In Focus Watches

History of Panerai’s Journey from Milspec to Platinumtec

Panerai Radiomir Annual Calendar Platinumtech Experience PAM01432

Considering that Panerai started out – and continued for its first 135 years or so – as a supplier of military materiel, the history of Panerai is a tale of  a dual personality. On one side you have war and on the other, what they eventually segued into, peace. What grew famous as a maker of tool watches is now a supplier of luxury and haute-horlogerie watches that sacrifice none of the original functional aesthetic. Maybe Hummers and Mercedes G-Wagons share the transition, along with certain items of apparel like combat trousers, which offer the same military chic, but Panerai can also claim to be the only watch brand which began life exclusively equipping fighting forces.

When Panerai was revived in 1993 primarily for its home market of Italy, its emergence followed decades of near-total dormancy after its below-the-radar (literally) period of producing diving watches for assorted Special Forces. The relaunch of Panerai was as much of a challenge as breathing life into any moribund brand, but it came with that most valuable of assets: an exciting, even melodramatic narrative that would provide the ideal persona for a watch so macho it became a default timepiece for the more virile screen heroes of the 1990s onward.

Rolex Panerai Radiomir 3646 1940s

Panerai Radiomir 3646 made by Rolex for Panerai Officine (1940s), image credit: Bonhams

As a long-standing supplier to the Italian Royal Navy (Regia Marina), Panerai’s involvement with wristwatches began in 1935 when the Navy approached the company to provide waterproof watches. The production of diving watches was a perfect fit for a company selling semaphore apparatus, compasses, torches, depth gauges, detonation timers and the like.

So named because of the dial’s luminous material, the ensuing Radiomir was designed for superior legibility enhanced by luminosity to ensure suitability in adverse conditions, i.e. night dives. These were paramount concerns for the Navy, so the watches would require a large dial. The size was such that robust and dependable pocket watch movements could be accommodated with ease. The numerals were oversized by any measure, while the dial construction consisted of a ‘sandwich’, the luminous material captured in between.

Panerai German Frogmen WWII
Panerai Italian Frogmen WWII

German and Italian Frogmen wore the first Panerai’s made by Rolex during World War II

A year after Panerai received the commission, prototypes of the Radiomir underwent testing with frogmen. This supports the argument that Panerai should be credited with creating the first professional underwater military watches, an important accolade in Panerai’s history. That alone is enough to fire up the imagination of enthusiasts, but what would add to the allure a half-century later, once watch  collecting had become a craze, was the use of Rolex-made cases and Rolex-modified Cortebert movements for those early models. Rolex’s expertise with waterproof timepieces had been established a decade earlier, when Mercedes Gleitze wore an Oyster when swimming the English Channel in 1927.

Captain Packer’s WW2 Panerai Dive Watch

Captain Packer’s WWII Panerai sold at auction in 2019 for £53,592

Attaining prominence during World War II, combat saw Radiomirs worn by the Italian Navy’s underwater saboteurs, including those who rode powered torpedoes toward their ultimate destination: British ships. Certain Radiomirs are known to have been used by the German Navy’s equivalent squadrons, their casebacks hand-engraved with the legend ‘Kampfschwimmer’. According to legend, these were ‘commandeered’ by the Germans, and it remains one of the more intriguing stories that pepper Panerai lore.

As is the nature of military equipment, survival rates for these pieces are low. Various sources put the total number as 1,500 to 1,600 watches made between 1935 and 1970, when it stopped supplying the Italian Navy. The few that have escaped Panerai’s own collection are highly prized, beyond the obvious scarcity, for their military provenance, and handsome if brutal looks. These exemplars of horological rarity now command enormous sums in auction: a quick search shows £75,000 as a typical price for a genuine World War II Panerai.

Panerai Radiomir Egiziano Egyption Navy 1956

Panerai Radiomir Egiziano produced for the Egyptian Navy (1956), image credit: Christie’s

Soldiering on through the 1950s, Panerai faded from the consciousness of the watch community until the revival of the mechanical wristwatch and the ensuing growth of the collectors’ market – especially for military timepieces. But they hadn’t disappeared entirely in the interim. What followed the Radiomir were peacetime oddities, such as the massive Egiziano, produced for the Egyptian Navy in 1956. That was the year the company introduced its most famous feature, the lock-down mechanism over the crown, found in the Luminor which forms the other main range in the Panerai family.

