Made In Italy: Best Italian Watch Brands & Watchmaking History
Made In Italy: Best Italian Watch Brands & Watchmaking HistoryRafael Dominguez2022-01-06T22:49:28-05:00
With some reports indicating that the first mechanical watch originated from the Mediterranean country, it’s surprising that Italy is not more prominent in the modern watch world. Similarly, when considering the role that luxury timepieces play in the areas of art and fashion, one would assume that watches would be another major Italian export.
Yet, this is not the case today.
This is why, in this guide, we will be peering back into the history of watchmaking in Italy, as well as diving into our top Italian watch brands. Our goal is to shine a spotlight on their heritage, while also displaying some of the best Italian horology available. We will be doing so via the following sections:
Generally speaking, it’s not difficult chasing down information on the history of watchmaking in a particular country. For example, our Best American Watch Brands list, which also includes a historical recap, was produced with the aid of plenty of source material.
Yet, it was surprisingly troublesome encountering objective information on watchmaking history in Italy. The modern landscape is obscured by countless fashion watch brands advertising Italian design and inspiration. A quick glance through their catalogs leaves much to be desired, horologically speaking.
Although still a marketing powerhouse, yet unlike the above mentioned, we encounter Bvlgari. Known for luxurious jewelry and timepieces in the modern day, the brand’s roots trace back to the earliest days of timepieces in Italy.
It was in the late 19th century, around the same time that mass watch production was ramping up around the globe, that Sotirio Voulgari and Senatore Borletti would foray into the retail of timekeepers in Rome (1884) and Milan (1896), respectively.
The First Watches Made In Italy
Popular vintage Bvlgari watches
Voulgari, who “Italianized” his last name to Bvlgari, would follow the philosophy of exclusivity – his watches were to be made in a “bottega”, an artistic workshop, and remain limited in production. Ironically enough, this same posture is what led the renaissance in luxury watches post-Quartz Crisis.
Naturally, the fact Bvlgari’s business also sold jewelery influenced the timepieces he created. Notably, Sotirio’s timepieces boasted precious metal constructions and artistic decorations in a world where function was the primary reason for owning one.
This blend between jewelry and watches remains evident in Bvlgari’s modern offerings. More specifically, the Serpenti ladies’ timepiece, a snake-inspired bracelet with a timepiece at the end, demonstrates this perfectly.
On the other hand, Borletti employed a strategy focused on mass production. His factory, referred to as the first watchmaking factory in Italy, would secure the majority of Italian market share of the 1900s.
Borletti also expanded production into other precision devices, such as odometers, speedometers, and alarm clocks. These would become even more widespread than their timepiece offerings.
While successful in the first half of the century with their watches, Borletti and his siblings would find the automotive sector most lucrative. The company would expand aggressively into this sector, and would eventually be absorbed by Fiat in the 80s. The precision timepiece component would not survive to the modern day.
Giovanni de Dondi Clock
The influence of time (and its measuring) in Florence is believed to date back to the 14th century with Giovanni Dondi. Indeed, Dondi pioneered in the design of clocks and even produced an astronomical clock. Equally important, and local to Firenze, were the likes of Galileo and da Vinci.
Centuries later, the medieval hub of trade and finance would prove fertile ground for significant watch companies of the modern day.
The Orologeria Svizzera (“Swiss watchmaker”) shop would come to be in Florence around the beginning of the 20th century. From the small shop, the Panerai family would craft timepieces for Royal Italian Navy divers, first giving birth to the iconic Radiomir.
The luminescent material applied on the dial aided Italian frogmen who worked in the deep. Additionally, the simple dial with large numerals ensured clear legibility.
Panerai’s connection to the Italian military had been forged, and future models would likewise aim to serve their specific needs. For example, the first Mare Nostrum chronograph was intended for deck officers. Similarly, the Luminor improved on the previous Radiomir to meet the requirements of evolving military diver needs.
Florence’s watchmaking heritage wouldn’t only be demonstrated through Panerai, though. In the decades after the Quartz crisis, many watch brands have sprouted in the city. Unsurprisingly, horological knowledge and experience is abundant.
Modern Italian Watch Manufactures
Vintage Panerai Compass and Depth Gauge
Unfortunately, this rich heritage has not seen a widespread transformation into contemporary watch manufactures, as the aforementioned crisis wiped out any weak hands in the 70s and 80s.
The demand for luxury watches in modern-day Italy is renowned, though, so it seems like all the necessary pieces for another rebirth are there. Sooner or later, we may see Italy resurface as a luxury timepiece authority.
Next, we list Bespoke Unit’s best Italian watch brands, as well as dicuss some of their most popular models.
Top Italian Watch Brands
Today, Bvlgari forms part of the conglomerate LVMH; some of its sibling watch brands include Hublot, TAG Heuer, and Zenith. The jewelry component of the brand remains wildly successful, continuously releasing colorful and extravagant pieces.
