History Of Panerai. Part 1 – Vintage and Pre-Vendome

Panerai first began in 1860 when Giovanni Panerai opened his watchmaking shop on Ponte Alle Grazie, Florence, Italy, where he sold and serviced quality pocket watches and established a watchmaking school. He named the shop Orologeria Svizzwera. By the end of the 1800s Giovanni’s son Leon Francesco had become involved in the business which had expanded both to new premises at Piazza San Giovanni and fabricating parts and tools for the Swiss as well as selling their timepieces. Crucially, the Swiss were also supplying father and son with parts such as cases and movements, something which would become useful in later years. In the image above you can see the Omega logo below the white clock in the top left of the window.

Leon’s son Guido joined the business in the early 20th century and under his guidance Panerai diversified into mechanical engineering and instrument design supplying items such as wearable depth gauges, timing and contact triggers for mines and  submersible navigation tools for the Italian Navy (Regia Marina).

In 1915 Guido created a process for adding luminous markings to his military equipment made from a paste which used the highly glowing and equally toxic Radium, which i have previously written about here – https://www.officialwatches.com/blog/the-radium-girls/

He patented it on 23rd March 1916 and called it “Radiomir”. This would change everything for the company.

In 1936, Panerai received a request from the Regia Marina to build watches for their divers which were visible in the low light conditions of the waters in which they were to be used. They needed to be big, legible, and tough. Although they were highly adept at creating military equipment, watches were to be a step into the unknown, so Panerai turned to one of the established Swiss companies known for their expertise in waterproof watches… Rolex.

The first Panerai dive watch, the “Radiomir” was made by soldering wires on to the the case of a Rolex pocket watch and utilising the movement within it while adding what would become the trademark luminous dial.

The first Panerai was reference 2533 which was a prototype made in 1936, the dial markings are very “Art Deco” reflecting the production era. You can clearly see that it is derivative of Rolex pocket watch. This was, of course, from a time before the vicious brand protection and rivalry that we all know and love today.

Panerai/Rolex continued to make Radiomir watches for the Italian Navy and began to introduce different dial variations such as the “California” dial, which was a mix of arabic and Roman numerals.

It is after this point that they begin to really hone their dial making and produce the 3,6,9,12 dials that are seen on the majority of Panerai models to this day. They were made using 2 overlapping dial sheets. One which was coated in Radiomir sat below a black dial which contained cut-out markers which the luminescence glowed through.

By the 1940’s production was going well and the Italian Navy requested improved specifications as their watches were spending more and more time underwater. They wanted watches which were even more resistant to the tension and flex of heavy underwater use and considered that the wire lugs on the current Radiomir’s were a weak point on the watch, an issue which they wanted resolved. Panerai’s solution to this was to reshape the case to incorporate horn style lugs rather than the traditional soldered wires. This evolution is known as the ’40s case.

Panerai and WW2

Throughout the World War II, Panerai watches and instruments were seeing a LOT of use from the Italian Navy, particularly the frogmen divers who were manning the Maiali submersibles, known as “pigs”or “hogs” due to being difficult to steer. These were two-man assault vehicles which were launched from the naval submarines with the express purpose either attaching explosive charges to the hulls of enemy ships, or dismounting the “pigs” and letting them drive into the hulls of ships or submarines. As the front of these vehicles were packed with explosives, they were basically “ride on” torpedos.

There is a mystery which has not yet been resolved/confirmed/or denied surrounding WW2 Panerai. We know that they were made for and used by the Italian Navy, but we do not know why so many unbranded Panerai began appearing on the wrists of German “Kampfschwimmers” (divers). They could have been supplied by either Panerai themselves or the Italians. It is unlikely that this will ever be known. However, we do know that they were definitely worn, in number, by kampfschwimmers as well as the Regia Marina. What can be said with some degree of confidence is that Rolex would have been unaware of this situation as they were watchmaking for the allies and considered themselves to have a special relationship with Britain having been founded there in 1905.

The photos above^ definitely show German divers using 47mm Panerai watches. We can be sure of this because their dive suits were different to those of the Italians. And, one was removed by the British from a German diver apprehended while attempting to blow up a bridge in Nijmegen, Holland, in the wake of Operation Market Garden in 1944. The watch has recently been auctioned and a great investigation of it can be read here – https://perezcope.com/2019/03/13/bridges-of-nijmegen-reloaded-vintage-panerai-3646-at-fellows/ 

Post War Panerai

Radium to Tritium.

In 1949 Panerai developed a new substance which superseded Radiomir as the risks and radioactivity of Radium was becoming highly publicised.  The new luminous compound was made using Tritium, and was trademarked in 1949 as “Luminor”. Panerai used this name when they released a new line of watches featuring a crown locking mechanism.

The Panerai Luminor arrives…

The Panerai crown guard has become synonymous with the brand and is still used by them today. It exists to protect the winding crown in two ways. Firstly the crescent moon of steel surrounding the crown protects it against knocks and accidental damage, something which was absolutely a risk when under water, and the locking lever which is raised when winding and closed to seal pushes the crown into the case and snug to the gasket which creates a watertight seal when when the lever is closed. This mechanism significantly reduces wear to the crown as it no longer needed to be screwed into the case, the threading of screw crowns can wear with regular use and eventually sacrifice water resistance or suffer from cross threading. Since Panerai were still producing hand-winders, preserving the life of the crown was important. Panerai filed patent for their locking device in 1956.

