Panerai: The Italian watch brand's military story
How Rolex got involved in an underwater mission with Secret Commandos.
Panerai is a brand that has become popular only recently, compared to some, but its roots run deep and include an undersea action adventure and collaboration with Rolex to boot.
The Panerai story really begins with Giovanni Panerai opening a shop in Florence in 1860. It was a Swiss watch retailer, a workshop, and the city’s first watchmaking school.
Over the years, and with influence from Giovani’s son, Leon Francesco, and later still, his grandson, Guido, the company diversified from timepieces into instrumentation design and mechanical engineering of the highest caliber.
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.
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. 1,700 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 Sylvester Stallone discovered the watches, 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 many watch collectors consider the legendary Panerai 3646 a kind of “Holy Grail”. The sturdy Rolex Calibre 618 Type 1 movement is at the heart of this masterpiece.
So 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, and I am always delighted to have one of these rare birds pass through my hands at Momentum.
Tariq Malik is owner of Momentum Dubai, the UAE's first and only vintage watch boutique. Visit momentum-dubai.com.