The Panerai wristwatch has always struck me as an impressive piece of horological machinery. Let’s delve a little deeper and explore what makes these watches so distinctly wrist-worthy.
The popularity of the Panerai watch can be traced back to the role they played in the Navy. Watchmaker Giovanni Panerai (1825-1897) founded Officine
Panerai in 1860. In the following years, Panerai’s grandson Guido Panerai (1873-1934) broadened the business to include the production of mechanical engineering and high precision scientific instruments.
Further innovations and developments followed, and in 1916, Panerai filed the patent for Radiomir, a radium-based powder that gave luminosity to the dials of sighting instruments and devices, which proved invaluable during military operations. Officine Panerai later changed this material to Luminor, which had the same qualities as Radiomir but was not as dangerous as the original radioactive material.
Panerai was highly innovative in a relatively short period of time and many of the distinct features developed in the company’s early history are recognisable in some form or another in their models today. In 1936, they developed the perspex crystal, in 1938 they introduced their massive luminous sandwich dials, in 1940 came the integrated lugs with spring bars as well as a movement with an 8-day power reserve to reduce wear on crown seals, and in 1950 they brought in their signature lever-activated crown lock.
So unfalteringly accurate and resilient were Panerai watches, that during the Second World War, the Officine Panerai productions were not only standard issue tools for military personnel of the Italian Navy frogmen but for the German Kriegsmarine as well. In the 1970s, Panerai supplied similar instruments to the Egyptian Navy.
With their larger-than-life aesthetic matched equally by their fascinating and important place in military history, Panerai today retains all the immediately recognisable features – the large crowns, minimalist style of dials, and large cases. Panerai’s distinctive characteristics were borne out of naval necessity, yet their watches command a presence and significance today, just as they have throughout their captivating and complicated history.
PATRICIA KONTOS / Senior Jewels & Timepieces Specialist