The Beckertime Brand Series: Panerai
It seems strange for a watchmaker with a past as long and storied as Panerai that it was virtually unknown outside military circles before 1993.
The once-Italian, now-Swiss brand has actually been in existence since the mid 19th century, but spent most of its first 100+ years or so in business making precision timepieces and other instruments for various fighting forces around the world.
That it is now one of the most celebrated manufactures in the industry, with a huge and ferociously loyal legion of fans (affectionately dubbed The Paneristi) can be attributed to two things; 1. a collection of innovative, evocative and striking models designed to withstand just about anything, and 2. the sharp eyes of Hollywood action star royalty.
Below, we take a dip into the history of Panerai, and have a look through their contemporary range.
The company we now know as Officine Panerai was founded by Italian watchmaker, Giovanni Panerai in 1860, setting up on Ponte alle Grazie in Florence, capital of Italy’s Tuscany region.
Originally a combined watchmaking school, repair workshop and sales showroom, Giovanni sold and serviced high quality pocket watches.
The small operation remained there for many years, and was renamed G. Panerai & Figlio when Giovanni’s son, Leon Francesco joined his father around the turn of the century.
Eventually, the pair were able to move to a more central location opposite the Duomo, Florence’s magnificent cathedral, in Piazza San Giovanni—and the Panerai store is still there today.
As the business grew, the two men started fabricating components for timepiece manufacturers in Switzerland along with their other enterprises, and the company was renamed again, this time to Orologeria Svizzwera.
In the early years of the 20th century, Giovanni’s grandson (Leon’s son), Guido also joined the family firm, expanding their remit to include designing and building equipment for the Regia Marina, the Italian Navy. And it was Guido who, in 1915, developed a luminescent material to coat the hands and dials of the depth gauges, underwater compasses and sea mine triggers Panerai was supplying to the military.
The self-illuminating paste was a mixture of zinc sulphide, mesothorium and a constituent discovered in 1898 by Pierre and Marie Curie; radium. Not only was the resulting material far brighter and more visible in low-light than anything else on the market at the time, it had a strong underwater adhesion, making it perfect for the Navy’s instrumentation. Panerai filed a patent for the invention on the 23rd March 1916, calling it Radiomir.
Panerai Continues To Grow
As well as supplying Swiss manufacturers with much of their pocket watch internals, the Swiss were, in turn, furnishing Panerai with various movements and cases.
This reciprocal arrangement proved extremely fortuitous in 1935 when the Regia Marina came knocking again, requesting a watch that could be used by the First Submarine Group Command; a unit of covert frogman commandoes who rode on underwater slow-moving torpedoes, called Maiali submersibles.
The requirements for the watch—basically big, tough and easy to read—led Panerai to Rolex’s door. Then as now, Rolex was one of the industry’s leaders in waterproof timepieces, thanks to their development of the Oyster case in the 1920s.
Rolex delivered a version of their 26mm Oyster to Panerai, much enlarged to 47mm, with wire loops welded top and bottom to hold the strap. Inside was a pocket watch movement, made for Rolex by Cortebert, the Cal. 618, beating at 18,000vph and with a 44-hour reserve.
To it, Panerai added a minimalist black dial, with no numerals at all, just elongated segments at the 3, 6 and 9, a double segment at the 12 and small dots for the rest of the indexes. But the introduction of their own highly effective luminescence made sure the watch was perfectly legible in even the gloomiest conditions. Panerai gave the watch the reference number ref. 2533, and the name, like the lume, ‘Radiomir’.
The two brand partnership continued for several years, with Rolex supplying the cases and movements and Panerai introducing a number of dial variations. Over time, these got more sophisticated, with the manufacture bringing in their so-called ‘sandwich dials’. These consisted of two layers, the bottom one holding the luminescent material, while the top had the hour markers stenciled out to let the Radiomir shine through.
Eventually the cases were upgraded also, with the whole thing (lugs included) milled from a single block of steel to greatly increase overall strength. The first of these examples are known as the Radiomir 40 models.
Panerai: After The War
By the end of the 1940s, the dangers of radium were becoming better understood and Panerai developed a different type of lume using the far safer tritium.
On 11th January 1949 they again registered a trademark for their new material, this time calling it Luminor. A few years later, in 1955, Panerai submitted the patent for a ‘Tight Seal Device’, a crown protector which shielded the component completely in a crescent moon of steel and gave rise to perhaps the brand’s most iconic watch. Never known to waste a good name, the model was also called the Luminor.
