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This post is an edited and expanded version of content first published on 24/05/2020.
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We have cited Panerai on prior occasions, in particular when we reviewed its early role in the development of modern divers (Breitling SuperOcean 42) or when we examined underwater combat watches when we wrote about the Soviet Navy Vodolaz ChS 191. The internet provides detailed accounts of war action that ended with combat troops imprisoned and their Panerais confiscated, such as the first-hand story told when one of these pieces came up for auction last year. The internet also offers extremely detailed historical write-ups about the brand and its early timepieces, of which this article by Time and Watches stands out.
In 1936, the first prototype dive watches for the Regia Marina Italiana came out. They were produced from 1938, with the characteristic cushion case and a caliber made by Rolex. Models of this original Radiomir are exceedingly rare indeed, and highly prized. It is named after the radium-based powder giving luminosity to the dials, first patented in 1916.
Panerai provided the Italian Marina Militare with the Radiomir throughout WWII. In 1949, the brand introduced a tritium-based luminous substance which it labelled Luminor, and which it patented. It was safer than the radium-based Radiomir and also more luminous: a win-win. The evolution from Radiomir to Luminor was completed with the addition of the signature crown-protecting device. This solution provided water resistance to 200 metres/660 feet, a rather remarkable performance for the period. Panerai had first tested its characteristic locking crown guard as early as 1942, albeit it was not used until 1949 and not patented until 1956.
In addition to the Italian Navy, later in the 1950s Panerai also received an order from the Egyptian Navy, with specific design parameters. The Small Egiziano (with reference 6154) was supplied, and rather more remarkably, in 1956, the Big Egiziano (with reference GPF 2/56). This was a highly modified watch with a diameter of 60 mm and a rotating graduated dive bezel, first introduced by Blancpain and Zodiac in 1953.
The supply of military watches continued, albeit in limited quantities and subject to secret procurement contracts, making it difficult to estimate the exact volumes that were produced. However, estimates suggest that Panerai built as few as 300 watches until 1992, explaining their rarity and the high valuations that such examples command.
Fast-forward to 1993, when Officine Panerai presented to the public a collection of limited edition watches, relying on the original old designs.
The new Panerai Luminor reference 5218-201-A was soon nicknamed the “Logo” due to the use of the brand name “OP” on the dial, just above the number six marker. It had a slightly reworked case shape compared to the historical reference. It was smaller, yet still huge for the period at 44 mm in diameter. It housed the hand-wound caliber Unitas 6497. These are highly collectible versions, and fairly valuable, given that they represent the first publicly available models. Other no-logo variants were also released, that command even higher prices today, among them the 5218-202-A shown below with the “MARINA MILITARE” marking on the dial.
In 1995, while in Italy, the renowned actor Sylvester Stallone saw a Panerai Luminor in a store. He liked it so much that he requested a special edition for use during the filming of underwater scenes in Daylight, a movie released in 1996. He also ordered a white-dial variant. Both carried an engraving on the case back with Stallone’s signature. This was the trigger for huge fanfare around the Panerai name, which ended attracting the attention of the Vendôme Luxury Group, now part of the luxury goods giant Richemont. Vendôme purchased Officine Panerai’s watchmaking business in 1997. Because of this, the pre-1997 models are known as pre-Vendôme examples.
The rest, as they say, is watch history, and the brand continues to have a huge and loyal following, albeit it is considered to have lost some of the lustre that it displayed a decade or so ago.
Below we show a 2003 limited edition PAM00172, a Luminor Marina variant presented in a case and polished bezel made from tantalum, a highly inert metal that also happens to have greater hardness than stainless steel.
The Radiomir and the Luminor live on strongly. The brand has a sizeable current offering with 155 model variants across four main collections: Radiomir (30), Luminor (80), Luminor Due (24) and Submersible (21).
Before signing off, below we show two contemporary examples of the Radiomir (reference PAM00933) and the Luminor (reference PAM00372), respectively