History of Panerai
14 September 2017 by Aleksandra Kurek
Highly sought after by watch aficionados around the world, Officine Panerai is an Italian luxury watchmaking brand with a remarkable history. It is known for producing professional depth gauges, compasses and underwater torches, assembled directly at the request of the Italian Royal Navy.
Today the company remains a niche watchmaking brand, offering a limited range of designs, while preserving the original cases of its earliest models. Although the company has been in operation for almost 160 years, its wristwatch family has remained stylistically the same. Their designs draw upon the prototypes developed in partnership with Rolex, or more specifically, the original waterproof 'Oyster' watch from 1926. Despite the fact that Panerai now produces its own movements, its cushion-shaped case is invariably modelled after the early Oyster.
The story of the brand dates back to 1860, when Giovanni Panerai opened a small shop in Florence, Italy. Aside from selling pocket watches, his business was also the city’s very first watchmaking school. Showing exceptional skill and meticulousness, the brand's reputation spread quickly across the country.
At the turn of the century Panerai hit the jackpot, when the company was approached by the Italian Royal Navy who commissioned the brand to produce durable underwater military equipment. The profitable cooperation with the Navy, instantly catalysed the brand to the position of an industry leader, and sustained it for many years.
A milestone for the company took place following the implementation of radium in its products. After Marie Currie, together with her husband Pierre discovered the particle in 1898, it was widely used across industries. Panerai however, was the very first watchmaking brand to use the particle in its pioneering production of luminescent diver’s watches. According to the company’s archives, the prototype of this unique glow-in-the-dark watch, was manufactured only in ten copies and distributed to the Italian frogmen commandos in 1936. Soon to be known as the 'Radiomir' watch, it became the company's staple product, and was in fact the very first professional underwater military watch.
Luminescence was the technology which enabled Panerai to decidedly outshine its competitors. It allowed the brand to advance underwater warfare technologies virtually unrivalled. They successfully widened the application of radiomir paste, using it for pigmenting the dials of watches, and also to illuminate timers for detonator, wrist compasses, and underwater torches.
When the adverse side effects of radium became publicly known, Panerai faced the difficult question of how to continue producing luminescent waterproof timepieces. Luckily however, scientific research brought about a less health threatening alternative - tritium. The implementation of this new, improved technology, prompted a launch of a new luminescent watch - the 'Luminor'. A noteworthy successor to Radiomir, it became available by the end of the Second World War. A visible difference between Luminor and Radiomir, was the application of a new crown-protecting bridge, with reinforced wire lugs created from the same block of steel as the case. This new design served to achieve an increased level of water-resistance.
The company's good fortune faced a sudden halt when the last descendant - Giuseppe Panerai died in 1972. The firm was eventually taken over by a retired Navy Colonel - Dino Zei, until it came into possession of the Richemont Group 1997.
A significant turning point occurred when the Hollywood movie star - Sylvester Stallone accidentally came across Paranei watches while at a short trip in Rome. Instantly spellbound by the watches, Stallone gave the brand significant spotlight by wearing a Paranei watch in the 1996 movie 'Daylight'. In return for the unsolicited endorsement, a collection of Panerai Luminor Submersible Slytech models have been created.
With the exception of occasional limited edition watches, the two luminescent Panerai watches made for military needs - Radiomir and Luminor - are still the only two watch families the brand produces today.
The current version of Radiomir maintains most of its original features such as the characteristically large, cushion-shape case, luminescent numerals, a hand wound-mechanical movement. The strap used in today’s watches also echoes the original, water-resistant strap, long enough to be worn over a diving suit. Since 2009, the florescent paint implemented in Panerai watches is a substance called 'Luminova'.
While the company’s headquarters are still based in Italy, in 2002 production has moved to Switzerland. With this new strategy in place, the company has sought to combine its Italian heritage with Swiss engineering. True to the quintessential and now iconic design of the Radiomir and the Luminor, the company shows no sign of changing course or intention of redesigning its models.
Unshaken by changing trends, Panerai puts its heritage at the forefront. It produces functional timepieces in which no element is superfluous. They are designed to serve a function, and their form and beauty is subordinate to that goal. Unsurprisingly therefore, they remain a favourite amongst adventurous individuals who prioritise comfort and utility.