Panerai (1860 – ) It is sometimes surprising what eventually emerges from humble beginnings. Noted author and Panerai expert, Jake Ehrlich has written, “Panerai has a fascinating and colorful history which is woven in with the history of Rolex as well as with the Royal Italian Navy, the German Kampfschwimmer’s and the Egyptian Army. Rolex and Panerai are thought by many as being distant cousins, but…they are much more like brothers“.
In 1860, Giovanni Panerai (1825–1897) established Guido Panerai & Figlio, – the company that would become known as Officine Panerai – on Ponte delle Grazie in Florence, Italy, one year before the formation of the modern Italian state. Both shop and workshop, it was also the city’s first watchmaking school and specialized in mechanical engineering as well as designing and producing high quality equipment for the Italian Navy.
At the time of its founding and for many years thereafter, it was simultaneously a watchmaking school, a repair workshop, and a sales showroom. In the early 1900’s, the shop moved to the Palazzo Arcivescovile in Piazza San Giovanni, its current location, changed its name to “Orologeria Svizzera,” and became known for the sale of Swiss watches.
The late nineteenth century saw Panerai enter a transitional period under Giovanni and his son, Leon Francesco. Up until around 1890, Panerai was a fairly small watchmaking shop until a breakthrough saw it become an official supplier of precision mechanisms to the Royal Italian Navy.
By 1900, under the leadership of Guido Panerai (1873–1934), Giovanni’s grandson, the company supplied the navy with watches and precision instruments. Panerai watches of this time consisted of cases designed and manufactured by Panerai and movements made by Swiss manufacturers including Rolex SA.
The family had established working relationships with recognized watch industry leaders from Swiss horological manufacturing centers to establish supplier ties that would become the basis for the Italian firm’s sales growth and eventual watch production models. Movements, cases, specialized parts, and entire watches traveled from Swiss specialists to Panerai’s headquarters as needed.
As the company grew it began to invest in research and development of new technologies. One of these involved experimenting with luminous materials to make Panerai instruments and dials brighter. In 1910, Panerai achieved luminescence by mixing zinc sulfide and radium bromide and gave rise to the name, Radiomir. This innovation coincided with the outbreak of World War I where the Royal Italian Navy used Panerai precision instruments for sighting naval guns at night, depth gauges, timing mechanisms and other products.
When Ehrlich explores the history of Panerai’s use of luminesce in its products, he writes, “It is likely [that] Guido Panerai had no idea his Radiomir was extremely dangerous and highly toxic [because] it was based upon Radium … one of the most radioactive chemical elements known.
“Radium is more than one million times more radioactive than the same mass of uranium and it has a half-life of 1602 years. [Today’s] watches that glow in the dark use a process called Luminova, a phosphorescent process that absorbs light energy, stores it, and emanates it until it runs out. When first used for creating self-luminous paint for watches, aircraft switches, clocks and instrument dials, it was not known that the process was highly radioactive and deadly.
“In 1915 when Guido Panerai applied for his patent application for Radiomir, he obviously had no idea how … toxic Radium was. Nobody knows for certain how many watch dial painters who used their lips to shape camel haired paintbrushes died from radiation poisoning [as a result of their labor.] At the minimum it is in the hundreds, but more than likely in the thousands–internationally.
“Radium was used as late as the 1950s, although tritium typically replaced it. Tritium is also potentially dangerous if ingested, but it replaced radium. Today, Luminova has replaced both … is not radioactive and [is] safe.”
Ehrlich also notes that, “…radium was used as an ingredient in some foods for taste and as a preservative. It was even used as an additive in toothpaste, hair creams, and … put in some foods as a curative agent.”
The name “Radiomir” first appears in the supplement to the patent the company filed in France in 1916. The substance’s high visibility and the paint’s excellent underwater adhesive qualities immediately made radium paste a key element in Panerai’s production. The Radiomir patent is the first of many that mark Panerai’s history of innovation.
Ehrlich goes on to write, “The first Panerai watches made by Rolex for Panerai had the Panerai Radiomir designation on the dial and these radioactive watches were produced up until 1954.
“When zinc sulfide is mixed into paint with radium, the zinc sulfide emits light when it is struck by the radioactive particles from the radium. Over time the zinc sulfide “wears out” and ceases to glow. This typically leads unsuspecting wearers to think the paint is no longer radioactive, [yet] it is still almost just as radioactive as the day it was made!!!
