Officine Panerai is a watchmaker (see our list of featured brands) under Richemont, operating in both Italy and Switzerland. While its headquarters are in Milan, its watch workshops are in Neuchâtel below the Jura Mountains.
This brand has an unusual background, because it made watches and instruments exclusively for the military throughout most of its existence. Indeed, it has only sold to the civilians since the 1990s.
Besides this, it has a very unique image and aesthetic that sets it apart from the rest. This lends it a reputation as a love-it-or-hate-it brand, since the collections all share a very distinctive family resemblance.
For example, a characteristic large and round crown guard surrounds the crown of nearly every watch. Also, the cases typically have a pillow shape topped by a round bezel.
Images: Officine Panerai
"One-Of-A-Kind Watch Family!" Panerai's unmistakable silhouettes and big numerals make for distinctive timepieces.
Though its design and administration are mostly in Italy, Panerai proudly promotes its watches’ Swiss provenance. Accordingly, the company had a close relationship with Rolex in its earlier years.
For a few decades, the firm made its wristwatches in Italy, but production has since moved back to Switzerland. The military wristwatches placed cost-effective function first, but as a Richemont brand, it focuses on the luxury watch market instead.
You can simply read on for the whole story, but if you’d rather choose a section, use the links below:
- First Pursuits: Instruments Manufacturing
- The New Lume: Radium Dials
- Radiomir: The First Watch
- Who Actually Used The Radiomir?
- Luminor: Further Developments
- The Egiziano: Going Even Bigger
- Le Officine: The Modern Era
See Bespoke Unit’s Watch Reviews
First Pursuits: Instruments Manufacturing
1864 saw the founding of Guido Panerai e Figlio, a precision engineering workshop, one with a family history in watches.
Guido’s grandfather, Giovanni, sold watches at this time. Later, Guido’s company would enter the business of timepieces. Both Guido and Giovanni’s businesses were in Florence, Italy.
Eventually, in 1913, the Italian Royal Navy took notice of this family business and sought its services.
These included, for example, mechanical fire control computers for torpedo boats, controllers for searchlights and various timing devices. The latter mainly included timers for mines, bombs, and other explosives that auspiciously required timekeeping components.
The New Lume: Radium Dials
Because of a wartime need for nighttime visibility, the Italian Navy requested instruments with reliable luminous markers. Therefore, Guido Panerai developed Radiomir, a radium-powered luminous pigment, for his company’s dials.
This worked similarly to modern photoluminescent pigments, using energy from absorbing radiation in order to glow.
Rather than external light, Radiomir’s phosphorescent pigment uses high-energy radiation from mixed-in radium, and glows constantly until it breaks down.
Radium stays radioactive for a very long time, in excess of 1600 years, therefore, it outlives the phosphorescent component. This means that even seemingly no-longer-functional radium dials are still radioactive.
Modern counterparts, like SuperLumiNova, however, rely on absorption of ambient light from the sun or nearby electrical fixtures. This makes these pigments safe, but less of an unwavering, constant source of illumination.
For the time and purpose, Radiomir dials were perfect; that is, in instrument panels for Italian Navy vessels and equipment. Indeed, that was the only purpose for Panerai’s products back then, as it sold nothing to the civilian market.
Radiomir: The First Watch
The company’s first watch line was a collaboration with watchmaker Rolex, but would originate the signature style that endures today. This was the first Radiomir watch from 1938, taking that name because it used Radiomir lume technology.
Strictly speaking, this is not the “first” Panerai-Rolex watch, since the prototype Rolex 2533 existed during the first Radiomir’s development. Though Radiomir was the brand’s first watch line, two of its now-characteristic design features were already present.
Firstly, it had the rounded square shape with circular bezel. Also, it had large Arabic numerals for 3, 6, 9 and 12 o’clock, and stick indices for other hours.
These markers were, of course, illuminated with Radiomir technology, therefore, they were easy for sailors to read at night. Besides this, Radiomir watch cases were massive in diameter at 47mm, enough to engulf thinner wrists.
In the first models, Radiomir watches had soldered-on wire lugs, similarly to World War I improvised trench watches. Also, the crowns were conical in shape, pointing inwards towards the case.
Who Actually Used The Radiomir?
Of course, since Panerai only sold to the military and primarily navies at the time, no civilians could buy them.
These watches saw use by both the Italian and German navies during World War II. However, Italian submariners and frogman commandos were their primary users.
Notable among these frogmen were operators of human torpedos, that is, small underwater vehicles that carry saboteurs to target ships.
These divers were extremely vulnerable and carried loads of explosives that they’d attach to the ships when reaching them.
