Panerai History

The History of Officine Panerai Watches

Panerai Vintage Watches

Panerai watches are called "moving art" and are popular among watch enthusiasts around the world.

The best way to understand the history of Panerai is to dig into the history of the brand.

To find out everything you need to know about this luxury watch brand, read "8 Things You Need to Know About Panerai" .

The Origins of Panerai

Officine Panerai was founded in Florence in 1860, one year before the founding of the modern Italian state.

At the time, founder Giovanni Panerai established the company as an office with a watchmaking school, repair workshop and sales showroom.

It eventually took on the name "Orologeria Svizzera" and became a major sales point for Swiss watches.

In the second half of the 19th century, Panerai underwent a period of transformation under Giovanni and his son Leon Francesco.

Giovanni and his son have worked together and developed supply relationships with some of the most renowned industry leaders in Switzerland, the heart of the watch industry.

This would lead to increased sales for the Italian company and the establishment of the foundations for a watch production model.

Movements, cases, special components and complete watches were transported, as required, from experts in Switzerland to the Panerai offices.

Under the leadership of Leon Francesco, Panerai expanded into research and development, with mechanical engineering, component manufacturing and instrument design at its core.

This was in no way a departure from watchmaking, and for much of Panerai's subsequent history, the production of specialist tools and hardware would become an important source of income for the company.

Entering the 20th century - 1900s

At the turn of the 20th century, Giovanni's grandson Guido established the company as official supplier to the Italian Navy's Regia Marina.

It was a contract that initially highlighted Panerai's burgeoning capabilities as a diversified design firm.

The majority of Panerai's early military contracts were for mine timekeeping and contact triggers, underwater navigation tools, and mechanized computing devices.

At the turn of the 20th century, Panerai established a distinctive presence in military watchmaking that would become worldwide legendary.

Between 1915 and 1916, Panerai worked on developing self-illuminating lighting for military equipment, a field that was becoming central to its business model.

The discovery of radium by Marie Curie in 1898 opened up a new field of technology that utilized the gamma rays emitted by this new element.

Panerai's exclusive radium compound, composed of zinc sulphide, radium bromide and mesothrium, was trademarked "Radiomir" .

The Birth of the Waterproof Watch - 1920s

At the same time, Rolex, one of Panerai's Swiss manufacturing partners, was making a name for itself in the field of waterproof watches.

The "Oyster" case developed by Rolex in 1926 was a seminal development in the history of the watch industry.

Up until then, "waterproof" (today we'd call them "water-resistant") watches were unreliable, clumsy in packaging, and economically impractical.

However, with Rolex's development of the Oyster, waterproof watches became practical for use by the average consumer.

The introduction of waterproof watches opened up a new market for Panerai: the Italian military, one of its biggest supporters.

Italy had been successful in combat swimming in World War I, and during the interwar period it pioneered portable underwater breathing apparatus, the Davis rebreather, and gave rise to a new class of maritime combatant known as the frogman, an expert in underwater demolition.

A waterproof timer was essential to the success of this new initiative, and Panerai, along with the Radiomir and Rolex Oyster, held the key to its destiny.

Italian Navy Watches - 1930s-40s

In the mid-1930s, Panerai's business with the Italian Navy became more and more active.

With World War II looming, the deployment of Italian troops to North Africa accelerated military delivery schedules.

Panerai worked with Rolex in Switzerland to arrange delivery of the Reference 2533 Oyster case pocket watch with a fully assembled movement.

Panerai received special consent from Rolex to modify the case, movement and dial to suit the requirements of military users.

Between 1936 and 1938, Panerai, Rolex and the Italian authorities worked together to create what would become the definitive Panerai military watch.

That's "3646" .

Between 1938 and 1956, this watch was the backbone of Panerai 's supplies to the Italian Navy.

All Panerai watches were assembled by Rolex, and Panerai's Italian branch modified them to meet military requirements.

Wire lugs, leather straps, highly legible dials with two-piece "sandwich" construction, large bezels and shatterproof crystals made from Plexiglas, an innovative thermoplastic compound, all contributed greatly to the domestic watchmaker's success.

The Second World War was a "crucible" for Panerai, creating a military and combat heritage.

Italian amphibious forces were united under the flag of "Decima Flottiglia Mezzi d'Assalto" and took to the battlefield equipped with Panerai watches and instruments.

Through combat operations using manned torpedoes (Maiere), limpet mines (torpedo suction bombs), and explosive speedboats (Balkini), they succeeded in sinking Allied fighter and transport planes in the Mediterranean theater.

Panerai's distinctive combat watch was then carried by every employee at Decima.

Panerai watches and Italian frogmen became influential in advanced tactical circles.

The German Navy employed Panerai as timekeepers for its elite amphibious forces, known as the "Kampfschwimmer."

The Royal Navy, naturally, was unable to source Panerai products, but they did work to copy both the Italian "Gamma" swimmers and Panerai's dive watches.