“…It is still unsafe to wear these old Panerai watches because they still emit an unsafe level of radioactivity. … Since the half-life of Radium is 1602 years, it will be many, many years before these watches are safe to wear. [However] the fact that these watches are still highly radioactive does not diminish their historical and financial value. Quite the contrary. These old watches typically are valued at over $100,000 U.S. Dollars.”
During the period that Panerai was developing luminescent products, one of Panerai’s Swiss manufacturing partners, Rolex, was making its name with waterproof (now known as, ‘water resistant’) watches. Rolex’s development of the “Oyster” case in 1926 became a defining moment in the history of the watch industry.
Previously, waterproof watches were unreliable, awkwardly packaged, and economically impractical. With the development of Rolex’s Oyster, waterproof watches became a practical proposition for consumer pocket and wrist models.
The arrival of waterproof watches also created renewed interest by one of Panerai’s largest customers: the Italian military. Italy achieved success during World War I by deploying combat swimmers who used a portable underwater breathing device, and became known as underwater demolition specialists, or, more commonly, “frogmen.” Waterproof timers were essential to the success of this new tactic and in Radiomir and the Rolex Oyster, Panerai held both keys to the Italian Navy’s needs.
By mid 1930s, when World War II was only a few short years away, Italian deployments to North Africa accelerated the military’s delivery timetable. Working with Rolex, Panerai arranged to deliver fully assembled Oyster-cased pocket watches complete with movements. By special consent of the Swiss firm, Panerai was allowed to modify the cases, movements, and dials to suit the Italian military.
Between 1936 and 1938, the Panerai, Rolex, and Italian authorities worked together to refine what would become the definitive Panerai military tool watch: The 3646. Between 1938 and 1956, these watches were Panerai’s most important deliveries to the Italian Navy.
All Panerai watches were assembled by Rolex, and Panerai’s Italian office modified them to suit military requirements. These included soldered wire lugs, waxed leather straps, high-visibility dials with two-piece “sandwich” construction, enlarged bezels, and a shatter-resistant crystal made of a new plastic compound called, Plexiglas. This assemblage became another of Panerai’s signature contributions to the industry.
In the time that led to World War II and its waging, Panerai’s military watch legacy and its combat heritage was forged. The Italian amphibious commandos went to war equipped with Panerai watches and instruments. Combat operations with manned torpedoes, limpet mines, and explosive speedboats succeeded in sinking Allied combatant and transport craft in the Mediterranean theater where Panerai’s combat watches were worn by most all personnel.
Both the Panerai timepieces and Italian frogmen became influential in elite tactical circles. The German navy adopted the Panerai, dubbed the “Kampfschwimmer,” as the timekeeper of choice for its own elite amphibious units. Unable to use Panerai products, the British emulated both the underwater swimmers and their Panerai dive watches.
It was the beginning of the modern era of elite tactical warfare and amphibious special-forces. Panerai’s watches were linked to this pivotal moment in military history. Between the official outbreak of war in Europe in 1939 and the Cold War in the 1950s, Panerai produced a limited number of watches that gradually dovetailed the end of its military relationship and that start of its eventual success with consumers.
Between 1936 and 1943, Panerai created the first prototypes of the model now known as “Radiomir.” Today’s Radiomir utilizes many of the prototype’s features: a large, cushion-shaped steel case, luminescent numerals and indices, wire lugs welded to the case, a hand-wound mechanical movement, and a water-resistant strap long enough to be worn over a diving suit. The Navy’s historical archives show that only ten prototypes were produced in 1936.
A further innovation implemented in 1938 improved underwater visibility to the numbering of the dial, since it has only four large Arabic numerals at the cardinal points and a series of indices, hour and minute hands, but without a small second hand.
In 1940, the Italian Navy’s requirements became more stringent and specific: the watches had to remain underwater in extreme conditions for long periods and their resistance to extreme tension had to be guaranteed. The lugs were reinforced to meet these needs and were made from the same block of steel as the case to provide better underwater resistance.
Some of today’s models bearing the “Radiomir 1940” name have a cushion-shaped case middle with edges more pronounced on the sides. The Radiomir 1940 Special Edition models created in 2012 draw inspiration from these features.
In 1943, Officine Panerai created the prototype, Mare Nostrum, a two-counter model specifically designed for deck officers. It is thought that only two or three of these watches were ever made, and all that remains of them are some photographs and a single example discovered in 2005. By the end of World War II, the limited number of Panerai Radiomirs in circulation became highly sought after collectors’ items.
