The Trendy Panerai

The Trendy Panerai

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Large in size Panerai watches look distinctly masculine and are popular with Indian filmstars. Hiren Kumar Bose

The Italian watchmaker Panerai, with about 100 years of service to the Royal Italian Navy, has used its expertise to create watches that has customers smitten and asking for more. Unlike other premium watches, Panerai watches are made in extremely small lots keeping the brand at rarefied levels.

Panarai Calibre OPX/OPXI hand-wound movement with Swan’s neck regulator

Panarai hand-wound movement, OP XIV Calibre

Doing more than just tell the time, Panerai watches are durable precision instruments and capable of withstanding considerable physical stress. The world over, it’s still the good, old word-of-mouth publicity that drives most of Panerai’s sales. While they are unisex, Panerai watches look distinctly masculine and are popular with actors, including those of Indian origin. But since they are large in size, thanks to Panerai’s association with the Italian navy, these watches are unsuitable for those with small wrists.

Presently owned by the Richemont Group, the brand was introduced in Italy only in 1997 and in the international market a year later despite the fact that Panerai had opened its first watch shop in 1860s. Its entry into the commercial market was delayed because of its association with the Royal Italian Navy to which it used to supply high-precision instruments. Interestingly, Panerai watches dated before 1997 are collectibles of immense value.

Though Panerai made its humble beginnings with Giovanni Panerai (1825-1897), a craftsman in precision engineering when he opened a watch shop on the Ponte alle Grazie in Florence, it was his grandson Guido Panerai who founded Guido Panerai & Figlio in Florence and established the company’s high-precision mechanical engineering division and soon became an official supplier to the Royal Italian Navy. Later, the company was renamed Officine Panerai.

Panarai automatic movement,
OP XII Calibre
Panarai automatic movement,
OP XIII Calibre
Panarai automatic movement,
OP III Calibre

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As the war progressed, aiming instruments, whose distinctive feature is that they are very luminous in total darkness, were added to Officine Panerai’s product line. In 1934, following the demise of Guido Panerai, Giuseppe and Maria took over the firm. Giuseppe devoted himself almost entirely to overseeing the military equipment division while Maria focused on the watch shop. The following year Officine Panerai designed and manufactured a series of underwater instruments, torches, wrist compasses and wrist depth gauges designed for commandos, assault swimmers and divers of the Italian Navy.Specializing in Swiss watches over the years, in the early 1900s, Panerai became one of the most respected and prestigious distributors of Rolex and Patek Philippe watches in Italy. Interestingly, the store next to the Duomo in Florence still stands. Panerai’s business relationship with the Ministry of Defence continued throughout World War I as it supplied precision instruments for the Royal Italian Navy (Regia Marina Militare Italiana), including luminous devices for firing naval guns at night, timing mechanisms, depth gauges and mechanical calculators for launching torpedoes from ‘Mas’ (motor torpedo boats).

Luminor Marina Left-Handked

In 1936, the Permanent Commission supplied a Radiomir wristwatch to the commander of the 1st Submarine group. A single prototype of this watch was made. Two years later, another one-off piece – this time a single presentation example of a new prototype watch with a 12-sided bezel engraved ‘Officine Panerai Brevettato’ or Patented Officine Panerai – was produced. Unique in its design, it has a transparent caseback that enables the movement to be seen. As with all of the early Panerai watches, both these watches used Rolex movements. The cases were also made by Rolex and were, in fact, nothing more than oversized versions of the early Oyster cushion cases.

Officine Panerai presented the prototype of the Mare Nostrum chronograph in 1943, a notable development because the lever and bridge protecting the winding crown was fitted to the Radiomir for the first time. Six years later, a patent was granted for Luminor, the luminous material used on the celebrated Luminor dial of the watch of the same name.

In 1954, the Italian Navy placed an order with Panerai for the supply of torches and thirty “patented diver’s watches”. Each watch cost 75,000 lire at a time when a typical Rolex Submariner sold for 67,000 lire. Likewise, a special model was commissioned for the Egyptian Navy in 1956 that proved to be quite popular. Officine Panerai subsequently assembled this watch in small production runs of about 30 pieces each to service orders from several Mediterranean navies. In the same year, Maria and Giuseppe Panerai were granted an Italian patent for the lever device, a distinctive feature of Panerai watches.

Despite their durability and high quality, Panerai watches were not marketed to the general public. As a result, they were produced in small quantities and vintage Panerai watches are very valuable today. In 1980, a prototype titanium watch, designed to survive a pressure equivalent to a depth of 1,000 meters (3,280 feet), was produced.