However, although Panerai were still supplying a number of forces globally, the business suffered a period of decline caused by the world selfishly entering an era of relative peace. In 1972, following the death of Guido’s son, Giuseppe, the prior head of the company, and his replacement by a former Italian naval officer named Dino Zei (the first non-family member in charge), Panerai shut down the entire watchmaking arm to concentrate instead on building aerospace components and diving equipment.
Panerai Goes Mainstream
As with all things, fashions change, and by the 1990s there was a serious trend for mechanical watches with strong military heritage. The likes of Rolex’s Submariner and Sea-Dweller had never been more in demand, and so the renamed (again) Officine Panerai saw an opportunity to capture a civilian audience for their once exclusively naval models.
The first examples to be released were the highly individual Luminor, the Luminor Marina (which added a date function and running seconds sub dial) and a chronograph originally created for deck officers during WWII, the Mare Nostrum (Latin for ‘Our Sea’, an ancient Roman name for the Mediterranean).
A fine collection to begin with. Unfortunately, no one seemed to care.
The watches just sat in the shop windows of the few jewelers who had agreed to stock them as consumers, who had no knowledge of the brand whatsoever, reached past them to more recognizable names.
Unless the average passerby had been in the military, there was a very good chance they hadn’t even heard of Panerai, and the venture seemed doomed from the off.
Fortunately, in 1993, one visitor to Italy, who was very much not average, spotted the great hulking watches gathering dust and decided they would be ideal for his great hulking arm.
Panerai And The Modern Era
As you are probably aware, that pedestrian was one Sylvester Stallone. In town prior to shooting his movie ‘Daylight’, the action hero took a break to browse the watch stores of Florence and upon seeing the Panerai range was instantly smitten.
As well as buying a Luminor for his character to wear in the film, feeling the watch had, in his own words ‘star power’, he also ordered a limited edition of 200 models to give away to cast and crew, asking that they all be inscribed with ‘Sly Tech’ on the dial and with his signature on the case back.
And that was all it took. The ringing celebrity endorsement and the watch’s unique looks were enough for Panerai’s star to explode and the brand quickly became one of the most sought after in the industry.
In 1997, attracted by this new fame, the Vendome Group (now Richemont) acquired the manufacture for the bargain price of just $1.5 million.
Under their tutelage, Panerai has continued to expand. In 2002, the brand was able to open a new 108,000 sq ft manufacture in Neuchâtel, Switzerland, where they created their first in-house movement, the P. 2002, a manually-winding GMT-equipped caliber in 2005.
Further homegrown engines followed, with the P 2003, P 2004 and the P 2005, with its innovative tourbillon.
A whole fleet of limited edition watches were released; the brand adhering to the well-proven method of driving up demand by restricting supply.
More recently, we can look to Panerai as the company which kicked off the whole bronze movement with the 2011 launch of the PAM382, a Luminor Submersible better known to the Paneristi as the Bronzo.
Today, the watchmaker is still recognized as a technological pioneer, regardless as to how retro the overriding design aesthetic is. Their four main collections; the Submersible, the Luminor, the Radiomir and the Luminor Due all observe the classic lines of the models from the early 20th century. Their rounded cushion-shaped cases are instantly familiar, and the styling remains unapologetically masculine. Even so, there are signs Panerai is angling more towards the unisex market, with scaled down versions of their most famous pieces.
One thing which hasn’t changed however is the fanatical devotion of the Paneristi. When Panerai decided to go commercial in 1993, every watch they sold came with a strap changing tool and instructions, allowing and encouraging their devotees to switch out the watch’s band whenever and however they liked. That level of customization has long been a major plus of ownership, with an almost inexhaustible supply of both third-party and official straps since becoming available.
Panerai has grown from an unknown to one of horology’s big players in record time. Their long legacy of producing functional but distinctive watches for the military has meant they were able to capture the imagination of the public at just the right time, and it is something they have capitalized on with huge success.
Now with a portfolio crammed to the gills with beautifully engineered and unique models, their continued ascendancy seems assured.
*As a closing note, in 2016 Sylvester Stallone was reportedly furious that Panerai had decided to rerelease a version of the original Sly Tech watches without his consent, in a limited edition of 500. The relationship between the actor and the brand he made famous is still described as ‘rocky’. (Not sorry!)