In the years after Italy’s World War II defeat, Panerai saw postwar opportunities for new domestic and foreign military contracts. While few of these efforts came to fruition, they enlarged the company’s product catalog and helped create Panerai’s 21st Century emergence as a consumer phenomenon.
In 1949, a new self-luminous substance, Luminor, superseded the radium-based paste. Panerai incorporated the name of this newly patented substance for the model that followed the Radiomir watch – the Luminor. In the aftermath of the war and the growing awareness of radium’s health impact, Panerai moved to reformulate its glowing dial paint.
This new luminescent chemistry was as notable for its name as for its composition. It would live on long after the paint of the same name was phased out. Experts point out that, until the Panerai marketed to consumers rather than the military, the names Radiomir and Luminor referred exclusively to luminescent paint compounds, not case designs.
In the early 1950s the Radiomir was accompanied and later replaced by the Panerai Luminor. While the Luminor preserved the Radiomir’s emblematic watch case and dial, it also incorporated several design advances that included a distinctive bridge with a unique mechanism for locking the crown (a feature so unique. it is now trademarked by Panerai) and an eight-day power reserve that greatly reduced the frequency of winding. In 1956, Panerai incorporated the new crown as one of its last major developments as a military timepiece supplier.
In conjunction with the Egyptian Navy, for which Panerai had previously developed tactical watches in 1953, the company delivered a transitional model that incorporated design elements from the past and new elements that would find their way into future Panerai products. This model, the “Big Egiziano,” had a case that current buyers consider similar to a modern Luminor Submersible, complete with rotating and calibrated bezel, integrated lugs, and a device protecting the crown.
However, by special request of the Egyptian authorities, that watch also has the distinction of being the final application of Panerai’s original Radiomir radium compound. The delivery of “Big Egiziano” was an important moment for Panerai because it marked the company’s fading role as a significant contractor of tactical watches.
The end of the 1950s also marked the end of Panerai’s manufacturing arrangement with Rolex. From 1956, when the Rolex relationship officially ended, until 1972, the company’s watchmaking manufacture entered a period of decline. That year, Giuseppe Panerai, Guido’s son who oversaw nearly the entire tactical watch program, died. With the exception of prototyping several pioneering titanium dive models, watchmaking activities effectively ceased.
A former Italian naval officer and engineer, Dino Zei, became the first non-Panerai in its hundred plus year history to lead the company. From 1972 through the early 1990s, Zei directed the company to focus on remaining opportunities in dive tools, aerospace components, and radio equipment. He also changed the company’s name from “G. Panerai & Figlio” to “Officine Panerai S.r.L.” which, in fact, was the original name that had appeared on the very first Panerai models.
1993 was a watershed year for the newly renamed Officine Panerai. It propelled the company into its 21st century position as one of the most recognized and desirable brands.
Zei, who also had a background in watchmaking, recognized that the company’s historical military legacy could have a profound effect on its future and make it an important part of the growing market for upscale mechanical watches. After Rolex gained renewed strength marketing models based on older dive models, Panerai raided its own catalog of tactical products to launch the first, branded consumer watches in the firm’s history.
Three 1993 model-year watches used names from Panerai’s military heritage. The first, which was a version of the 1943 Mare Nostrum was less successful than the other two models that used the “Luminor” imprint and became the Launchpad for Panerai’s new products. Instead of the glow-in-the-dark features, the new model design had a 44mm diameter, the Panerai crown protector, and the integrated lugs of the later military models and became the model’s selling points.
At first, the public showed little interest in the new Panerai models. With Panerai’s low-profile in the commercial sector, a nearly non-existent distributor base, and minimal marketing, the few vendors who did take a chance on Panerai almost immediately made the watches closeout items. The initial launch struggled to attract early adopters because Panerai did not have an existing clientele, a dealer network, or the advertising acumen to achieve a marketing breakthrough.
The turnaround came from an unexpected source. Actor Sylvester Stallone discovered Panerai while he was in Rome to shoot his film “Daylight.” He bought a Luminor Marina and wore it on camera. Stallone loved the watch’s style and placed many orders for custom “Slytech” branded Luminors. All Slytech watches have Stallone’s signature engraved on the back.
These watches were Panerai’s first volume orders and created enormous publicity for the company. With multiple unsponsored film placements and appearances wrists of Stallone associates, including Arnold Schwarzenegger, the company’s public profile rose and almost overnight, Panerai skyrocketed into consumers’ consciousness and made it extremely successful with them from that point on.
