Swiss luxury watch manufacturer with Italian origins
Panerai is one of the most significant watchmakers when it comes to Italy, dive watches and military equipment. Founded in 1860 by Giovanni Panerai in Florence, Italy, the company was then named "Officine Panerai". It was serving not only as a shop and workshop but also as the city's first watchmaking school. His grandson Guido Panerai (1873–1934) expanded the watch shop to become an official supplier to the Regia Marina (the Royal Italian Navy), supplying technical equipment, precision instruments and some of the earliest dive watches for military forces - the Radiomir model. This will continue from 1936 to 1993, when the brand will be launched internationally and to the public. In 1997, the brand will be acquired by the Vendôme Group, later known as Richemont. In 2002, the brand will open a manufacture in Neuchatel and starts producing its own movements.
Panerai, also known as “Officine Panerai”, is a brand on its own. While Panerai watches have been available to the public only since 1993, the brand has a long and rich history, mainly linked to the Royal Italian Navy. The brand started as a simple workshop created in 1860 by Giovanni Panerai, in Florence, Italy. His “officine” wasn’t only a shop and workshop for timepieces but was also as the city’s first watchmaking school. The main step in Panerai’s history will occur in 1916, after Guido Panerai (grandson of the founder) took over the family business and created “Radiomir”, a self-luminous material that allowed to see the time in the dark and underwater.
For some years already, Panerai was supplying the Royal Italian Navy with high precision instruments. Radiomir, a radium-based powder that gives luminosity to the dials, patented in 1916, will become a key element in Officine Panerai’s production. In 1936, on the eve of the Second World War, Panerai creates the first prototypes of the model now known as “Radiomir” for the frogman commandos of the First Submarine Group Command of the Royal Italian Navy. This large 46mm watch, with superior water resistance, featured a luminous dial and will be delivered as of 1938 to military forces – after several changes to the original concept, including the creation of the “sandwich dial”.
Multiple developments followed, all for military-issued watches only. In 1940, Panerai presents the Radiomir 1940, with reinforced lugs and a cushion-shaped case made with edges that are more pronounced on the side – a shape that will later become the brand’s hallmark. In 1943 will be developed another milestone watch, the chronograph “Mare Nostrum” for deck officers. In 1949, the brand launches a new luminous material named “Luminor”, this time based on tritium, which supersedes the radium-based paste. Coincidentally, the eponymous watch will be introduced, with the development of the trademark crown-protecting bridge – again, an element that will forge the brand’s DNA.
In 1972, the brand will be passed to engineer Dino Zei, after Giuseppe Panerai, son of Guido, dies. The brand still acts as a military supplier, with Italian Navy supply contracts long covered by military secrecy. The production is however now only focused on diving instruments, such as compasses and wrist depth gauges, as well as pressure compensation underwater torches.
It’s only in 1993 that Panerai will be launched to the public. Officine Panerai indeed presented a collection of three series of limited edition watches: the Luminor, the Luminor Marina and the Mare Nostrum, which draw inspiration from the historical models created for Second World War commandos. An important step in the brand’s history occurs in 1997, when the Vendôme Group, later to be named Richemont, will invest in Panerai and make available internationally and transforms it as one of the major players of the industry.
Since then, the brand has launched multiple collections and has even started to create its own in-house movements, thanks to production facilities based in Neuchâtel, Switzerland. Yet, all the watches that are stamped with the name Panerai are reminiscent of the watches created for the Italian frogmen, with the typical military elements.