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Feature: How Panerai Found Its Own Design Groove After Rolex

Its muscular cushion case is one of the most recognisable watch profiles around, but Panerai’s Radiomir began life as little more than a modded Rolex Oyster produced for a handful of Italian naval divers. Here’s how the brand found its own design groove, making such distinctive watches that it ended up a favourite of Hollywood royalty and gave rise to a global cult following...

Long before Sylvester Stallone came along and helped fish Panerai out of the murky depths of obscurity, the brand was simply a small watch retailer in Florence, birthplace of the Renaissance.

Giovani Panerai, the proprietor, had been supplying diving instruments to the Italian Royal Navy since the early 1900s, pioneering the use of a radium-based powder to illuminate its dials, when an even bigger opportunity eventually presented itself.

Giovani Panerai outside his Florence shop

Giovani Panerai outside his Florence shop

It was the late 1930s and Europe was edging closer to war. Italy, knowing how important the frogmen of its navy would be if they were drawn into it, was looking for anything that would give its military personnel the edge.

A Watch For Underwater Warfare

So the navy returned to its trusted instrument supplier, Giovani Panerai, this time requesting a timepiece for the frogman commandos of the First Submarine Group Command, known ominously as the ’incursori’. for their ability to conduct devastating underwater raids.

The watch needed to be waterproof, keep exact time and provide excellent readability in water – day or night. Dial legibility wasn’t a problem for Panerai, thanks to the glowing markers on its signature sandwich dial – or ’quadrante sandwich’ if you want to impress your Italian friends. But the rest of it was beyond their technical capability.

A modern-era Radiomir with early-model lugs

A modern-era Radiomir with early-model lugs

And this is where Rolex enters the story.

Still a relative newcomer and nothing like the company of global repute it is today, Rolex nevertheless had been making waves in the industry with its water-resistant Oyster watches.

Why Panerai cases are huge

They were able to supply Panerai with 47mm pocket-watch cases that could be modified for the wrist, with flimsy-looking wire lugs soldered on to the case, extra-long straps to fit over clunky diving suits, and a massive screw-down onion crown that stood out like a nun at one of Silvio Berlusconi’s bung-bunga parties.

Made in tiny numbers – amazingly only around 350 Panerais were ever produced between 1938 and 1993 – they were fit for purpose, passing a number of rigorous tests and helping the Italian navy’s frogmen strike a number of devastating blows on British warships. Sitting astride mini torpedoes they managed to strike two battleships in the Egyptian port of Alexandria in 1941, sending them to their watery grave and making Winston Churchill choke on his cigar.

Reluctantly acknowledging his enemy’s low-budget ingenuity, he remarked: “Six Italians dressed in rather unusual diving suits and equipment, with materials of laughably little cost, have swung the military balance of power in the Mediterranean.”

Still unavailable to civilians and thus impervious to the watch trends of the day, Panerai watches retained their case size even after its relationship with Rolex ended in the 1950s. Yet it continued to evolve in other ways.

Sly and Arnie join the Paneristi

One of the earliest improvements was the wire lugs, which initially were welded onto the case. These were improved by having them milled from the same block of steel, making them the robust-looking timepiece that appealed to the man behind Rocky Balboa and his A-list pals (Arnold Schwarzenegger is another aficionado).

Stallone with his Panerai in the film Daylight

Stallone with his Panerai in the film Daylight

Next came the crown protector with integrated lever, which became the Luminor model. This was another case of necessity being the mother of invention, with the unprotected crown being subjected to much wear and tear, making it susceptible to water damage.

When Panerai’s watches finally became available to civilians in the mid-1990s the brand chose not to compromise on size, or the additional features that were added for the benefit of naval divers, retaining the very things that made them stand out from the crowd.

It was a smart move, and by 2005 it was manufacturing its very own movements – ironically just a year after Rolex, the brand to which Panerai owes so much, began to do the same.

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