Panerai now offers four major lines of watches: Historic, Contemporary, Manifattura and Special Editions. Most watches receive limited runs between 500 and 4000 units with an issue number on the case back.
Panerai issues Special Editions every year. In 2006, it issued the 1936 California Dial Radiomir special edition based on the first Panerai model made for the Italian Navy. This model was limited to 1936 units. As of September 2008, its price point in the Contemporary collection ranges from $6,000 to $25,500 US Dollars for the solid gold Marina.
Panerai’s output of its limited and special editions is intentionally smaller than the market demands which gives the models an aura of exclusivity and allows the timepieces to command a high price. Retailers may receive only a few pieces each year creating sizable waiting lists for the in-demand models.
By 1997, the company had gained enough traction to attract the Vendome Group, now called, Richemont, S.A., – the same company that managed the Cartier and IWC brands – to take a modest interest in Officine Panerai and moving it into the Vendome organization. When that happened Panerai gained access to significant marketing, product development, and distribution resources.
Between 1997 and 2014, virtually every feature of the present Officine Panerai customer base, brand image, and product line emerged. Following this acquisition, Richemont rebranded Panerai as a luxury watch brand and increased its pricing.
In 2005, after rival watchmaker Girard Perregaux ended its relationship with Ferrari, Panerai entered a five year agreement to design, manufacture and distribute Panerai watches displaying the Ferrari trademark. The collection was branded Ferrari engineered and offered two product lines: the sport/elegant “Granturismo” and the extremely sporty “Scuderia.” The collection consisted of 11 models priced between $5,000 and $30,000. The watches did not sell well, except briefly at first, and Panerai and Ferrari did not renew their agreement at its expiration in 2010.
Oddly enough, it was not traditional marketing that cemented Panerai’s popularity with consumers. Experts suggest that Panerai was the first watch brand to benefit from the promotional power of the Internet.
Even though the company’s official website was no more special than others used by the industry, it was third party and user-generated content that created Panerai’s online presence. Websites and forums became the points of collector’s interest in Panerai products, model availability, and its heritage of tactical exploits.
In the year 2000, Paneristi.com went online and generated a fan base that included several thousand individuals around the world. As the online population grew, the self-described “Paneristi” became the brand’s best salesmen. Well before Wikipedia, YouTube and Reddit became popular, Panerai fan forums led by Paneristi.com became a prototype for the Internet’s social movements.
The users did what Vendome and its agents could not: they reinvigorated Panerai’s historic ties to the military and the company’s application-driven design and image. Wearing a Panerai was like owning a memento of an adventure and brought special cachet to owners. Buyers saw the rationale behind Luminor’s large size and accepted its image as a working watch that did not carry the ostentatious baggage associated with other upscale watch labels.
This revised the company’s product focus. Between 1993 and 1997 when consumer production was estimated at fewer than 2,000 watches, Panerai’s production ran to over 70,000 annual units by 2013. It was during this period that Panerai became known more for being a mainstream cult product than a military contractor.
In 2002, a Neuchâtel production facility opened and in 2005, the same facility networked with Richemont’s in-house Val Fleurier R&D arm and launched the Swiss-Italian firm’s first exclusive movement, the Caliber P.2002.
Acknowledging the company’s past, occasional releases of new-old-stock historic movements maintained Panerai’s momentum and added to Panerai’s history-driven image. Today, Panerai offers a full line of watches based in varying degrees on its historic models. While the Luminor and Radiomir remain the core of each variation, Panerai has now expanded its products to incorporate precious metals, high watchmaking complications, and case sizes that range from 60 to 40mm.
Officine Panerai maintains its headquarters in Florence but manufactures watches in the Neuchâtel, Switzerland facility using movements manufactured in-house and movements manufactured by ETA S.A.
The company’s heritage remains an important part of each new product launch. Prototypes and features not seen since the 1940s and 50s resurface regularly. For example, the original 47mm Rolex case associated with the 3646, the rotating dive bezel of the “Big Egiziano,” the titanium case of the 1980s “1000 Meter” prototype, and the gigantic form of the original Mare Nostrum have all reemerged.
While Officine Panerai’s production, distribution network, and public profile have grown to unprecedented levels among brands, it is the company’s unique history more than anything else that is the key to understanding the appeal of its watches.
Today Panerai is one of the most sought-after brands among current watchmakers. Its special identity, compelling history, and reputation as a watch favored by both sophisticated aficionados and everyday wearers has driven its dramatic growth.