REMARKABLE WATCHES WHICH HAVE PLAYED A PART IN HISTORY
Officine Panerai of Florence: a small company specialised in high-precision work and ultra-sophisticated mechanical devices. The companys age-old history and its particular tradition explains the unique personality of its watches, which have been available on the Italian market since 1997, on the international markets since 1998 after the brand has been bought by the Richemont Group.
It was in 1936 that Guido Panerai & Figlio, which subsequently became Officine Panerai, created the first prototype of a new design of watch. Using a Rolex movement, this was designed for a special secret military group which was being formed in Italy. The company had been a supplier to the Royal Italian Navy since the second half of the 19th century, making advanced technical high-precision instruments.
This highly specialised production had irrevocably connected the name of Panerai with the marine environment, with the measurement of time and space, and with the development of standards of quality and reliability superior to the norm, in that everything they made had to meet military requirements. The products included luminous mechanical calculators for launching torpedoes, aiming devices, depth gauges, compasses, and time fuses for mines or underwater primers. It was as a result of the technology acquired in these fields that Panerai was able to create an extraordinary specialist underwater watch for military use.
Panerai Radiomir watches entered permanent and effective service in the Royal Italian Navy in 1938; they also entered the pages of history as participants in some legendary exploits. These watches were worn by commandos and Gamma forces who perpetrated the most thrilling and audacious attacks on the ships of enemy navies, approaching their targets either by swimming or on board special torpedoes known as pigs. The most sensational attack took place at the end of 1941 in the port of Alexandria, Egypt, when six commandos put out of action two battleships and a naval tanker, in effect removing the backbone of the British Mediterranean fleet. The hero of this mission was Lieutenant Luigi Durand De La Penne. He was captured, but a few minutes before the charge he had placed was about to go off, he told the English captain that the ship should be evacuated so that its crew would be saved. At the pre-arranged hour the Valiant was blown up and with it De La Penne and his number two, who had also been captured in the meantime, the two men being shut in the hold. The two Italians survived and De La Penne, recommended for the gold medal of honour by his enemy, was described in the words of
the British admiral as the deliverer of the greatest blow which a single man has ever inflicted on a fleet.
With the end of hostilities the Radiomir Panerai came to shine in a different area: this time in the field of collecting. The few hundred pieces which had been produced made them highly prized rarities much sought after by enthusiasts all over the world.
The dial of the Radiomir Panerai is characterised by exceptional luminosity, achieved by marking the numerals and hands with a special mixture consisting of zinc sulphate, radium bromide and mesothorium. This special composition had been devised and created at Panerai, and it was used on all the night sights made by the Florentine company: the luminous strength of the mixture enabled these instruments to be used in complete darkness without needing any external lighting which might have been seen by the enemy.
In 1943 the Italian company designed another watch for the Italian Navy, intended for use by deck officers. This was the Panerai Mare Nostrum, a chronograph with two counters and a water-resistant case which only reached the prototype stage because of the way the events of the war affected Italy. Mare Nostrum was the name used by the ancient Romans like Julius Caesar for the Mediterranean Sea, which for centuries was dominated by the Roman fleet.
In the early 1950s the Radiomir Panerai was first joined and then replaced by the Panerai Luminor, a model which preserved the same case shape and historic watch dial but with some significant improvements. The water-resistance was finally perfected by the adoption of a special lever device which kept the winding crown pressed against the case, while the main movement used was an Angelus calibre with 8-day winding reserve, which greatly reduced the frequency with which the winding crown had to be used, thus minimising the chance of any water getting past it, the most vulnerable part of underwater watches. The characteristic device for locking the crown has always been a distinctive unique feature of Panerai watches and is a Trade Mark of the Panerai brand.
Another important innovation concerned the dial, whose luminosity was now achieved by a tritium-based compound instead of a radium mixture. In this case too the particular luminous mixture was made by the Panerai laboratory. The Panerai Luminor watch continued to be supplied to the special forces of the Italian Navy, and by now it had become a legendary object much sought after by collectors and enthusiasts all over the world.
With this select, knowledgeable public in mind, Officine Panerai has re-issued in 1993 the celebrated original Panerai Luminor in a limited edition (and as an even more limited edition, a platinum version of the very first Radiomir Panerai). It has also put the Panerai Mare Nostrum into production, more than half a century after its original design. It has been a considerable achievement to gather together skilled technicians with the necessary historic and design knowledge from the upper echelons of Swiss watchmaking and Italian design. The result is a range of watches constructed and tested to resist extreme conditions of use, which are also exclusive and endowed with an experience which has no rival.
Ideas, technology and enterprise: a history like that of Radiomir Panerai and Panerai Luminor consists of a unique heritage which is testified by the Archivio Storico.