It started making watches for the Italian Navy, but was saved by Sylvester Stallone. Suffice to say, Panerai’s story is as distinctive as the watches it makeslaura
Those of a certain age will remember Panerai for being the watch that made Jemima Khan call time on her relationship with Hugh Grant. Back in the early Noughties, Hugh bought Jemima a Panerai, inadvertently kickstarting the trend for women wearing oversized men’s watches. A few years later, in a Vogue column, Khan revealed that she ended a particular romance when the watch her paramour gave her packed up. It does beg the question – what was she subjecting that Panerai to? Because this is a brand that has been deemed robust enough for the Italian Navy since the 19th century.
Before watches, Panerai made precision instruments such as torpedo fuses, calculators and depth meters. These were the days without CNC machines and such precision was achieved by craftsmen able to hand-machine brass and steel to accuracies of better than 1/100 of a millimetre.
By 1935, the Italian Navy realised that, should the then-rumoured war with Britain and France come to pass, it had no warships that would stand up to the Allies. The only way it could wage war on the seas was by using more crafty techniques, such as manned torpedoes. These craft would have to be driven to the Allied Ports before the torpedo nets were cut and the charges attached to the underside of the ships.
In order to do this accurately the men needed watches that were watertight and with luminous hands. The tests with Swiss watches available at the time did not go well. They leaked and, in the murky waters, were hard to read.
The Italian Navy asked Panerai to have a go at making something for its frogmen, as these divers were known.
Panerai started by looking at a robust Rolex movement and designed an incredibly robust steel case for it. The defining feature of the case design was a half-moon shaped crown protection device, which had to be lifted to wind the crown.
To provide the requisite luminosity, the dial was covered completely with radioactive zinc, the patent for which Panerai filed back in 1916 before it could even make watches. Rolex provided the case and movement, but the innovative sandwich dial was entirely down to Panerai. This construct, which the brand uses a version of today, comprised a disc covered in radium then covered in Perspex to protect it. Over the top was another disc with the indices cut out so the luminosity from the radium could shine through.
This was the first-ever Radiomir. It was delivered to the Italian Navy in 1936 and 300 were produced during the course of the war cementing Panerai’s reputation as a supplier of military-grade watches.
In 1943, Panerai was asked to make a chronograph, (to be called the Mare Nostrum) but it wasn’t ready by the time Italy surrendered and the only subsequent models of Panerais were made for those divers tasked with searching for and deactivating mines.
Despite the only other development being the launch of the Luminor in 1950, which saw the gamma-ray emitting radium on the dial being replaced with the much safer tritium, Panerai limped on by doing micromechanics.
However, when, in the 1990s, the Italian Navy was put on hold to save money, Panerai was forced to diversify into the civilian market in order to survive. It decided to make a run of just over 600 Luminor watches custom-made in Switzerland, but intended for the Italian market. They did well but it was Sylvester Stallone, who was shooting his action blockbuster Daylight in Italy at the time, who was to change Panerai’s fortune.
Stallone saw a Luminor in a jewellery store window and liked it so much that not only did he get one sent to the set, he also asked for a limited-edition white dial version to be made exclusively for him.
That would have been enough, but Stallone was so enamoured he bought Panerais for his mates, one of the which was the then-CEO of Richemont, Johann Rupert. Rupert did what any good luxury conglomerate CEO would do and bought the brand, moved the operations to Milan and marketed it to sportsman and divers. And the rest is horological history.
All of which proves that we have more to thank Sylvester Stallone for than just the prevalence of a bandana as a must-have male hair accessory.
Given that most Panerais are substantial chunks of watch, historically, unless you were Brienne of Tarth, you were going to struggle. Then along came the Luminor Due – slim, 38mm and with some very unmilitary-issue strap colours. This iteration, with a case from Panerai’s proprietary super-strong gold blend, Goldtech, and a rather decadent red leather strap has all the Panerai trademarks – crown guard, cushion case, oversized numerals – but in a more stylish civilian livery.