Highly sought after by watch aficionados around the world, Officine Panerai is a luxury watchmaking brand with a remarkable history. Offering a limited range of designs, Panerai remains true to its heritage. It produces prime quality timepieces with distinctive, eye-catching appearance, remaining a favourite amongst adventurous individuals who prioritise comfort and functionality.
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 across the country.
Unsurprisingly, the company’s fame had also reached the Italian Royal Navy, and prompted them to commission extraordinary durable underwater military equipment from Panerai, in the early years of the twentieth century. The profitable cooperation with the Royal Navy, instantly catalysed the brand to the position of a leader in the field.
By constantly seeking innovation, and employing latest technology, Panerai maintained its vanguard position, and equipped the Navy with the absolute best equipment. 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 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 pieces and distributed to the Italian frogmen commandos in 1936. The prototype of this watch is what was soon to become known as the company’s staple watch – the Radiomir. This remarkable piece of engineering was in fact the very first professional underwater military watch.
When the adverse side effects of radium became publicly known, Panerai faced the difficult question of how to continue producing luminescent waterproof timepieces. Scientific research brought about a less health threatening alternative – tritium. This prompted the launch a new, improved luminescent watch – Luminor, which was launched by the end of the Second World War. Another defining feature of the Luminor watch was its crown-protecting bridge, with reinforced wire lugs created from the same block of steel as the case. This unique appearance served to achieve an increased level of water-resistance. The cushion-shaped case remained closely reminiscent of the earlier, Radiomir model.
Luminescence was the technology which enabled Panerai to decidedly outshine its competitors. It allowed the brand to advance underwater warfare technologies. For example, the pioneering use of radiomir paste was used to illuminate timers for detonators. Apart from that, it was also used for wrist compasses and simply as torches. Until 2009, when the Japanese developed the fluorescent alternative – ‘Luminova’, tritium-based paint was the pain material used in Panerai watches.
What is particularly interesting about the early models of Panerai watches, is the fact that they were assembled by Rolex. When Guido Panerai reached out to Rolex, they joined powers to create exceptionally reliable and durable pieces which could be used in the most challenging conditions. The movements and case of these watches was that of a Rolex Oyster.
Today’s 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 commonly used in today’s watches also echoes the original, water resistant strap, long enough to be worn over a diving suit.
When the company’s last descendant – Giuseppe Panerai died in 1972, the company faced an uncertain future. It was then taken over by a retired navy colonel – Dino Zei, who served as CEO until 1997. Zei changed the name of the company to Officine Panerai, and sustained the company’s position as the main supplier of depth gauges, compasses and underwater torches to the Navy.
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 Panerai watch in the 1996 movie ‘Daylight’. In return for the unsolicited exposure, a friendship and partnership developed between the actor and the brand. The company has even launched a Panerai Luminor Submersible Slytech collection in his honour.
While the company’s headquarters are still based in Italy, the production has moved to Switzerland in effort to combine Italian heritage with Swiss engineering. Despite this transition, over the years, the brand has stayed true to the quintessential design of its cult models: the Radiomir and the Luminor. With exception to a few occasional limited edition watches, and collectors’ pocket watches, the brand continues to limit its watch production to Radiomir and Luminor models, which have changed very little over decades.
Over its long and rich history, Officine Panerai has evolved, but it never lost sight of what it originally sought out to accomplish. For its loyal commitment to its heritage, It remains a favourite amongst those fond of utilitarian designs, where form and beauty were secondary to their function.