Italian human torpedo operators stood out for their extreme daring, even earning the respect of Winston Churchill. This was because of the Italian raid on the Port of Alexandria in the Nile Delta.
Though they had damaged his fleet greatly, they did so with an uncommon daring and caused no deaths.
During a top-secret 1942 speech to the House of Commons on the state of the war, Churchill praised the men. He spoke of the “extraordinary courage and ingenuity” of six “Italians in unusual diving suits” who crippled the British fleet.
For Panerai, however, underwater surprise attacks like these proved the reliability of its recent design updates. The company had made critical changes to the Radiomir cases leading up to Italy entering World War II in 1940.
The two-man frogman crews withstood powerful underwater currents while cruising atop these torpedoes, which had the name “maiali,” or “pigs.” Therefore, Panerai replaced the wire lugs with thicker, sturdier straight lugs, machining the cases and lugs together from one piece.
The crowns were cylindrical, not conical, in shape, and employed a screw-down locking mechanism. Besides this, there were several other tweaks that led to the 1940s Radiomir design, closer in appearance to later models.
Luminor: Further Developments
In 1949, due to concerns over hazardous radiation exposure, the manufacturer began phasing out Radiomir technology with the newer Luminor. Rather than radium, Luminor uses tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen.
Tritium was preferable because it offered a power source for phosphor paint without as much dangerous radiation. Tritium’s radiation is much weaker than that of radium, but can still power a watch’s lume.
Because tritium is a gas at room temperature, it requires a container. Numerals, markers and hands on Luminor watches, therefore, have glass chambers with phosphorescent paint on their inside surfaces.
The Luminor also incorporated the now-familiar locking crown guard. This rounded metal barrier not only protects the crown from accidental impacts or rotations, but also improves the pressure seal.
Both Luminor technology and the crown guard were in development throughout the 1940s, but reached completion in 1950. However, the transition to Luminor technology took some time to complete.
The Egiziano: Going Even Bigger
An important 1956 watch in the brand’s history, for example, would still use Radiomir. This was a watch for the Egyptian Navy. Accordingly, the company called it the “Egiziano,” Italian for “Egyptian.”
Rather than taking from the previous Radiomir cases, the Egiziano uses a tonneau-shaped case. Otherwise, it’s pure Panerai: the same huge numerals, the same chunky crown guard and finally, ridiculous size.
Indeed, it’s a massive watch, even by this brand’s standards. The Egyptian Navy requested a large and very tough watch and, of course, Panerai was able to deliver.
The case is 58mm in diameter, mostly because of the huge amount of stainless steel all around it. The dial itself, to illustrate, is not much larger than those of the previous 47mm watches.
The steel bezel is revolving, with count-up markers every 5 minutes, uncommon for the brand despite its many dive watches. The Egiziano watches, at only 50 pieces, were the last completed military watch contract for the company until the 1990s.
Le Officine: The Modern Era
In 1972, Giuseppe, the last family member in the company dies, and the brand is no longer Guido Panerai & Figlio. Accordingly, engineer Dino Zei renames it to “Officine Panerai,” meaning “Panerai Workshops.”
Until the early 1990s, the company continued as a military contractor, making specialized instruments alongside watches. Afterwards, in 1993, it began selling its watch collections to the civilian market.
While this brand didn’t initially have much public awareness due to its typically military market, that soon changed. Often, the 1995 Sylvester Stallone action flick Daylight is credited with popularizing the watches, with the star sporting a Luminor.
The outsize military-style watch was a perfect fit for the action hero’s look, and its unusual design easy to spot. Therefore, Panerai released the Slytech line of Luminors in collaboration with the actor.
Then, in 1997, Richemont bought the company; it was after this that much of the brand’s success came. The group kept the watchmaker’s instantly-recognizable aesthetics the same, while making other changes.
For example, in 2002, Richemont built a Panerai factory in Neuchâtel, Switzerland.
Hence, from 2005 onwards, Panerai began using in-house calibers; these would power their higher-end watches. This allowed the firm’s rugged, macho style to extend to the design of these haute horlogerie movements.
The collections today mainly feature the two mainstay lines, Radiomir and Luminor, but with new features available. For example, high end Luminors are available with tourbillons, and titanium or ceramic cases.
Learn More About Officine Panerai
This brand has, over the years, become not only a successful watchmaker, but a cult classic in its own right. Since the late 1990s, its many fans, the “Paneristi,” have sworn by the company’s timepieces.
In order to learn about Panerai’s current high-end timepiece developments, check out their high-end watchmaking page. Otherwise, if you’d like a catalogue of the brand’s full lineup, you can visit their library page.
However, for more watch brand pages, reviews, informative guides, and more, follow these links to more Bespoke Unit content: