Officine Panerai, meaning Panerai Workshops, can trace its origins back to 1860, when Giovanni Panerai opened his first watch shop in Florence selling Swiss timepieces. Subsequently, Guido Panerai took over the business and the company diversified into manufacturing high precision instruments for the Royal Italian Navy whilst still retaining its retail premises.
The birth of the Radiomir
The company went on to make luminous devices for firing naval guns at night, timing gauges and mechanical calculators. An area which differentiated Officine Panerai’s products was the peerless luminescence of its dials. This visibility in restricted light was courtesy of a luminescent paint composed of zinc sulphide, mesothorium and radium bromide, named Radiomir and patented by Guido Panerai in 1915.
In 1935, Officine Panerai supplied the Royal Italian Navy with precision pocket stopwatches for military use. One year later, in 1936, the company produced a prototype diver’s watch. This was put into serial production in 1938 and the Panerai Radiomir, said to be the first military diver’s watch in history, was born.
The 1938 Panerai Radiomir measured 47mm in diameter, had a luminous dial, screw-down winding crown and distinctive wire loop strap attachments. These elements can be seen on many of the present-day models. However, the 1938 models contained a Rolex movement and remain very collectable, attracting high auction prices. Indeed, for the Panerai aficionado, a three part diver’s set consisting of a watch, wrist mounted compass and wrist mounted bathometer (depth gauge) are very desirable and much sought after.
1940, a significant milestone in the history of the Radiomir
In 1940, changes were made to the Radiomir. For instance, the wire loop attachments were replaced with sturdier horn-shaped lugs, integral to the case. In addition, the sandwich dial construction, now synonymous with the brand, first appeared. This dial consists of two layers, one superimposed on the other. The lower luminescent layer being visible via apertures cut into the upper layer which provide highly legible hour makers. The cushion-shaped case of the 1938 models was set aside in preference for a more robust case design with flatter edges. The crown was also updated in the interest of robustness.
Radiomir, the legend lives on
Today, Panerai is owned by the Swiss luxury giant, Richemont. The watches are now made in Neuchâtel, an area steeped in Swiss watchmaking tradition, but still retain Italian design prowess.
Whilst Radiomir, the radioactive luminescent material is no longer used, the name continues to grace the dial of some incredible timepieces. Officine Panerai references its rich history with elements of its early models still being seen on various models within today’s collection.
The luminescence of the modern-day Radiomir remains sublime, delivering magnificent legibility, irrespective of the prevailing hour.
Luminor and beyond
In 1940, Officine Panerai invented an ingenious locking device for divers’ watches which protected the winding crown from impact or movement. This prevented potential water ingress or the hands of the watch being accidentally moved. The device consisted of pivoting lever, mounted on a half-moon shaped bridge, attached to the case band of the watch. After the crown had been pushed home, the lever would be closed, compressing the sealing ring around the crown, without damaging it, and thus enhancing water resistance. The lever would then sit flush against the side of the watch when locked. This device was adopted for a new model created in the 1940s, the Luminor.
Luminor, similar to Radiomir, took its name from the luminescent material gracing its dial. In this instance, the luminescent material was tritium based and superseded Radiomir. Ultimately, the company ceased using this radioactive material due to the widespread health concerns of employees working within the Swiss watchmaking industry.
Later, circa 1950, a date often referenced on the dial of Luminor models, the 8-day Angelus movement was adopted by Officine Panerai. It accorded a long power reserve, reducing the need to wind the watch each day. In addition, it also led to another design feature of several Panerai models, a small seconds display positioned at 9 o’clock.
Over the years, Officine Panerai has launched many different models with some offering the convenience of self-winding movements. In addition, it has gone on to produce its own in-house movements. Further choice has been conferred with a variety of different case materials and even complicated watches such as tourbillons. However, irrespective of the model offered, the design language respectfully pays tribute to the early Radiomir and Luminor models.
Today, Officine Panerai offers high quality stylish Swiss-Italian watches remaining true to the company’s history. These models are often categorised as the “Historic Collection”, “Contemporary Collection” and “Specialities” and offer good value for money with good residual values.
Once every year at SIHH (Salon International De La Haute Horlogerie Genève), Officine Panerai reveals its new models to the assembled press and trade. During this event, several “Specialities”and “Special Editions”are revealed. Typically, demand has far outstripped supply and these models have subsequently been difficult to source and those which do become available often commanded premium prices. At Blowers we have earned a reputation for procuring these difficult to obtain models and offering them at competitive prices.