The Classicist: Panerai Past & Present
Photo by Éric Sauvage and Nils Herrmann
Officine Panerai, founded in Florence in 1860, makes some of the most coveted wristwatches in the world. They only produce a limited number of timepieces every year, and there's usually a long waiting list for new models costing several thousands of dollars. The company is credited with perfecting the world's first underwater watches in the thirties; many have imitated its oversized style and the numerous devoted Panerai collectors around the globe are known as "Paneristi." Since 1996 the company has also produced a line of watches for Ferrari and serves as the marque's official timekeeper. An impressive new slipcased volume, called simply Panerai, about to be published by Flammarion, details the fascinating history of these beautiful watches.
Early on the company became the official supplier to the Marina Militare (the Royal Italian Navy), initially providing optical and mechanical instruments. In 1910 they began experimenting with luminous materials to make the instrument dials visible in the dark. In 1936 the Marina Militare asked Panerai to develop a wristwatch suitable for use by commandos under extreme conditions. Thus was born the oversized, water-resistant, luminous dial Radiomir, production of which began in 1938, cementing a place for Panerai in the pantheon of the world's great watchmakers.
Gallery: Panerai: Past & Present
Panerai continued to supply the Marina Militare long after World War II, but eventually the bureaucrats decided it was no longer cost effective to have them do so. In 1993, the company produced versions of its military-issue Radiomir and Luminor watches for the civilian market. It was such a Luminor that Sylvester Stallone stumbled upon at a jewelry store in Rome in 1995. He commissioned a special edition of the watch, known as the Slytech (pictured above), to wear during the filming of the thriller Daylight and subsequently gave some to friends like Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Stallone is widely credited with helping to popularize the brand in the U.S. and revive its flagging fortunes after the loss of the military contracts, though we're certain that it would have had a renaissance even without the help of the Italian Stallion. In 1997 the company was acquired by Swiss luxury goods conglomerate Richemont International SA. Richemont has an impressive stable of brands including Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Montblanc and Alfred Dunhill. Panerai more than holds its own in such august company.