Looking closely at a Panerai timepiece, we notice an endearing and inherent design which dates back to the 1930s. Unique shapes, oversized glass domes, and distinctly masculine curves have defined the Italian brand for over 80 years. Transcending generations, and commanding devotion from simple fans to the rich and famous alike, it is hard to imagine Giovanni Panerai in his small watch shop in Florence, fabricating and perfecting his craft so long ago on the Ponte alle Grazie. His Grandson, Guido eventually took over the shop and propelled the company onward and upward.
Times were simpler, which gave ample hours of creativity for Guido to experiment with new technologies and innovations. Having already patented a process for luminescent watch marking on equipment for the Italian Navy, which he aptly named “Radiomir“, he was further commissioned by the Italian Royal Navy to produce a series of precision instruments for strategic use underwater. This eventually lead to Panerai producing a military divers’ watch which could be easily read and function reliably in dark aquatic depths. The original material used for such markings was radioactive, but was later changed to a safer material on the next generation Panerai watch known as “Luminor“.
Surprisingly, the first Panerai watches in 1935 were made by Rolex for Panerai – a partnership that would last until 1954. These Panerai watches were developed from Rolex pocket watches (ref. 2533) with a large 47mm case. It was also in partnership with Rolex, that Panerai developed its distinctive crown guard. Early versions of Panerai which contain the Rolex movement and insignia on the crown are highly sought ofter rarities, which are worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to collectors.
After the War, Panerai continued to provide diving watches for the Italian Navy, however they were only producing limited numbers, and then fairly exclusively for the military. By the 1990s their association with the Navy was proving to be no longer cost effective, and the company seemed to be standing on shaky ground. In 1997, Richemont, the Swiss luxury goods company, took over Officine Panerai and has since culminated it’s mass appeal in the luxury sector.
For even more interesting information, check out Jake Ehrlich’s fantastic article about Panerai watches on Jakes Rolex World.