OfficinePanerai, started by Giovanni Panerai in 1860s Florence, was formed to create precision mechanical instruments specifically for diving. By the 1930s, under Giovanni’s grandson Guido Panerai, the company was producing a range that included compasses and depth gauges, all of which could be worn on the wrist. Panerai’s reputation forquality earned the company a contract with the Italian Navy to build water-resistant, highly legible watches for their military divers.
The Rolex-engined Radiomirs were the first evolution of the famous dive watch and featured the sandwich dial that gave off the distinctive bright glow. Instead of having applied numbers on the dial, which are often quite thin and therefore not as bright, the sandwich dial consisted of two layers.
The first was the black dial, visible through the crystal, with bold numbers and indices punched out of it. The second layer sat behind it and was covered with luminous paint, which gave a far superior glow because of its thickness. Originally being painted with super-radioactive radium (hence the ‘Radiomir’ nomenclature) also contributed to the legibility in low light.
When radium was outlawed, the luminescent substance was replaced with tritium, dubbed by Panerai as ‘Luminor’, and alongside developments in case design and technology, the Luminor watch was born. It featured the same sandwich dial, but a more robust case with thicker lugs, moving on from the soldered lugs and cushion cases that were mainly an evolution from pocket-watches.
Panerai also introduced applied numeral dials as well, but instead of the traditional method of painting the numerals straight onto the face, they were first carved out of the dial and filled in, providing thicker, brighter lume. The most important development, however, was the crown device. It served to protect the crown from knocks, and also to lock it down and seal it from water ingress, and has since become a trademark icon instantly recognisable as Panerai.
As the war ended, so, gradually, did Panerai, and it wasn’t until 1993 that the company started to make watches again. Producing very limited numbers of the Luminor and the new chronograph, the Mare Nostrum, they were collector’s pieces, and stayed away from the mainstream market. 1997 saw the acquisition of Panerai by the Vendôme group, who maintained the slow production rate and limited numbers, but increased the marketing effort tenfold.
The Panerai following built up slowly to its current cult-like status, the original, instantly recognisable design and big, bold cases a fresh breath of air from the standard form. Variations of the base models sold in limited runs kept the brand and its interest alive, including the addition of a seconds hand on the Radiomir and Luminor (making it the Luminor Marina) series.
The introduction of the curved ‘1950s’ retro-looking case for the Panerai Luminor in 2002 is reminiscent of the original 1950s Rolex-powered Marina Militare, and has become more widespread throughout the range.
2007 was turning point for Panerai when it introduced its own high-quality in-house movements with eight-day power reserves, followed by slightly cheaper three-day power reserve movements in 2009. This offered customers high-end, completely in-house pieces as well as the cheaper base models with modified Unitas movements powering them.
Some people say the Panerai attraction is short-lived, but an ever increasing populous of fans stand testament to the longevity of the appeal. They aren’t watches for everyone, particularly the 47mm models, but there is no doubt that they are finely made, desirable timepieces with genuine history behind them.
- It wasn’t until actor Sylvester Stallone bought a Luminor in 1995 and wore it in his movie ‘Daylight’ that Panerai took off as a brand.
- The most complicated Luminor is the L’Astronomo PAM000365, featuring time, date including month, sunrise/sunset indicator, equation of time, power reserve, star disk and tourbillon. It costs a whopping $220,000.
- As you can see from the text on the crown guard (top image), Panerai hold the trademark for its shape. They also have a patent for its operation too.
[Note: This is an updated post of a Guest Article published earlier on our website by Gary Robery from Watchfinder.co.uk]