A luxury watch brand with one of the strongest visual identities in the business, Panerai is an industry heavyweight.
Their success is all the more extraordinary considering the manufacture was exclusively a military supplier for the majority of their time in operation, only opening up to a civilian audience as recently as 1993.
Since then, however, Panerai has managed to garner themselves one of the most fiercely passionate fan bases of any of watchmaking’s top players, affectionately dubbed the ‘Paneristi’.
Considering their heritage, it is no surprise the watches in the brand’s collection have long been big, bold, robust and utilitarian. Strength and legibility are key for any watch destined for the armed forces. So, when Panerai brought their combat models over to the consumer market, with barely any alteration to the standard-issue military models, it kicked off the whole oversized watch trend which dominated the early part of the 21st century—helped along by one especially notable celebrity endorsement.
But as times have changed, the company has changed with them. There has been a conspicuous softening and scaling down of some of the most admired pieces in the portfolio, bringing in a wider and more varied clientele.
Today, their uniquely styled and flawlessly engineered timepieces remain as highly in demand as ever, as Panerai continues to push itself in evermore innovative directions.
The company which would go on to become Panerai had humble beginnings, founded in 1860 as a combined watchmaking school, repair shop and sales showroom. It was established by Giovanni Panerai at the age of 35, setting up on the Ponte alle Grazie in Florence, in the heart of Italy’s Tuscany region.
Although small, the enterprise enjoyed moderate success, with most of the revenue made servicing and selling high quality pocket watches.
Giovanni’s son, Leon Francesco, joined his father’s business around the turn of the century, the name changing to G. Panerai & Figlio and the premises moving to a busier location opposite Florence’s majestic cathedral, the Duomo, in Piazza San Giovanni. The brand’s store is still there today.
Before long, the firm began to grow as the two men started fabricating components for Swiss watchmakers, and the company name changed again, to Orologeria Svizzwera.
But it was when Leon’s own son, Guido, joined the family business that Panerai started making serious inroads into the industry. He was able to expand the scope of the company and win a contract to supply equipment to the Italian Navy, the Regia Marina. And as part of that deal, it was Guido who, in 1915, invented a self-illuminating paste to coat the hands and dials of the depth gauges and underwater compasses the Navy was using.
The luminescent material was a mixture of zinc sulphide, mesothorium and a new constituent, discovered less than 20-years previously by Pierre and Marie Curie. Known as Radium, it was not only far brighter than any of the comparable substances of the time, it also had a strong underwater adhesion, making it perfect for military applications. Guido filed the patent for his creation on the 23rd March 1916, and called it Radiomir.
Nearly 20-years later in 1935, and with war looming, the Regia Marina beat a path to Panerai’s door again, commissioning a wristwatch for the frogmen of the First Submarine Group, their elite underwater commando unit.
Panerai, in turn, called on Rolex, who even then were leaders in waterproof timepieces having recently developed the Oyster, to furnish them with cases and movements. Panerai supplied the dials, complete with their groundbreaking luminescence, and produced a 47mm model which was perfectly legible in even the murkiest conditions, christening the finished product after the glowing material and naming the watch the Radiomir.
The Panerai Luminor
Although the Radiomir was a well received piece, with some considering it the world’s first purpose built dive watch, it wasn’t long after its introduction that the terrible effects associated with radium started to make themselves evident. In response, Panerai set to work again on a replacement and soon found it in another radioactive, but far safer component, tritium. Not only was it less harmful than radium, but the compound the company came up with was also brighter and longer-lasting than Radiomir. It was registered for a patent on 11th January 1949, with the brand name, Luminor.
However, the first Luminor watch wouldn’t emerge until 1955 and was more an expansion on the Radiomir, with one crucial addition. That year, the two siblings in charge of the firm, Giuseppe and Maria Giuseppe Panerai, filed their invention of a ‘Tight Seal Device’. A manually operated mechanism, it consisted of a steel horseshoe-shaped guard across the crown with a pivoting lever arm which could be released to allow for winding or setting the time. It gave the marque’s newest creation a water resistance of 200m, a remarkable accomplishment for the period.
As before, Rolex supplied the cases and some of the movements, with others sourced from Swiss brand, Angelus. The dials were again Panerai’s, which had by this time graduated to their renowned ‘sandwich’ arrangement. Consisting of two plates laid on top of each other, the bottom plate was coated with the Luminor paint while the upper plate had its indexes stenciled out to allow the luminescence to shine through.
