Panerai’s Rise – From humble origins to stars in their Panerai’s.

Posted on March 19, 2010



Panerai today are known as exclusive timepieces with a rich history dating back to the 1930s, but just what are the origins of these unique, oversized watches, worn by the rich and famous, and just why do they command such devotion from collectors around the World?

Panerai started out in Florence, Italy when Giovanni Panerai opened his small watch shop on the Ponte alle Grazie, but it wasn’t until his grandson, Guido Panari, took over the shop that the watch company came into its own.

Guido was approached by the Regia Marina Militare, the Italian Royal Navy, to produce a series of high-precision mechanical instruments for use underwater, although eventually Panerai were commissioned to create a military divers’ watch that could easily be read by the frogmen who were to wear them, and that would function successfully at depth.

Guido had already patented a process for creating luminescent watch markings for his other equipment for the Italian Navy, which he named Radomir, by utilising the element Radium to coat the dials. This would allow the watches to be easily read in the low light conditions underwater, but had the rather unfortunate side effect of being highly radioactive, which, sadly, proved to be fatal to a number of women whose job it was to hand paint the dials with the toxic substance. Eventually this was changed and the safer Luminor watches were developed. These days they are do not use any radioactive material and are completely safe.

What is a little known is that these first watches were, in fact, made by Rolex for Panerai – a partnership that was to last from 1935 to 1954. These early watches were developed from the Rolex pocket watch (Ref: 2533), with a large, 47mm case. These early examples still bore the Rolex insignia on the crown and on the movement. It was in partnership with Rolex that Panerai developed the distinctive crown guard. These early watches are really rather rare, and it comes as no surprise, considering their scarcity and their Rolex movements, that these watches are highly sought after by collectors and can fetch hundreds of thousands of dollars at auction.

It was these watches that were issued to the Italian Navy frogmen of the Decima Flottigilia MAS, the specialist commando unit that developed something of a fearsome reputation amongst the Allies during the WWII.

A promotional image from Officine Panerai showing a Navy diver.

In one mission alone in December of 1941, in the port of Alexandria in Egypt, these frogmen were responsible for the crippling of the only two British battleships in the region, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Valliant, a tanker Saratoga and the cruiser, HMS Jervis. The frogman leading the assault, Lieutenant Luigi De la Penne, warned the British crew, which was to later win him the Medal of Valour. Winston Churchil later said of the attack:

“It was an extraordinary example of courage and geniality.”

Ian Fleming even based the use of an underwater hatch on the Disco Volante in his novel Thunderball on the Olterra, a scuttled Italian tanker that was used as an underwater base by the Decima MAS. From here they launched several attacks on Allied shipping. In the novel Bond pronounces the incident as

“One of the blackest marks against Intelligence during the whole war.”

As Deputy Director of Naval Intelligence, this must have been quite a sore spot for Fleming.

These men were brave heroes then, and it is no coincidence that Panerai should revel in their association.

After the War, Panerai continued to provide diving watches for the Italian Navy, however they were only producing limited numbers, and then fairly exclusively for the military. By the 1990s their association was proving to be no longer cost effective, and the company seemed to be standing on shaky ground.

It is around this time that an unlikely figure stepped in help reinvigorate the brand: Sylvester Stallone.

Stallone sporting a Panerai Luminor Marina in "Daylight".

Stallone was prepping for his upcoming action movie Daylight, where he would play a specialist rescue worker, and was looking for something that would enhance his character. He stumbled upon the Panerai.

“I immediately felt the watch had star power”

Stallone said of the Panerai. He sported the watch for the entire film, and went on to order a number of the watches from Officine Panerai with his signature inscribed on the back casing. These watches, which he named Slytech, he gave away to his friends, including Arnold Schwarzenegger, who went on to wear a Panerai in his own films. This certainly helped to raise the public awareness and perception of Panerai, and indeed many celebrities now sport one. Panerais’ have made an appearance in numerous action films since, such as The Transporter, where, unforgivably, it makes a beeping noise. Stallone himself continues to be possibly the most recognised ambassador of the Panerai brand, sporting various models in films and public appearances.

Not long after this in 1997, Richmont, the Swiss luxury goods company, took over Officine Panerai, and has since rebuilt the watchmaker into one of the most successful brands in the World. By staying true to the origins of these fabulous watches, their association with Rolex and the brave men of the Italian Navy, it should be no surprise then that for the last five years Panerai have been the number one selling watch in Worldwide. Not bad going for a little Italian watchmaker from Florence.


Please do check out Jake Ehrlick’s fantastic article on the Panerai.

Also check out Vintage Panerai and Panerai:The References by Ralf Ehlers and Volker Wiegmann, available at