Introduction to Panerai Watches
Giovanni Panerai founded his eponymous luxury Italian watch company, Officine Panerai, in Florence in 1860. After his grandson, Guido, took over the business in the early 20th century, Panerai’s focus shifted to building depth gauges and dive instruments, and ultimately, Panerai military watches for the Italian Royal Navy. The military connection drove the innovations and aesthetics that would ultimately define Panerai as a luxury, masculine brand when it gained popular attention with its first consumer-oriented collection in 1993.
Panerai’s growth led to its acquisition and subsequent move of operations and manufacturing to Switzerland by the Vendome Group in 1997. Collectors and brand enthusiasts—deemed “Paneristi”—refer to watches produced in Panerai’s Italian factory before 1997 as “pre-Vendome." The Swiss-made post-Vendome Panerai watches produced after 1997 are considered less collectable, though after a period in the 2000s when interest in the brand waned, values of Panerai watches have rebounded.
Panerai watches are typically large, imposing timepieces with an industrial, striking visual appeal that is both sturdy and elegant. The primary models include the Radiomir, Luminor, Luminor Due and Submersible.
In 1916, Panerai patented Radiomir, a luminous powder derived from the highly radioactive element radium. Radiomir was of particular interest to the Italian Navy since its divers worked underwater in extremely low-light conditions. Panerai worked under a top-secret contract to build a dive watch that enabled navy frogmen to see in the dark. The prototype for the Panerai Radiomir (ref 3646) was delivered to the Navy in 1936. It featured a 47mm cushion case with a Rolex movement housed in a modified pocket watch case with wire lugs, a large crown and leather strap. The “California” dial combines luminous Roman numbers at 1:00, 2:00, 10:00 and 11:00 with Arabic numbers at 4, 5, 7 and 8:00.
Panerai began delivering production models in 1938 with modifications to the dial and case that improved legibility and durability. In 1940, a redesigned case featuring solid lugs and a smaller conical crown was delivered to the Navy. This is the watch on which modern Radiomirs are based.
The modern automatic and hand-wound Radiomir is offered in 42, 45, 46 and 48mm versions with a variety of complications, wire or integrated lugs, and materials including steel, gold, ceramic and titanium. Water resistant to 100 meters, Radiomir is available with or without a date window and features a luminous dial with highly legible Arabic numbers and small seconds appearing at 9 o’clock. The California, Black Seal and 44mm Radiomir 1940, with its nod to the aesthetic of the classic case produced for the Italian Royal Navy, are among the most collectible pre-owned Panerai watches.
This iconic collection takes its name from Luminor, a tritium-based luminous material patented by Panerai in 1949. Luminor provided even greater visibility in low-light situations without the danger associated with the radioactive Radiomir. The first Luminor watches (ref 6152-1) featuring a 47mm cushion case and either a Rolex 618 or Angelus 240 movement were delivered to the Navy in 1950. In 1956, Panerai added its now-legendary crown guard system that protects and seals the crown.
Several versions of the Luminor were produced for the Navy but in total, it is estimated that Panerai only produced roughly 300 total watches prior to launching the consumer collection in 1993. Pre-1993 Luminors are extremely rare and valuable.
The design of the modern Luminor maintains the aesthetic of the original watch. The first in the collection (ref 5218-201/A) was a 44mm version with Panerai’s prominent crown guard and a luminous dial with Arabic numbers at 12, 3, 6 and 9 o’clock. With a production run of only 677 watches, used pre-Vendome Luminors are highly collectible.
In 1996, Sylvester Stallone wore a special edition Luminor Submersible in the film Daylight, which instantly generated tremendous interest in the niche brand from watch enthusiasts and ultimately, the Vendome Group. Roughly 200 “Sly Tech” Luminors were produced under reference numbers 5218-205/A and 5218-207/A. After the acquisition and move to Switzerland, Panerai scaled production and introduced a series of Luminors with water resistance to 300 meters in 40, 42, 44 and 47mm case sizes, all featuring the crown guard with various complications in a range of materials.
Introduced in 2016, the Luminor Due captures the style and features of the Luminor in a smaller, more versatile design that is comfortable and easy to wear. Sized at 38, 42 and 44 millimeters with a case thickness of 10.5-10.7mm, the Due is considerably thinner than the Luminor’s 13.5-15.6mm case. Designed to appeal to both men and women, the Due is more dress watch than tool watch, especially with a water resistance rating of just 30 meters. The Due is available in automatic and hand-wound versions in steel, gold and titanium with various complications, dials and straps.
The Submersible series of dive watches was created from the Luminor line in 2019. Water resistant to 300 meters, these 42mm and 47mm tool watches feature the crown guard, cushion case and rotating bezel. As a newly created series, the market for used Submersibles is evolving, with some like the Bronzo selling well above retail and others 10-15% below. Both regular and special edition Panerai Submersibles are excellent investments that will likely increase in value over time.
Main Panerai Features
All Panerai watches feature highly legible luminous dials and straps made from leather, skin and other materials. With the exception of smaller versions of the Luminor Due, Panerai watches generally have a large, rugged profile that at once conveys brute power and Italian elegance. The Luminor’s crown guard is the most recognizable design element of the Panerai line and appears on all collections except the Radiomir.
All Panerai watches produced before 2005 contained third-party movements. Although many Panerai watches produced after 2005 contain the company’s proprietary movements, Panerai continued to use outside movements in some models until 2018, when it debuted the P.6000 calibre. New Panerai watches are covered by a 24-month warranty, which can be extended by 6 years through Panerai’s Pam.Guard program.