Panerai Mare Nostrum Chronograph 5218-301 A 1993

Panerai Mare Nostrum Chronograph 5218-301/A (1993), image credit: Christie’s

This was also a period of false starts, many prototypes having been developed, but which would only reach production decades later, such as the Mare Nostrum chronograph designed during the war. Others would remain near-one-offs, now only to be found in the Panerai collection. Further prototypes were developed in an attempt to modernise the brand, including a titanium model from the 1980s.

It would take until 1993 for the company to enter serial watch production for civilians. In 1972, an ex-naval officer named Dino Zei took over the management of Guido Panerai e Figlio, the first person from outside the family to head the company. It was Zei who changed the name to Officine Panerai, and under his aegis the company revived the Luminor, Luminor Marina and Mare Nostrum models, primarily for the home market.

Panerai Luminor 5218-201 A Sylvester Stallone Daylight

Panerai Luminor 5218-201/A worn by Sylvester Stallone in Daylight (1996)

Economies with the truth cloud the sequence of events which relieved Panerai of its Italy-only cult status. What isn’t in doubt is that Sylvester Stallone was so enamoured with the watches that they featured in his film Daylight (1996) and then lent his name to the now-collectible ‘Slytech’ models. Concurrently, then-rival Arnold Schwarzenegger wore one in Eraser (1996), the watch filling the screen in the opening credits. These films put Panerai on the map.

Both were preceded in this saga, however, by the mysterious, aptly-named Monty Shadow, who first noticed the watches. He provided them to the two Hollywood A-listers and ultimately brokered the 1997 sale to Richemont, owner of Cartier and other brands, then known as the Vendôme Group. Richemont would develop Panerai into a brand that balanced its two- model roots – Radiomir and Luminor – with the demands of modern collectors.

Panerai Radiomir Annual Calendar PAM01364

Panerai Radiomir Annual Calendar Platinumtech™ Boutique Exclusive, PAM01364, £49,800

Which brings us to the latest achievement in the 25-year history of Panerai under Richemont. There remain few complications which Panerai haven’t adapted, and one more has just shortened that list. The company’s first Annual Calendar, available in three colours and two case materials, deftly manages to multiply the amount of data displayed on the dial without compromising the legibility which defined its forebears.

Notable for its green dial, the boutique-exclusive PAM01364 celebrates the opening of Casa Panerai in Paris at 120 Avenue de Champs Elysees, the third Panerai boutique of its kind, along with New York and Milan. The classic 45mm Radiomir cushion case is made of Panerai’s Platinumtech, its dial a deep gradient green. The small seconds at nine o’clock, minutes, and hours are displayed conventionally, while the day and date appear at three o’clock through two windows.

Panerai Radiomir Annual Calendar PAM01364
Panerai Radiomir Annual Calendar PAM01364 Caseback

An ingenious external moving disc carries the names of the months on the dial’s circumference, an arrow fixed at three o’clock showing the current month, next to the day/date windows. As each month changes, a cam in the movement turns the disc, adjusting the change instantaneously. It also automatically switches between the 30-day and 31-day months, with only February requiring the owner’s intervention.

Inside is the automatic P.9010/AC calibre with two barrels for a three-day power reserve, visible through the sapphire crystal case-back. A lesson in languages is part of the package, as the months, days, and the name of the complication, Calendario Annuale, are written in Italian. The strap is dark brown hand-dyed matte alligator, with white gold buckle.

Panerai Radiomir Annual Calendar Burgundy

Panerai Radiomir Annual Calendar Platinumtech™ Experience PAM01432, £76,000

Alongside PAM01364 are the variants PAM01363 with a sun-brushed blue dial in Goldtech case with a blue hand-dyed matt alligator strap, and PAM01432 in a Platinumtech case, with a sun-brushed burgundy dial, and black hand-dyed matte alligator strap. While all three entries in the Panerai Radiomir Annual Calendar Collection are a far cry from the time-only, manually-wound Radiomir of nearly 90 years ago, the spirit remains.

More details at Panerai.

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About the author

Ken Kessler

Ken Kessler is unimpressed by the 21st century and enjoys retro, if costly, boys’ toys, such as cameras, mechanical watches and fountain pens – of late, he is obsessed with Italian red wine. He has written four books on luxury hi-fi equipment and collects chronographs and film noir DVDs.