems for various watch brands from there.

Pierre Salanitro at his gem-setting atelier in Geneva.

How did Salanitro become the preferred gem-setter for watchmakers?

Earlier, I used to think gems were placed on watches with some sort of glue. I didn’t really choose to specifically work on watches. My friend’s father used to set gems for watchmakers and that is how I started setting gems on watches.

We have over 30 years of experience in setting gems on watches. We also produce and cut the dials and bracelets. We supply gemstones as well. Salanitro is a place where watchmakers get all services related to gem-setting, so they don’t have to go to different suppliers for different purposes. We can deliver the entire watch to a brand. We do everything in house. The only thing that we don’t do is make the machinery or mechanism of the watch.

I have the biggest gem-setting team in Geneva with over 250 artisans, who are proficient in every kind of gem-setting technique. The kind of volume and quality that we deliver, nobody else can do that for watches. We also never compromise on quality.

Salanitro SA factory

What drives you to produce such brilliant gem-set watch dials, time and again? What is the most challenging part of your job?

Creativity. What I love the most about gem-setting work is that we can use every kind of gemstone and colour. It takes weeks and days to find the right gemstone colour, cut in the right way to achieve the perfection that we aim for.

With jewellery there is still a little leeway with designs and accommodating gems on the designs. However, a watch dial has fixed dimensions, thus making gem-setting on them more challenging. The creative aspect of setting sometimes can be a little flexible with some watch brands that we work with. We recommend different setting techniques to them that can bring out a better impact of the gems on their watches.

Hublot diamond dial watches, gem-set by Pierre SalanitroHublot diamond dial watches, gem-set by Pierre Salanitro.


Where do you source your gems from?

For diamonds, we use suppliers who are already approved by the watch brands because each brand follows specific policies. Depending on what kind of stones we want, we source from Africa, Australia or even Brazil. While we try to use gemstones that are not treated, for some stones like yellow and orange sapphires it becomes exceedingly difficult to find all natural stones with the exact colour we want.

We send the exact dimensions of the gemstones we want to our suppliers. We don’t cut the stones. We only have a recutting team here which fixes a stone in case it breaks during the setting process.

We don’t source gemstones directly from India yet. I know that India is extraordinarily strong with diamonds. More for the jewellery field and not so much for watches perhaps because the watch industry does not have that kind of large demand like the jewellery industry does.

Gem-set mask from S by Salanitro collection.

What has been the most challenging project for you so far?

The most complicated one has been the Audemars Piguet rainbow series of Royal Oak watches. A couple of years ago, Audemars Piguet introduced a limited-edition box of watches. Each box had about 10 watches, all gem-set in colours of the rainbow. We had to source many same-colour gems, and that was a challenge. Also, they are softer in strength making them very delicate for the setting process. We did an invisible gem-setting on all watches. Each watch had about 800 baguette-cut gemstones. We produced the case and the bracelet, too, on these watches.

It took us about 3 years from our first meeting with the brand to deliver the first box of watches.

What is S by Salanitro?

It’s a brand where we will have no limit to do anything that we possibly can with our gem-setting techniques and other expertise. The idea is to be highly creative, make art, jewellery or anything with our artistry. We can do custom service on everything. The first product we launched last year was a mask collection. We also made several customised versions of the Backgammon set.

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