It might not be the oldest nor the most famous watch manufacturer in the world, but Panerai is a distinct and instantly recognisable brand with a fascinating history.
Panerai has built up a large following as a result, counting Hollywood stars such as Sharon Stone and Bruce Willis among its fans. Panerai also has legions of non-famous fans who are proud to call themselves 'Paneristi'.
Are you an aspiring Paneristi? Read on to find out more about Panerai watches.
1. Founded in Florence in 1860
Unlike many luxury watch brands, Panerai isn't Swiss, but Italian. It was founded in the city of Florence by Giovanni Panerai in 1860. That said, Panerai now makes its watches in Neuchâtel, Switzerland. If you're lucky enough to own a Panerai, you'll see confirmation of this by the words 'Swiss made' on the dial.
Panerai's shop and workshop on Ponte alle Grazie also served as Florence's first watchmaking school. Although the shop was open to everyone, by the early 20th Century, Panerai took on contracts for the Royal Italian Navy and began specialising in naval watches and equipment.
2. Panerai's Toxic Watches
In 1916, Panerai secured a patent for Radiomir, a radium-based paint that glowed in the dark. This proved vital in the development of Panerai's signature luminous index, designed to be easy for Italian naval officers to read underwater.
What most people didn't realise at the time was that the luminous material used in Panerai's indexes contained radium. We now know that radium is one of the world's most radioactive and dangerous chemical elements. But back then it wasn't known to be toxic particularly harmful, despite research teams taking precautions when investigating it.
The Panerai watches made with this radioactive substance are still radioactive today. And, since radium has a half-life of more than 1600 years, they will continue to be radioactive for a long time.
Ironically, the indexes on these radioactive watches don't glow in the dark anymore because the zinc sulphide in the paint has worn out. Despite being radioactive and no longer luminous, many collectors consider these original watches to be the best Panerai watch style because of their exclusivity and historical relevance.
Panerai stopped using radium and switched to a new self-luminous tritium-based substance called Luminor in 1949.
3. The Four Panerai Model Categories
Panerai watches are available in four distinct case styles. These Panerai models are:
Radiomir: This model category refers to Panerai’s earliest naval watches from the 1930s. Radiomir Panerai models feature either integrated lugs with spring bars or wire lugs that you can detach to change the strap. These models are often plain-face, classic, and large, with the smallest Radiomir measuring 42mm. They also feature a standard crown.
Luminor: Towards the end of the 1940s, Panerai began using their patented tritium-based Luminor mixture. In 1950, Panerai introduced its iconic crown lock, as featured in the brand's Luminor line. This Panerai model also includes integrated lugs and a cushion case shape which pays homage to Panerai's past. Although, the brand offered a modernised version for the company's first civilian collection in 1993.
Luminor Due: This line, which premiered in 2018, features thinner and smaller watches with more luxurious details. Panerai released this line in response to demands for more feminine Panerai models. The Due line is only water-resistant up to 30 metres thanks to its snap-on caseback, so many die-hard Panerai fans dismiss these watches. But it remains that this line includes some of Panerai's most attractive styles.
Submersible: In 2019, Panerai launched this new category to distinguish their dedicated diver's watches from their other models as a way to simplify its catalogue. These watches tend to start at 42mm and can stretch to 47mm. Some of Panerai's most desired watches are Submersibles, such as their PAM00986 which is more commonly known as the 'Bronzo'.
4. History of Using Third-Party Movements
In the beginning, Panerai didn't have the resources to make its own calibres. Instead, watch repairer Giovanni Panerai and his son took the opportunity to enter the realm of mechanical engineering and design. Through this, they began producing watches using Swiss suppliers such as Rolex watches and Angelus for the calibres.
Panerai continues to use these kinds of 'base movements', also called 'third-party movements' or 'off-the-shelf movements' as well as in-house Panerai movements. The concept of using base movements involves taking a shelf unit from a third party supplier and building around it. By doing this, Panerai can offer a better price point on these models when compared to in-house movements.
At present, Panerai uses either ETA 6497 or Unitas base movements. The company then covers the movement with a solid case back to block the other company's work from view.
Using third-party movements might sound like horological heresy, but this method has been a common practice in watchmaking since the Industrial Revolution. And Panerai has developed its esteemed reputation using Rolex movements to offer both great quality and good value. Of course, they do make their own calibres now as well, they are normally coded P.XXXX.
5. Guaranteed for over 50 Years
Many collectors consider the original Radiomir style to be the best Panerai watch from a historical perspective. But, in terms of technical advancements, the best Panerai watches are those of the brand's modern era.
One of the most groundbreaking Panerai models is the Panerai Lab-ID Luminor 1950 Carbotech, which the brand first unveiled in 2017. Thanks to a combination of tantalum-based ceramic, carbon, and only four pivot points in the movement with conventional jewels, this watch won't need servicing for 50 years according to its guarantee.
Recently in 2020 Panerai upped itself again with the PAM1700, a new watch in the Lab-ID range with a 70-year guarantee.
To call this impressive is an understatement and we, alongside many Paneristi, are keen to see these watches live up to their promise.
Your Guide to Panerai Watches
From their humble beginnings, Panerai came to find their niche making naval watches and are now one of the world's top luxury watch brands.
But, while Panerai has always referred to its heritage when developing new products, for many Paneristis, there's nothing like a vintage Panerai watch.