Military Watches of the World: Italy (Pt I)

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Our survey of international military timepieces is back in action after a long hiatus. In this installment, we travel to Italy.

World War II

Many are no doubt familiar with the dedicated dive watch and the military watch as 20th-century Swiss inventions, but such historicity is only partially accurate. It was in fact fascist Italy that played an outsized role in the development of early tool watches, paving the way for other European countries to follow.

Giovanni Panerai founded his eponymous horological shop and watchmaking school in Florence in 1860, a year before the formation of Italy as a modern nation-state. His grandson, Guido, would expand the business significantly, and in 1916 developed a radium/zinc sulfide powder enclosed in sealed vessels. (Users of watches illuminated by modern, hermetically sealed tritium tubes will recognize the idea behind this early technology.) Panerai, which had already been equipping the Regia Marina (Royal Italian Navy) with different types of equipment, adopted this new mixture for use in gun sights, precision instruments, and watches. Highly visible in low light given its radioactive makeup and adhesive even underwater, the substance was christened Radiomir, and would go on to form the basis of one Panerai’s most famed watch collections.

Panerai’s first shop in Florence. Image credit: Panerai
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In 1936, the Florentine company produced ten prototypes of a special dive watch for the frogmen of the First Submarine Group Command of the Regia Marina. This watch, with its oversized 47mm cushion-shaped case; luminescent dial; handwound mechanical movement; acrylic crystal; wire lugs and water-resistant strap long enough to be worn over a diving suit, is perhaps the first dedicated dive watch made specifically for military use, and the basis for all of the company’s modern production. None of these early Panerai models was entirely produced by Panerai itself: it was in fact Rolex that made the cases from Staybrite steel and provided the cal. 618 movement, which were made exclusively for Rolex by Cortebert. The watches’ special dials, however, were a Panerai invention.

Radiomir Prototype. Image credit: Panerai

 

A production run of the 1936 Radiomir prototypes was made in 1938, on the eve of the Second World War. Updates to the original design lent the watch more of its now-iconic feature set: a “sandwich” dial consisting of two plates — a lower plate covered in luminescent radium paint, and a highly legible upper plate featuring perforated indices and only four numerals; and an improved set of wire lugs consisting of a folded metal bar welded to the watch case.

Evolution of the sandwich dial. Image credit: Panerai

 

In 1940, the Radiomir case was further improved to provide increased strength and resistance to wear under adverse combat conditions, with lugs that were reinforced and cut from the same block of steel as the main case. Movement supply was later transitioned from Rolex to Angelus, whose cal. 240 movement provided eight days of power reserve — a vast improvement over the 41 hours provided by the cal. 618.

It is highly likely that early Panerai models saw service during the famed raid on Alexandria on December 19, 1941 by members of the Decmia Flottiglia MAS, a special operations unit of the Marina Militaire that utilized manned torpedoes. Members of the Decima succeeded in infiltrating Alexandria’s harbor and severely damaging two British ships, the HMS Queen Elizabeth and the HMS Valiant, before ultimately being captured by Egyptian police and British forces.

Decima MAS personnel. Image credit: Alchetron
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Late 1940s/1950s

Following the war, in 1949, Panerai replaced its radium-based Radiomir compound with a new tritium-based variant, which it called Luminor. Closely associated with this new material was a watch case design with a now-iconic feature — namely, Panerai’s crown protection device. Research and development on this design was begun in the early 1940s during the war, culminating in 1950 in the release of the Luminor case. A special bridge covers the watch’s crown, upon which sits a small, spring-fitted lever. When depressed into place, this lever pushes down on the crown, ensuring what was, for the time, incredible water resistance. Other refinements to this new case included a wider, flatter bezel and reinforced lugs. Much of Panerai’s modern catalog is still based upon this design, which lives on despite the development of the screw-down crown.

Early Luminor case. Image credit: Panerai

In 1956 — a fateful year for Egypt — Panerai developed a special Radiomir watch for the Egptian Navy known as the “Egiziano.” Featuring an extremely oversized 60mm case, increased water resistance and a marked dive bezel, the Egiziano made use of the recently developed crown protection system and would prove to be the last significant dive watch innovation of the original Panerai family. 

Upon Guido Panerai’s son Guiseppe’s death in 1972, the management of the company fell to Dino Zei, an engineer, who changed the name of the firm from “G.Panerai & Figlio” (“G. Panerai and Sons”) to “Officine Panerai S.r.L,” which had appeared on original Panerai models. The firm, which had never before produced watches for the civilian market, manufactured three special editions in 1993 based on its historical models, and was subsequently purchased by the Vendome Group in 1997 (now the Richemont Group), becoming a global luxury juggernaut.

We’ll pick things back up in Pt. II of this series. 

Sources for this article include: Time and Tide’s history of the Luminor; Phillips; Oracle of Time ;War History Online, and Spec Ops: Case Studies in Special Operations Warfare, written by Vice Adm. William H. McRaven, published by Random House LLC

Note: An Instagram user alerted the author to Jose Pereztroika of Perezscope.com, whose piece on the history of Luminor refutes much of the Panerai company’s own claims regarding its watches — history that was used as the basis for much of this article. Pereztroika presents compelling arguments for alternative dates and explanations for much of this history, and is worth a careful analysis by anyone interested in Panerai.

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Oren Hartov is the watches editor at Gear Patrol, a contributor to several other publications, and a graduate of the Berklee College of Music. He is a reserve paratrooper in the Israel Defense Forces and enjoys music, history, archaeology, militaria, scuba diving, languages and travel. He is of the opinion that Steely Dan’s “The Royal Scam” may in fact be a better record than “Aja,” but he’s not positive.
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