Then, in September 1943, nearly two years after Operation Decima, which had crippled HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Valiant at Alexandria in December 1941, the Royal Navy used a nearly identical operation, even down to the specifications of the watches, to disable the German battleship Tirpitz at anchor in Norway.

The modern era of elite tactical warfare and amphibious special forces was dawning, and Panerai watches remain inextricably linked to this pivotal moment in military history.

From the outbreak of war in Europe in 1939 until the Cold War began in earnest in the 1950s, Panerai produced watches in limited numbers, gradually adapting to end its military association and ultimately lay the groundwork for a consumer hit.

During this time, Panerai continued to experiment with new lug designs, new cases, new models, new shapes of locking crowns (the part used to wind the mainspring and set the time) and new chemical compounds to create its distinctive decorative dials.

As Italian Fascism was being pushed back by the Allied onslaught and Italian fervor for Mussolini's ideas waned, Panerai saw the possibility of new military contracts, both at home and abroad, in the post-war period.

Although most of these efforts were unsuccessful, they did help expand Panerai's product catalog and support the mass consumption society of the millennial generation.

The design studies for the chronograph ( pocket watch or wristwatch with stopwatch function) project "Mare Nostrum" (product name: Roman name for the Mediterranean), which had been abandoned in 1943 , became the stage for Panerai's civilian debut.

During the war in Italy, the first schematics for a "crown protection device" were created to improve the fragility of Rolex screw-down crowns.

This practical locking mechanism has since become one of Panerai's most iconic design elements.

After the war, and with growing awareness of the health effects of gamma radiation, Panerai began working on improving its luminous dial paints.

A new luminescence chemistry utilizing the beta-ray emitter tritium debuted as a prototype in 1949.

This material was noted as much for its name as for its composition.

The name of this substance, trademarked by Panerai, "Luminol" , will live on long after the paint of the same name has been phased out.

It's important to note that until the advent of mass consumption, the names Radiomir and Luminor referred to luminous paints, not watch designs.


During this period of small production runs and frequent experimentation, Panerai developed alternative cases to the original shapes inherited from Rolex's pocket watch line.

Over time, Panerai changed from soldered wire lugs to integrated lugs machined into the one-piece case.

Rolex's upgrade to the screw-down crown was first shown to the public in 1950, and the system was patented in 1956.

That year, Panerai introduced this new crown as one of its last major developments as a supplier of military watches.

Partnership with the Egyptian Navy – 1950s

The Italian contracting company worked with the Egyptian Navy, for whom Panerai developed its tactical watch in 1953, to provide an interim model incorporating distinctive elements of past and future Panerai products.

The 60mm Big Egiziano has a case similar to that of the Luminor Submersible and features a rotating bezel, graduated bezel, integrated lugs, and a crown protection device.

However, due to a special request from the Egyptian authorities, this watch was also the last to use Radiomir, Panerai's proprietary radium compound.

The delivery of the "Big Egiziano" marked a watershed moment for Panerai, signalling a transition in the company's role as a key contractor of tactical watches.

The end of the 1950s marked the end of the manufacturing partnership between Panerai and Rolex.

Between 1956 and 1972, when the relationship with Rolex officially ended, Panerai's instrument division went into steady decline.

That same year, Guido's son Giuseppe Panerai, the last of the family who had overseen almost all of the tactical watch projects, died.

A New Era for Panerai - 1970s to 1990s

For the first time since the company was founded in 1860, former Italian naval officer and engineer Dino Zei will head the company.

From 1972 through the early 1990s, Zay directed the company to focus on remaining opportunities in diving tools, aerospace parts and radio equipment.

Apart from a few prototypes of titanium diving models, watchmaking activities virtually ceased.

1993 marked the beginning of a new era for Panerai.

Early in his tenure, former watchmaker Zay realised that this military heritage could be used to create a brand in the resurgent market for luxury mechanical watches.

Seeing Rolex rise to prominence on the strength of its diver's models, Panerai dug up its back catalog of tactical products and prototypes and launched the first branded consumer watch in its 133-year history.

Presented on board the Italian warship Durand de la Penne, the three 1993 models bear names derived from Panerai's military tradition.

The first model was a replica of the 1943 Mare Nostrum prototype and remains little more than a footnote in Panerai's modern history.

However, the other two models bearing the "Luminor" stamp represented groundbreaking consumer product innovations for Panerai.

Known more for its use as a luminous paint than as a watch case design, the name Luminor became synonymous with the 44mm case diameter, Panerai's crown protector and the integrated lugs of subsequent military models.

Initially, public reaction to Panerai's lineup was lukewarm.

The parent company's limited commercial visibility, almost non-existent distributors and minimal marketing combined to mean the watch was pitted against other sellers and relegated to the closeout category.

Like the oversized Audemars Piguet Royal Oak released the same year , Panerai's debut struggled to attract opinion leaders.

