We’re going to dive deep into the adventurous history of the 159 year old Italian watchmaker, Panerai, maker of the Luminor, the Radiomir, and many other beloved models. The story of Panerai is so rich, in fact, that we’ve had to split this tale into a two-part mini-series.
In this first section, we’re going to enlighten their early days in Florence, their military might under command of the Royal Italian Navy during World War 2, and their unfortunate post-war decline.
So, take a deep breath and brace for impact. This is part one of the history of Panerai.
The year is 1860. The place is Florence, Italy. The vision of a 35 year old Giovanni Panerai is to open a watchmaking shop in his neighborhood of Ponte alle Grazie, which means Bridge to The Graces. He scraped together the resources and brought his vision to life, opening his watchmaking shop and school that year.
That vision would grow until Giovanni’s death in 1897. His grandson Guido Panerai inherits the business. He moves the shop to a busier part of Florence (known as the Archbishop’s Palace in Piazza San Giovanni) and renames the shop Orologeria Svizzera, which translates to Swiss Watchmaking. Guido expands the portfolio to high precision measurement tools, like compasses and depth gauges and begins supplying the instruments to the Regina Marina, the Royal Italian Navy, around the turn of the century.
In 1916, Panerai develops a substance that emits light on its own without a power source - otherwise known as radioluminescence. They call this substance Radiomir. It was highly visible in low light, water resistant, and adhesive, perfect for underwater applications. Panerai began integrating it into prototype submersible tools.
Radiomir, it turns out, derived its name from its active ingredient, radium - an alkaline earth metal that naturally glows with radioluminescence. But, that also emits highly toxic levels of radiation. Radium was famously discovered by Pierre and Marie Curie in 1898 and eventually caused their demise after decades of exposure to the radiation, which is at least a million times stronger than radiation from uranium. The same sickness befell many so-called Radium Girls in radium paint factories around the world, most notably in the United States, in the early parts of the 20th century.
Like so many other manufacturers back then, Panerai either ignored or didn’t know about the dangers of radium until it had already taken its human toll. Either way, the Radiomir paint continued to be developed as Guiseppe Panerai, Guido’s son, takes, over the company in 1934, known at the time as G. Panerai & Figlio.
In 1935, Guiseppe embarks on a collaboration with Rolex to create an exceptionally capable underwater watch, requested by the Royal Italian Navy. Rolex supplies Panerai with its Ref. 2533 Oyster case pocket watches, which were much larger and more robust than wristwatches of the time. Panerai figures the sturdiness of the wristwatches would translate well into a tough dive watch. To achieve this, the pocket watches were turned on their sides, the dial was rotated back, wire lugs were welded to the case, and an extra long strap was attached, a strap long enough to fit over a dive suit. Glowing Radiomir paint was to be added to the hands and numerals.
The Royal Italian Navy’s First Submarine Group, in 1936, was supplied with ten prototype dive watches, titled Radiomirs, after the signature radioluminescent paint invented by Panerai. The Submarine Group’s underwater demolition unit, or frogmen, were finally able to read a watch underwater in extreme conditions thanks to the Radiomir’s huge 47mm case (most watch cases were 30mm at the time), ability to fit around the extra girth of a dive suit, vigorous water resistance, and brightly glowing hands and numerals.
The watches were a win for Panerai and the elite unit, so two years later, the watches went into full production for the Navy. The Radiomir was improved to be more water resistant and legible underwater, and the Roman numerals were replaced by Arabic numerals at 12, 3, 6, and 9.
World War II engulfed Europe in 1939. Fighting raged on all parts of the continent. Italy, in its Axis with Germany and Japan, battled the Allied forces of France, Poland, and the United Kingdom, among others. The U.S. wouldn’t officially enter the war until the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.
A year before that, the Italian Navy demanded higher standards from their Panerai watches, mainly longer periods underwater at greater depths. Panerai obliges, and builds a new Radiomir, cutting the case and lugs from the same piece of steel (doing away with the welded on wire lugs), implementing a durable Plexiglas crystal, and changing the shape of the crown from a cone to a cylinder. Another developing innovation at the time was Panerai’s signature half moon-shaped crown protector, but it wasn’t yet up to the standards of the Navy or Panerai, so research continued on it.
The Italian amphibious commando frogmen were consolidated into one unit, the Decima Flottiglia Mezzi d’Assalto, and wore their updated Radiomirs while operating manned torpedoes, limpet mines, and explosive speedboats against the Allied forces. The frogmen were admired among their compatriots, and the German navy began using the Radiomir in their own elite amphibious units.
Early in 1943, Panerai came out with a totally new watch prototype for the on-deck officers of the Italian Navy. It’s thought that only two or three of these Mare Nostrum watches were made, and only one is known to exist today. Panerai had hoped to make more Mare Nostrums, but on September 8th 1943, after four years of war, Italy officially surrenders to the Allied forces. A month later, Italy would turn on its Axis partner and fight alongside the Allies against Nazi Germany.
By 1949, Italy was beginning to recover from the devastation of World War 2. Much like the Italian forces changing sides in 1943, Panerai chose to let go of the exceedingly toxic radium-based paint Radiomir, and replace it with another radioluminescent substance of their own design, Luminor. In lieu of deadly radium, Luminor’s active ingredient is tritium, one of the isotopes of hydrogen. Though technically radioactive, tritium is far less toxic than radium, and was considered safe in applications like glow-in-the-dark paint. A version of tritium paint is still the #1 radioluminescent material used in watches today.
In 1950, the Luminor watch is introduced, replacing the Radiomir. It features the first ever crown-protecting bridge (in development since 1938) and a flatter, wider bezel than its predecessor. The bridge greatly increased the watch’s resistance to underwater depths and also gave the watch a totally unique capable, yet sleek aesthetic. Nowadays, these models are known as Luminor 1950.
Their contract with the Italian Navy ends in 1953, so Panerai releases their watch models to the Italian public. Most consumer watches then sported much smaller cases compared to the bulky yet functional Panerai models. Retail sales were modest, but other military institutions still had interest in the utility of the watches.
After seeing the success of Radiomir watches for the Italian Navy, the navy of Egypt commissions Panerai for a Radiomir watch of their own in 1956. With their largest case yet at 60mm, increased tolerance of water pressure, a marked bezel to track immersion time, and an Angelus movement with an eight day power reserve, the Egiziano (Italian for Egyptian) was christened. It garnered the nickname Egiziano Grosso, which means big. The Egiziano was the last watch Panerai produced with its highly toxic radium-based paint, Radiomir.
Later that same year, the manufacturing relationship with Rolex comes to an end.
In 1972, Guiseppe Panerai dies, and ownership of the company falls to lead engineer and former Italian naval officer Dino Zei. He changes the official name from G. Panerai & Figlio to Officine Panerai. The change in leadership shook up the company, which had been struggling to keep pace ever since their contract with the Italian Navy ran out 20 years prior. Panerai’s naval instrumental manufacturing fell into decline, so the focus was shifted to other precision instruments. Development of new watches slowed to a crawl, and production of their existing watches essentially stopped.
For the next 20 years, a dark time enveloped Officine Panerai, and their legacy nearly faded into history.
Discover part two next week with the thrilling conclusion to the History of Panerai.