In 1954 Rolex issued an edict regarding ongoing collaboration with Panerai, likely due to the volume of watches that ended up in the hands of the Germans during WWII –

“In clarification of the agreement already existing between G. Panerai e Figlio company of Florence and the Rolex company from Geneva, it is clearly agreed that the underwater watches using case models G.6152 and G.6154 (or similar models) made for over fifteen years at the request of and exclusively for the Panerai company are absolutely exclusive to the G. Panerai e Figlio company and they may not be supplied to any other customers, either with a Rolex movement or with any other type of movement. This exclusivity agreement for the aforementioned models is valid in any other foreign country as well as in Italy.”

This instruction coincided with Panerai being commissioned to supply equipment to the Egyptian Navy and being asked to create and supply a diving watch just as the Suez tensions erupted and Egypt were becoming an emerging military power in the Middle East. Panerai had to engineer their own case and use a non Rolex movement or risk falling foul of the agreement. That is exactly what they did and instead of using Rolex supplied cases/movements, they used their wrist mounted compasses and depth gauges as a muse instead.

Reference GPF 2/56was a monster at 60mm, fitted with an 8 day Angelus movement and, for the first time in Panerai history, a rotating bezel. The watch was known as the “Egiziano Grosso” (Big Egyptian).

The Big Egyptian was a truly transitional model for Panerai as it marked both their move away from Rolex, and the beginning of their twilight years as a supplier of tactical watches to the military as the world was beginning an era of relative peace. The company’s instrument manufacture entered a period of decline until 1972.

That year, Giuseppe Panerai, Guido’s son and the family scion who oversaw watch production and manufacture died, and for the first time Panerai was managed by former Italian naval officer and non-family figurehead, Dino Zei. Under Zei, Panerai’s watchmaking activities were suspended until the early 1990’s as the company concentrated on continuing the manufacture of aerospace components, dive tools, and tactical equipment.

The 90’s changed Panerai’s fortunes. The watch world was beginning to take a more than passing interest in mechanical watches again and very notably, Rolex was riding very high on its wave of dive watches for consumers with the Submariner and Sea-Dweller lines, not to mention IWC with its pilot watches and the emerging popular theme of tough mechanical watches with military history. Officine Panerai saw that they could carve themselves a niche in this emerging market, and duly set about raiding their previous watches and prototypes with a view to selling to the public rather than the military.

Panerai first released for public consumption the Luminor, which now referenced case shape rather than luminous paint and the Mare Nostrum, a chronograph variant originally intended for deck officers in the 1940s.

Luminor 1993


Mare Nostrum Prototype – 1943

Mare Nostrum 1993

Initially, consumer response was virtually non-existent as Panerai had very limited distribution and a virtually unknown company profile. They were still operating from their base in Florence, but were completely unknown when compared to their competitors and had no existing consumer clientele to market their watches to. The brand was known to the military as a supplier, but that was the extent of their reach beyond passers by seeing their new offerings on display in their vitrines of jewellers and resellers who had agree to carry their stock. This was a real problem for Panerai and failure was on the horizon.

Salvation came from a rather strange place.

Rambo saved Panerai. No seriously he did.

Sylvester Stallone was shooting his film “Daylight” in Rome. Prior to beginning filming he was browsing some of the watch offerings in Italy and came face to face with the Panerai Luminor and it was done. He later recalled “I immediately knew that this watch had star power”.

Not only did Stallone buy the Luminor that he wore while filming Daylight, but he bulk ordered more and asked for them to be inscribed with “SlyTech” and his signature the caseback so he could gift them to his friends, including Arnold Schwarzenegger and most of the muscle-bound men in Hollywood who’s wrists could accommodate the 44mm size of the Luminor admirably.

In a very short space of time, Panerai went from anonymity to huge international exposure when they began appearing on the wrists and in the films of Holllywood’s action heroes which threw the doors to the US market wide open. This was exactly the launch that the brand needed and it arrived by a twist of fate. Sylvester Stallone continued to support and partner with Panerai and a number of models were made with SlyTech branding in dedication to the man who kick-started their success.

By 1997 Panerai was in demand and in the ascendency. It caught the eye of the “Vendome Group” (now Richemont S.A) who to take a low-risk gamble and absorbed Panerai for approximately $1.5 million USD.

With the Vendome group as a parent company, Panerai gained Angelo Bonati as its first sales director. Bonati came from Cartier, and said of Panerai – “I started in February 1997. At that time, I was alone, in one office, one chair, one computer, a benjamin ficus tree, one window, one door. No assistant. Nothing. Sometimes I was thinking, ‘What am I doing here?’ I started to work on everything: the guarantee, the assortment, everything. I had on my desk in front of me this Luminor. There was something that called me every time from this watch. I said to myself, people will either love or hate it. They would either say ‘That’s fantastic!’ or ‘That’s bullshit!’… That was the scenario I had in front of me.”

He retired from Panerai 21 years later.

It wasn’t bullshit, but it does close the vintage and “Pre-Vendome” years of the brand.