The Panerai watch company is a bit of a riddle; it is an Italian watchmaker that is also a Swiss company and it is a modern watchmaker that is also an historic watchmaker. One fact is clear, Panerai has a deep fan base that continues to grow.
Panerai’s roots trace continuously back to its founding in Florence, Italy in the year 1860. Initially, its founder Giovanni Panerai focused on the sales and repairs of watches, as well as establishing a watchmaking school. As a result, the company developed strong relationships with Swiss manufacturers, while also expanding its knowledge and expertise in design and production through the research and development of instruments and tools. The company’s influence expanded greatly after they patented the use of radium to self-illuminate devices, which Panerai named “Radiomir.”
The Italian military recognized the utility of self-illumination and contracted with Panerai to develop military instruments using this new material, such as gun sights. But it was the Italian Navy that played the critical role in the development of Panerai as a significant watchmaker when they asked Panerai to develop a water-resistant wristwatch. Giovanni’s grandson Guido, who was then running Panerai, knew about the early Oyster pocket watch made by Rolex and recognized that he could use the Rolex watch to meet the Navy’s needs. A collaboration with Rolex developed whereby Rolex provided the Oyster pocket watch, to which Panerai made modifications, such as a new dial and welded lugs to convert it to a wristwatch.
After their success with underwater frogmen, the Navy again approached Panerai with a request to develop a watch that could also be used underwater. Building on its experience, Panerai developed a stronger sandwiched case with larger lugs while continuing to use the Rolex movement. When in 1949, Panerai developed a new, safer luminescent material based on Tritium, they began using this new material on their Naval watches. Near the same time, they also developed what would be their most iconic feature, the half-moon shaped crown guard to replace what they saw as a weakness in the Rolex screw-down crown. Due to the new luminescent material that they named “Luminor”, these underwater models became known as “Luminors.” Their signature watch was born.
Despite the Luminor’s success, Panerai still only sold watches to the military. With the passing of Giuseppe Panerai in 1972, ownership of the company with its Naval contracts passed to an engineer named Dino Zei. When the demand for Panerai’s Luminor watches declined, Panerai focused primarily on producing equipment and tools, such as compasses and depth gauges that could be worn on the wrist. This continued for twenty years until Panerai noticed the resurgence of the Rolex tool watches. Knowing Panerai’s strong heritage in making military watches, the company decided to release three new tool watches in 1993, the Luminor, the Luminor Marina and the Mare Nostrum. While these newly released watches received little notice because Panerai was outside the world of Swiss watch companies, the new Luminor watch caught the attention of a few Hollywood actors, who then wore them in films. Fans of watches and film noticed the large, unusual watches and a following soon developed. Recognizing the emerging potential, the company was purchased by a Swiss firm in 1997 and the rest, as they say, is history. In 2002, a manufacturing plant opened in Switzerland and in 2007, Panerai began using its own in-house developed movements. Today, Panerai offers historic and contemporary models, as well as special editions based on its historic models, as well as collaborations with other brands, such as Ferrari.