But unlike Audemars Piguet, Panerai was unable to leverage its existing customers, retail network, advertising budgets, and other assets to get back on track.

However, Panerai's sluggish sales were resolved when an actor wore a Panerai watch in a movie.

Actor Sylvester Stallone discovered Panerai while shooting the action movie "Daylight" in Rome, and purchased a Luminor Marina, which he attached to his camera while on set.

Stallone was so enamoured with the look that he placed a large order for custom Luminor "Slytech" brand products.

This was Panerai's first large order and also a publicity stunt.

A number of unsponsored film appearances, as well as being seen on the wrists of Stallone's friends, such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, helped raise Panerai's profile and stimulated early consumer demand.

In 1997, Panerai got back on track.

This early growth of Panerai, combined with the growing mass market demand for large diving watches, led the Vendôme Group (now Richemont) to decide to invest in Panerai.

For approximately $1.5 million, Officine Panerai came under the Vendôme umbrella.

This provided Panerai with significant capital in marketing, product development and distribution.

Connecting with Panerai Enthusiasts - 2000s

Between 1997 and 2014, virtually all of the characteristics of Officine Panerai as it exists today were developed: its clientele, its brand image and its product lines.

Panerai was the first watch brand to benefit from the promotional power of the Internet.

While an official Panerai website was common in the industry, it was third-party and user-generated content that really brought the Panerai buzz online .

On websites and web forums, collectors were fascinated by the availability of Panerai products and models, as well as the history of tactical exploits.

Pioneering watch community sites such as , launched in 2000 , have grown into a network of thousands of Panerai enthusiasts around the world.

The growing online following of self-proclaimed "Panelisti" has become the brand's best salespeople.

A year before Wikipedia, five years before YouTube and five years before the first Reddit, the Panerai fan community, led by, was a virtual prototype of the Internet society.

Online users conveyed what Vendôme and its agents had failed to convey: Panerai's appeal lies in its historical ties to special forces, its purpose-driven design and its understated image.

Wearing a Panerai was like owning a memory of an adventure.

Even buyers who are hesitant to buy accessories appreciated the Luminor's practical size.

With its unpretentious image as a watch for blue-collar workers, it eliminated the sense of baggage that is common with other luxury watch brands.

And Richemont (the successor to the Vendôme Group) was happy to continue investing in Panerai.

Initial production during the Vendôme era from 1993 to 1997 was estimated at less than 2,000 pieces, but Richemont accelerated Panerai's production, reaching an annual production of over 70,000 pieces by 2013.

During this time Panerai passed several milestones, evolving from the military industry to a start-up company and then to a major manufacturer.

Even after becoming part of Richemont, Panerai's products have remained robust and innovative.

Panerai frequently released limited edition models, highlighting important models, calibres or episodes in its history.

Panerai's packaging and warranty documents are a first for the brand, embodying the concept of "correlation" - similar to the other documents in the set.

Richemont's initial decision to include a standard strap changing tool and additional straps in the box also gave rise to a new subculture of accessory straps within the Panerai owner community.

Subsequent models capitalized on this trend with convenient quick release lugs.

In 2002, a dedicated production facility was opened in Neuchâtel.

In 2005, the factory teamed up with Richemont's in-house Val Fleurier research and development department to launch the first luxury movement from a Swiss-Italian manufacturer: the calibre P.2002.

Additionally, the 2000, 3000, 5000 and 9000 series calibres were launched, featuring new complications and a combination of the finest finishings.

In addition, the occasional release of new pre-owned historic movements as a nod to the past has further enhanced Panerai's image of momentum and history.

As Panerai watches grew in tradition and price, the model lineup also expanded.

As early as 1997, a limited edition model based on the pre-war flagship model was reproduced, attracting a lot of attention from collectors .

To offer consumers the variety they wanted and a product that better reflected Panerai's history, Panerai developed a second main model line: Radiomir.

Based on the case shape and crown arrangement of the 3646, the forerunner of Panerai's military models, the Radiomir has become the second pillar of Panerai's current product catalogue, alongside the Luminor.

Discover the history of Panerai

Today, Panerai is a wholly owned subsidiary of Richemont and offers a wide range of watches based on its historical models.

While the Luminor and Radiomir remain at the core of each variant, Panerai has expanded its product range to include precious metals, advanced complications and case sizes ranging from 60mm to 40mm.

At the same time, every new product launch reminds us of the importance of Panerai's history.

Prototypes and limited-edition features not seen since the 1940s and 50s continue to reappear periodically.

Notably, the original 47mm case of the 3646, the rotating dive bezel of the “Big Egiziano”, the titanium case of the 1980s “1000 Meter” prototype, and the gigantic shape of the original Mare Nostrum chronograph have all been reintroduced under Richemont’s guidance.

Officine Panerai's production, distribution and recognition have reached levels unprecedented in the brand's history.

However, it is this history above all else that is essential to understanding the appeal of the company's watches.