Panerai and its Navy Legacy

By Greg Kelly December 22, 2017

Founded in Florence in 1860, Panerai is an iconic watchmaking brand with a fascinating legacy. Considered to be one of the world’s finest watchmakers, until recently Panerai has been a military top secret, producing submersible timepieces and other luminescent equipment for the Italian Royal Navy.

Italian Frogmen with Panerai wristwatches
Italian Frogmen with Panerai wristwatches

 

Founded in Florence in 1860, Panerai is an iconic watchmaking brand with a fascinating legacy. Considered to be one of the world’s finest watchmakers, until recently Panerai has been a military top secret, producing submersible timepieces and other luminescent equipment for the Italian Royal Navy.

For the preliminary years of its existence, the company specialised in producing precision instruments like compasses and nautical equipment. Its fate was overturned in the mid 1930s, when the Regia Marine reached out to the Florentine workshop, commissioning an innovative watch unlike anything hitherto available on the market. It requested a heavy-duty time measuring instrument which would be suitable for underwater operations carried out by the Italian frogmen, even in the most adverse conditions.

On the eve of the Second World War, Panerai had developed the first prototypes for the watch which soon became known as Radiomir. The use of Radium – a newly discovered, luminescent particle by the Nobel prize-winning scientist Marie Curie, made it possible for the company to meet the specific needs of the Navy. The application of this glow-in-the-dark substance allowed the Italian frogmen to carry out hazardous underwater attacks in total darkness.

In order to supply truly reliable water resistant cases fit for purpose, Panerai collaborated with the Swiss watch manufacturer and pioneer in the field of waterproof watches – Rolex. Following Mercedes Gleitze’s famous swim across the English Channel in 1927, the Oyster case technology was implemented in the specialist Radiomir watches. After obtaining permission from the Swiss powerhouse, Panerai then customised the movements and dials to satisfy the particular demands of the military.

The Navy’s archives record that only ten prototypes were developed by 1936. As stated in the official documents, the watches measured an awe-inspiring 47mm, which emphasises the fact that they were designed for combat purposes, clearly prioritising function over form.

Panerai military legacy was forged though its special warfare timepieces developed in the midst of WWII. The watches proved themselves indispensable on the night of the 19th December 1941, during the famous Raid on Alexandria. The Italian Navy divers of the Decima Flottiglia MAS successfully attacked two British Royal Navy battleships in the harbour of Alexandria, Egypt. This was achieved through the use of three torpedoes, each manned with two crew members which sneaked into the port. Within a very narrow timespan, they managed to sink the targeted British vessels and escape unseen. The spectacular triumph of the Italians was facilitated by their top quality, glow-in-the-dark Radiomir watches.

Italian Frogmen at Sea
Italian Frogmen at Sea

 

In 1943, Panerai launched the Mare Nostrum watch. Designed with naval deck officers in mind, it was the brand’s first ever chronograph. It featured the hallmark luminescence, characteristic of all its products. It found much admiration amongst military servicemen across the world, to the extent that in 1956, the Egyptian Navy commissioned a similar watch. In response to their request, Panerai produced the L’Egiziano. The watch measured an impressive 60 millimetres, and featured a marked bezel for calculating immersion time. It was also capable of withstanding depths of up to 200 metres, and came with a hallmark crown-protecting bridge which had previously appeared in Panerai prototypes. This quintessentially military watch was later revived in 1993 as the first re-edition, and once again in 2017. Like the original, the watch features an exceptional size and a great water resistance.

Panerai Mare Nostrum
Panerai Mare Nostrum

 

The ties between Panerai and the Navy do not end there however. By 1972, following the death of the last Panerai descendant – Giuseppe Panerai, the company was taken over by Dino Zei, a retired Navy Colonel. Zei worked to sustain the link between the firm and the Italian military, supplying instruments for top-secret operations, including wrist depth gauges, compasses and underwater torches. In 1993, Zei released a limited edition line of civilian watches inspired by historical models created for the World War II commandos. Unsurprisingly, these were much sought after by collectors and watch aficionados alike.

As Panerai came into possession of the Richemont Group in 1997, the company entered a new stage in watch production. Nevertheless, the new leadership upheld the firm’s chief objective of producing large, functional, military inspired watches faithful to its original Italian aesthetic.

 

Images ©: Header. Wikimedia  1. Kampschwimmer  2. Timekeepersclub  3. Monochrome