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Panerai watches are rugged, utilitarian and handsome, desired by men who want a timepiece that has masculinity written all over it in a fine, understated handwriting style
By Roger Alexander
Panerai is a company that every watch fan should know a bit about. Panerai is a small Florentine watch manufacturer that commands a big presence, both on your wrist and in the industry. The brand’s instantly recognisable features are the product of over 70 years of watchmaking experience. Until Richemont (then the Vendome Group) acquired the brand in 1997 as barely more than a box of design drawings, a few watch components and an armful of nautical instruments, it was virtually unknown outside the arcane world of military-timepiece enthusiasts and Italian naval historians. In fact, Officine Panerai was in very real danger of disappearing altogether from the lexicon of contemporary watches. Today, however, owning a Panerai watch is a dream for many. Having started life as utilitarian diving watches, Panerai are now coveted as iconic sports watches. The watches of Panerai today have not changed that much from their original design.
A Panerai watch is about far more than fashion. It is about tolerances that meet or exceed the most exacting specifications of perhaps the most exacting people in the world: military and naval engineers. It is about tooling so precise and mechanisms so superbly designed that the movements keep moving even when other professional equipment has seized solid.
A Panerai watch is also about rugged beauty and style so extraordinary that it forced even Hollywood to sit up and take notice. It is about the ever-renewing search, not only for perfection, but for imagination as well. It is about play, about sportsmanship, about function – without failure – 1000 metres underwater.
From the very first models, Panerai watches have encapsulated superior technical qualities in a highly imaginative design of powerful aesthetic impact. This was an entirely new concept in the panorama of prestigious watches, a revolutionary combination of sport, solid functionality, and composed formal elegance in a rare balance that takes attentive observers by surprise and fills them with admiring curiosity. Military use ran parallel with civilian use for decades before they finally, naturally, converged.
“I immediately felt when I saw the watch that it had star power,” Sylvester Stallone once remarked. He promptly ordered a batch of Panerai watches that he could gift to friends. Only 105 Sylvester Stallone Special Edition pieces were made with Sly’s full signature on the case back. No wonder Wikipedia lists Sly as an “unofficial brand ambassador” for Officine Panerai.
Lovers of old or vintage watches, lovers of divers’ watches, fashion-lovers who see in Panerai watches that are instantly recognisable everywhere have gone crazy about the brand. In short, anyone on two legs with a head and a wrist to dress is falling for Officine Panerai.
Moreover, thanks to Paneristis like Brad Pitt and Hugh Grant, professional athletes like Greg Norman, and politicians like Bill Clinton, Arnold Schwarzenegger and former Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney, the popularity of Panerai has grown by leaps and bounds.
Panerais are now found strapped to wrists of men struck by the watch’s distinctive sapphire crystal face, Arabic numerals, and half-moon crown guard. These watches are owned and loved by a select group of purists around the world, making it hard to classify the atypical Panerai fanatic. To them, the watch is both an instrument for measuring time and a witness to heroism past.
The proud faces often are an inch-and-ahalf wide, so the watches are not to be worn lightly – literally or figuratively. Collectors of these watches, known as Paneristi, range from the mildly detail-conscious to the obsessive, versed in every aspect of mechanics and meaning.
No one watch is that different from the next in looks or performance, but because they are totems of masculinity and signifiers of taste and status, detail is everything. The Radiomir models, for instance, take their name from a special blend now discontinued, of gamma-ray-emitting radioactive materials. The numerals once glowed in the ocean’s darkest depths.
Collectors the world over have always, and still do, invest in Panerai, thus making them better permanent ambassadors better than any marketing service ever could. Not surprisingly, the myth that surrounds the brand and the quality of the Officine Panerai products has attracted the lasting interest of the public.
On its part, Officine Panerai is careful to maintain the interest of collectors who are passionate and fickle and, like many men, react poorly to abrupt change – alter models too radically and purists balk; do it too slowly and there is little reason to purchase anew. Besides, unlike some other luxury watch manufacturers, Panerai only produces a limited number of watches each year, keeping its place in the very top echelon of Swiss watches.
In fact, every Panerai is stamped with a unique number to indicate where in the schedule its model was produced. Superstitious collectors request models with serial numbers that correspond to birthdays, lucky numbers, or the numerals on a sports jersey.