Comparatively, their watch offerings remain a bit more subtle and revolve around the formal attire. Nonetheless, what they may lack in flash, they make up for in technical expertise.
After acquiring Gerald Genta and Daniel Roth in 2000, Bvlgari established a clear intent to concentrate on high complications. Their inventive model releases since then have proven this, and made watch fans even more excited for the Baselworld show year after year.
They’ve also recently made waves with their Octo Finissimo model line in 2017. The Finissimo’s various iterations have broken multiple world records before, and this year is no different. The Octo Finissimo Chronograph, measuring 6.9mm in titanium, is the world’s thinnest automatic chronograph.
If not the first, Panerai is undoubtedly the second brand that comes to mind when considering Italian timepieces.
Before being acquired by the Richemont group, a time period known as the “Pre-Vendome” era, Officine Panerai was producing popular timepieces inspired by their military icons.
Vintage Panerai Radiomir 1940 Mare Nostrum Watches
For instance, they introduced re-editions of their historic Radiomir, Luminor, and Mare Nostre watches in the early 90s. Around this same time, Panerai also ventured into different case treatments, most particularly black PVD (polished vapor deposition).
These Pre-Vendome, or “Pre-V”, Panerai watches are extremely collectible in the modern day. The PVD versions even more so.
Post-purchase, the Panerai HQ was relocated to Switzerland, among other big changes. The move allowed them to expand their watchmaking capabilities. Additionally, their R&D department has become an industry leader.
Panerai PAM 616
In recent years, Panerai has demonstrated their horological expertise with the release of their own manufacture movements. By the same token, they’ve been known to push the limits on case materials, introducing innovations such as CARBOTECH and ceramic.
Since 2000, U-Boat watches have drawn on their military heritage to put forth some very unique dive watches.
In 1942, Ilvo Fontana designed a watch to meet the newest requirements of the Italian Royal Navy. Though his designs were not produced, they survived until Ilvo’s grandson, Italo, brought them to life almost 20 years ago.
Since then, the U-Boat watch brand has been producing oversized timepieces easily recognized for their canteen-style crown cover and varied material options. From PVD to forged carbon and bronze, U-boat exhibits the bold attitude that has garnered them a loyal following.
Inside the varied cases are Swiss movements, sure to meet the precision requirement once deemed necessary. As far as complication, the brand tends to stick to time-only and chronograph varieties. Regardless, if their material diversity says anything, U-Boat is sure to push this boundary as well.
Founded in Florence, Anonimo was the brainchild of Federico Massacesi of Ferragamo and Dr. Dino Zeo, an ex-CEO of Panerai.
Upon Panerai’s acquisition and relocation to Swiss territory, many watchmakers chose to stay behind in Italy. Not ones to abandon their craft, they put their expertise and experience together to create timepieces inspired by Italian elegance without sacrificng functionality.
Anonimo would release the Polluce Bronze, the first bronze diving watch, in 2006. Considered an innovator at release, the true impact of the Polluce would not be felt until later, when the likes of Panerai and Tudor followed suit with their own PAM 382 “Bronzo” and Black Bay Bronze 79250BM.
Today, Anonimo has pared down their offerings to just 4 lines: Sport, Militare, Professional, and Dino Zei. All of these embody the brand’s compromise with functionality, appealing desings, and robust quality.
Visconti are another Florence-based watch brand more commonly known for their writing instruments. The youngest brand on our list, they stepped into the watch space in 2013.
Although Visconti Watches are powered by Swiss movements, their cases are a product of their extensive research into cutting-edge materials. Previously employed in their luxury pen lines, the Florentine watchmakers have been able to translate this expertise into watches.
The synonymity with elegance established by their writing instruments has also extended to their watch lines. Markedly, their current Opera watch exemplifies this commitment to craftsmanship and sophistication.
Giuliano Mazzuoli timepieces, as many of the other brands highlighted in this list, originate from Florence. Giuliano, the brand’s founder and designer, has previously successfully designed pens, agendas, and notebooks.
Mazzuoli drew inspiration from his clock-maker DNA and stepped into the watchmaking space. Aiming to create a watch like none other before, Mazzuoli searched through books and articles on watches looking for inspiration.
In the end, inspiration found him. An air pressure gauge in his shop would serve as the foundation for his first watch, the Manometro. From there, he would expand on the round case theme, as well as the automotive look, to create the Transmissione Meccanica and the Contagiri model lines.
Giuliano Mazzuoli’s watches are true eye-catchers, and may take a couple of looks before being truly appreciated. Nevertheless, the designs are spotless, as well as truly promising. We can’t wait to see what’s next.
What do you think of our Italian watch brand picks? Are there any brands we may have missed? Let us know your opinion in the comments!