Officine Panerai - From 1850 To The Present Day

The brand’s flagship Radiomir and Luminor timepieces need no further introduction. But what is the history behind these two legendary models?

The Panerai family
The story of the Panerai family began in Florence, the main administrative centre of Tuscany, in 1850. In that year, Giovanni Panerai opened on the Pont des Grâces – today the Ponte Vecchio – the city’s first watchmaker’s shop. Some years later his grandson Guido gave the shop new impetus and developed it. Giuseppe, Guido’s son, carried on his father’s work and from 1934 diversified the business, supplying equipment exclusively for the Italian Navy. He is behind the creation of the famous Radiomir and Luminor watches. His sister Maria, for her part, continued to run the shop. Today, after the death of Giuseppe (1972) and Maria (1993), the establishment is in the hands of Maria Teresa Abetti Panerai, Giuseppe’s widow. Since the 1980s, she has put her heart and soul into managing this famous boutique, handed down from generation to generation.

The workshops of Officine Panerai
Built in 1850 on one of the pillars of the Pont des Grâces, the first Panerai shop stood adjacent to a butcher, a hairdresser, a greengrocer and a stall selling hot chestnuts. The arrival of a watch retailer, the first in the centre of the Tuscan town, marked the beginning of contacts with the oldest Swiss manufactories. In 1876, following work to widen the bridge, the shop was forced to relocate. It changed addresses several times, winding up eventually in its current location, at number 3, Place San Giovanni, in the Archbishop’s Palace.

Over the years, the small shop opened by Giovanni Panerai grew into a larger enterprise, selling not only watches but also spare parts, accessories and tooling for precision engineering. An adjacent workshop was opened for repairs, which later became the city’s first school of watchmaking. Indeed, since watches arrived from Switzerland in component form, it was necessary to create a space where a group of watchmakers could assemble them. Around 1900, the name Orologeria Svizzera (Swiss Watchmaking) was displayed by Guido on the door of the shop.

With a keen eye for promotion, Guido Panerai produced advertising catalogues – published in their tens of thousands – as far back as the turn of the 20th century, which he sent to faraway shops and clients so that they could purchase goods by mail order. It was at this time, too, that he signed an agreement with the Italian railways: railway workers received a watch which they paid for through deductions from their wages.

The shop’s business went from strength to strength. No longer limited to the simple sale of timepieces and an assembly workshop, activities also included a store for wholesalers, another for spare parts, and a third for machine-tools used in precision engineering. The gravitas conferred by Orologeria Svizzera allowed the establishment become a dealer for some of Switzerland’s leading brands, such as Rolex, Vacheron Constantin, Longines, Movado and, later, Patek Philippe.

Over time, the prosperous activity of the Florentine workshops led to a new partnership with the Italian Navy, to which the firm supplied precision chronographs worn on the wrist. Some movements were even modified to include special technical functions required by the military. In 1920, a new chronograph model, the Mare Nostrum, was submitted to the Navy for tests.

At the start of the 1900s, the Panerai workshops also diversified into the manufacture of specialist lenses for the Ministry of Defence. During the First World War, the Guido Panerai optics and precision engineering firm supplied numerous Ronconi object-glasses containing Radiomir, characterised by their high luminosity which enabled weapons to be used in total darkness. The business also supplied thousands of sights for rifles, cannons and torpedo launching tubes. However, collaboration between Officine Panerai and the Navy was not limited to lenses only: the Florentine workshops also produced precision instruments, such as mechanical calculators and aiming devices for torpedo launchers, as well as different delay mechanisms for the explosion of torpedoes and mines. During the Second World War, relations between the two parties grew even stronger. Numerous products such as delay mechanisms and gun sights, lighting devices and luminous markers were supplied. Officine Panerai had become a leader in luminescent, fluorescent and phosphorescent products, and many patents were registered for these ingenious inventions.

Birth of the Radiomir
Radiomir watches first appeared in 1935. The object of a special order by the Italian Navy, their existence was kept secret for two years while tests were carried out. Equipped with an extra-large, cushion-shaped case (47mm), the first models featured no indications on the dial and were originally manufactured using a case and a movement produced and supplied exclusively by the firm Rolex in Geneva, according to technical specifications imposed by Giuseppe Panerai. This first watch supplied to the Navy in 1936 was at the origin of a series of modifications and innovations that made Panerai models the first genuinely professional marine watches of all time. Over the years, the case was reinforced across its diameter and lugs, however the two most important changes concerned the dial and the crown of the winding mechanism. The design of the dial was totally revised in Florence, benefitting from «radiomir tube» technology and large Arabic numerals, which shone in the dark thanks to a reservoir filled with a phosphorescent substance mounted under the dial itself. Subsequently, to ensure perfect water-resistance, the crown of the winding mechanism, originally a screw, was radically transformed by the incorporation of a lever mounted on the side of the case. This important innovation, which even today distinguishes Panerai watches from all others, was patented in Italy in 1956 and in the United States in 1960.

Reserved exclusively for the armed forces, the production of Radiomir and Luminor watches (named after the new luminous substance that replaced radium) gained renewed momentum in the early 1950s when certain special models were supplied to the Egyptian Navy, such as the Egiziano, a diver’s model with exceptional dimensions and strength, which featured a graduated bezel allowing the calculation of times spent under water. It was not until 1993 that Panerai produced a limited edition of a version of the Luminor and Mare Nostrum (a chronograph which existed as a prototype in the early 1940s but was never put into production) intended for the consumer market. Since 1997, when Panerai was taken over by the Richemont group, the legendary watch worn by Italian commandos has undergone further changes: models have been enhanced with technical features and functions, while remaining true to the rigorous military specifications of their predecessors and continuing to reflect the fascination and historic values of a watch which is now a legend in its own right.

Since its acquisition by the Richemont group in 1997, the brand has continued to innovate and develop new calibres at a rate unrivalled by competitors.

In 2002, the manufactory opened an establishment in Neuchâtel which proved eventually to be too small. At the start of this year, Officine Panerai will be taking up quarters in brand new premises on the hills overlooking the city.

Last autumn, Officine Panerai presented an exhibition in Geneva entitled «The Face of Time» - a reference to the design of the dial of Radiomir and Luminor watches - staged previously in Paris, Milan and Madrid, to the delight of aficionados.

Launched at the SIHH 2014
Luminor 1950 Left-Handed 3 Days

The Luminor 1950 3 Days collection is enhanced by a left-handed version. These watches are an integral part of Panerai’s history. Designed originally for commandos in the Italian Navy, today this model is intended for people who prefer to wear their wristwatch on their right arm. The steel case stands out by a unique detail which sets it apart from the case of the Luminor 1950 classic: its case-band has a backswept profile, reminiscent of the forms of a cushion case. A detail directly borrowed from rare period pieces which explains how the Radiomir, created in 1936 with a classic cushion case, was transformed into the Luminor, larger in its proportions and characterised by the crown guard. Another special feature: instead of a sapphire crystal, the dial is protected by Plexiglas, a reference to the thermoplastic of historic models.

February 06, 2014