Unfortunately, the watchmaking arm of Panerai’s business went into a period of decline soon after, and following the death of Guido in 1972, the new head of the company shut it down completely. Now run by a former Italian naval officer named Dino Zei, he decided to concentrate entirely on making aerospace components and diving equipment.
Yet, in the 1990s, a major trend for mechanical watches with a strong military pedigree emerged. Spying an opportunity, the now renamed (again) Officine Panerai released three models commercially to try and claim a spot for themselves; the Luminor, the Luminor Marina (which added a date function and running seconds sub dial) and a chronograph called the Mare Nostrum.
But it was a slow start. The watches simply gathered dust in stores for years until one passerby, browsing the watch boutiques of Florence during a break in filming his new movie, Daylight, spotted a Luminor and was instantly smitten.
Action hero royalty Sylvester Stallone loved the watch so much he not only wore one throughout the film, he also ordered a limited edition of 200 for cast and crew. And it was all Panerai needed. The superstar validation was enough for the brand to suddenly become one of the most sought after names in the industry.
In 1997, the Vendome Group—now Richemont—bought the manufacture for just $1.5m, and pumped in enough funding for a massive plan of expansion. New premises allowed the brand to start creating their own movements, starting with the P. 2002, a manually winding, GMT caliber. Others would soon follow, building Panerai’s reputation as a pioneer. In addition, their commitment to developing new materials is as strong as it always was and within their core collection—Luminor, Luminor Due, Radiomir and Submersible—you will find pieces forged in titanium, ceramic, a carbon fiber composite called Carbotech, a patented red gold known as Goldtech, and especially bronze, with the manufacture being mostly responsible for the recent trend in the metal across the industry.
Throughout the entire catalog however, the basic underpinnings of those original navy dive watches is still plain to see. The masculine styling and rounded cushion cases are instantly recognizable and as popular as ever.
The brand itself is enjoying the most innovative and profitable period in its history. With a reputation for flawless engineering and progressive technology, Panerai continues to go from strength to strength.
The Panerai Collections
There are four different model collections in the Panerai lineup:
The Submersible: a 2019 offshoot from the Luminor, the Submersible collection houses the brand’s most capable dive models, all water resistant to at least 300m, with rotating bezels and skeletonized hands
The Luminor: easily the most identifiable Panerai collection, and arguably the most discernable models from any manufacture, the Luminor is renowned for its strength, durability and, of course, that crown guard
The Luminor Due: the dive watch as a dress watch. The Due retains many of the design keys of the full-blooded Luminor series, but is generally smaller, thinner and with a water resistance of just 30m
The Radiomir: where it all began for Panerai. A range of truly vintage-looking watches, big, bold and utterly reliable
How Much is a Panerai Watch?
Panerai is a luxury watch manufacturer, and their pricing structure covers roughly the same sphere as the likes of Rolex, Omega and IWC.
That means an entry level piece, such as the Radiomir Base Logo (PAM00753) goes for around $5,000 at retail. The least expensive Luminor model, the Luminor Due PAM00755 is about $7,100, while the Submersibles start at the $10,000 mark, for the 42mm PAM00973.
At the top end, the most pricey is currently the PAM01108, the Submersible EcoPangaea™ Tourbillon GMT Mike Horn Edition, an extraordinary 50mm limited edition cast from recycled metal from the boats used by the famed South African explorer—yours for $220,000.
On the whole however, the vast bulk of the Panerai collection exists in the $10,000 to $30,000 range.
On the preowned market, those retail prices hold fairly steady, due to the fact that Panerai are known to restrict the number of watches they supply to their network, so driving up demand. So a new, boxed model will cost about the same as one from direct from the manufacture.
But, older and vintage pieces can be had significantly cheaper. A Luminor Marina PAM00003 from the late ‘90s starts at well south of $4,000, as does the Radiomir Black Seal PAM00380. Even the Submersible range, although a very new addition, is far less expensive, starting at less than $6,000.
In short, there is a Panerai for nearly every budget and every taste.
Who Wears Panerai
As you might imagine, Panerai’s reputation and status has attracted some serious action stars to the brand. But with the recent toning down of many of their models, they have now been joined by other, far less testosterone-driven admirers.
Below is just a selection of the sort of customers who have an appreciation for all things Panerai:
Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jason Statham, Dwayne Johnson, Chris Pratt, Ben Affleck, Bill Clinton, Adrien Brody, Andre 3000, Robert Iger, Ellen DeGeneres, Heidi Klum, Salma Hayek, Elizabeth Hurley