Choosing a favorite watch brand is a bit like choosing your all-time favorite music. There’s probably one name that stands out, but really, it’s quite impossible to choose. Some days are jazz, other days are soul.
As a lover of fine watches, I find something remarkable about Rolex, as I do with Patek Philippe, or Vacheron-Constantin. Each one has its mood, it’s place, and it’s special appeal.
In honor of the finest watch brands in history, we are running a series of articles covering the most famous horological brands, and to kick off, I would like to share the story of Panerai.
This is a brand that has become popular only recently, compared to some, but its roots run deep – and the story includes an undersea action adventure to boot!
At the start of the 20th Century, and with the Great War, it was this unique competency that set the stage for Panerai’s most influential part in world history. Their 1915 patent of the luminous ‘Radiomir’ dials gave the Italian Navy a real edge.
Shown in the image are a compass and depth gauge made by Panerai during the war years.
At the same time Rolex was developing the first truly water resistant watch – the Oyster. Between 1936 and 1938, Panerai, and Rolex collaborated to create the model that would become the definitive Panerai military tool watch: The 3646. These were made only for the Italian Navy, and not for the general public. The relationship between Panerai and Rolex would be a lasting one.
It was a combination of these two technologies that perfectly met the needs of an elite squad – the Italian Amphibious Commandos, and this brings us to a remarkable story.
On the evening of 18th December 1941 a team of Italian frogmen set out on a perilous mission. They had been told to make their wills and put their affairs in order, since there was little chance of returning from this mission alive.
These brave soldiers were using small two-man torpedoes, known as the Maiale (or ‘pigs’ because they were so awkward to steer). Under the cover of night, and using their luminous Panerai watches (timing was absolutely critical) they had to sneak into the Alexandria bay to destroy three Allied warships. This was no easy task. They had to dodge heavy nets rigged with explosives and sneak up to the ships without being detected by enemy sentries.
They were successful in setting the charges, and dealing a decisive blow to the enemy fleet, but at the last moment they were discovered and taken captive. It was then that Lieutenant De La Penne, keeping a watchful eye on his Panerai, advised the Captain of the warship Valiant to get everyone off the ship. The explosion was only ten minutes away. 1700 men were saved, and Winston Churchill later commended their efforts as "An extraordinary example of courage and ingenuity."
Panerai continued making fantastic watches, but all of them were for military use, and the general public knew very little about them. Finally in 1993 a new age dawned for Officine Panerai. They released three watches into the general market.
At first the reaction was lukewarm at best. It was only when the watches were discovered by Sylvester Stallone, browsing a boutique in Florence, that they became famous. Sly wore a Panerai during the movie Daylight. Soon more and more people were discovering this well-kept secret, including Arnold Schwarzenegger, who immediately fell in love with the brand.
Today the legendary Panerai 3646 is considered a kind of “Holy Grail” by many watch collectors. The sturdy Rolex Calibre 618 Type 1 movement is at the heart of this masterpiece.
So to wrap it up, while for many years Panerai was known by only the Italian Navy, I’m pleased that it has become so popular over the last two decades. It will remain one of my favorites, and I am always delighted to have one of these rare birds pass through my hands at Momentum.