Brief History of Panerai
Part I: Wartime
Established in 1860 in Florence, Italy, a good portion of Panerai’s early history and evolution is murky and it is sometimes difficult to separate fact from corporate folklore. However, what we do know is that for much of its history, Panerai was not a watchmaker for the public but in fact, an official supplier of instruments to the Royal Italian Navy. The advent of World War II (1939 – 1945) required most nations to ramp up their military efforts and timepiece instruments were in high demand on the battlefields—on land and underwater. As such, Florentine-based Panerai specialized in supplying dive watches for the Italian military’s fleet of frogmen (combat divers).
Modern Panerai watches take their design cues from vintage military divers[/caption] Every component of a Panerai watch was thoughtfully designed for use underwater. As a result, these dive watches sported enormous cushion-shaped waterproof cases, extra long waterproof straps to accommodate dive suits, and highly luminescent dials for reading in low light. It may come as a surprise to some, but these watches were actually designed by Rolex using pocket watch manually-wound movements. Panerai patented two different luminous substances in the 20th century to achieve that bright glow on the watch dials. One was a radium-based substance called “Radiomir” (1916), and the other was a tritium-based substance called “Luminor” (1949). As we’ll see later, these names were adopted by modern-day Panerai for two of their main watch models. Although Panerai eventually stopped making watches for the Italian Navy in the 1970s, most of the design language of those early Marina Militare dive watches continue until today.
Part II: Pre-VendomeIn the 1990s, Panerai finally set out to make watches for the public. They launched their first collection in 1993 with the Luminor, the Luminor Marina and the Mare Nostrum watches, all of which were directly influenced by the vintage Marina Militare dive watches from WWII. In a twist of fate, when action superstar Sylvester Stallone was in Florence filming in the mid-nineties, a massive Panerai Luminor caught his eye. Not only did Sly wear a Panerai in the movie Daylight, but he also ordered of a batch of Panerai watches with the inscription “Slytech” to give them to his Hollywood friends—including Arnold Schwarzenegger, who in turn wore a Panerai in the movie Eraser. This star power behind the brand enticed the Vendôme Group (later known as the Richemont Group) to purchase Panerai in 1997 with plans for international expansion. Collectors often refer to Panerai watches produced between 1993 and 1997 as “Pre-Vendome Panerais.”
Part III: Panerai Under Richemont
Today, Panerai belongs to the Richemont Group (parent company of Cartier, Vacheron Constantin, Piaget, and others) and is one of the top luxury watch brands in the market. With bold cases, legible dials with a mix of Arabic numerals and stick indices, and a bevy of strap options, the company continues to make watches that pay tribute to vintage Panerai watches but reimagined for a modern audience.
Richemont Group has grown Panerai into a global brand[/caption] While many Paneristis (an affectionate name given to Panerai enthusiasts) believe that manually-wound Panerai watches are closer to the original spirit of the brand, Panerai now makes a wide range of automatic models as well. Plus, the brand also offers some models with in-house movements. Additionally, Panerai watches are available in a range of materials like steel, gold, titanium, ceramic, and more. At a quick glance, many Panerai watches can look the same due to strong design traits. However, upon closer inspection, there is indeed a slew of different options to choose from. We will delve into some popular Panerai watch models to highlight their key traits so you can pick your perfect Panerai like a pro.
The Panerai Luminor's defining characteristic is its bridge crown protector[/caption] The most popular model in the brand’s collection, the Luminor is synonymous with Panerai. The key defining trait of a Panerai Luminor watch is its exaggerated bridge-like crown protector that protrudes from the right side of the case. Not just for looks, this mechanism (operated by a lever) actually serves to push the winding crown into the case to keep the watch watertight. Unlocking the lever releases the winding crown from the case to allow the wearer to wind or set the watch. There are a few different versions of the Luminor. First, there’s the Luminor Base versus the Luminor Marina, where the first has just the hour and minute hands on the dial while the latter includes a running seconds subdial at 9 o’clock. Then, there’s the Luminor versus the Luminor 1950. As its name suggests, the Luminor 1950 watch collection takes design inspiration from Panerai watches from the 1950s. On the other hand, Luminor watches are direct decedents of the Pre-Vendome watches designed by Alessandro Bettarini in the 1990s. The differences are slight, but generally, the Luminor 1950 is broader with rounder edges around the case, longer lugs, and a more domed crystal. Conversely, the Luminor is slightly slimmer with a squarer frame and shorter lugs. The quickest way to tell the difference is that the Luminor 1950 has “REG. T.M.” inscribed on the crown protector. Aside from time-only models, Panerai Luminor watches are also available with additional complications such as a date function, chronograph, GMT, and power reserve indicators.