Supply of instruments to Italian Navy meant Military Act kept facts under wraps, writesGaynor Thomas
Match Italian design flair with Swiss watchmaking technology and you get Officine Panerai. The great watchmaker has its origins in Florence, in 1860, and its roots are deeply embedded in navigation, a tradition continued through the supply of measurement and precision instruments to the Italian Navy. This is a brand with a maritime heritage.
In the realm of little-known facts about watchmaking, Panerai's Radiomir and Luminor models were covered by the Military Secrets Act for many years.
Today, Panerai is part of the Richemont Group and a name known to watch lovers everywhere. It develops and crafts its movements and watches at its Neuchâtel manufacture, partaking of the great Swiss history of horological expertise while retaining its Italian design flair. In 2002 Panerai created its first in-house movement, the P.2002 - a hand-wound calibre with GMT function and eight-day power reserve, drawing inspiration from the Angelus movement used in the Panerai 1940s models. In keeping with Panerai's strong links with the sea, CEO Angelo Bonati is described as "a passionate and avid seaman". He is also enthusiastic about the promise Asia holds for Officine Panerai.
"Hong Kong and the whole Asian region have always been a strategic market in which Panerai has achieved significant and satisfactory results," Bonati says.
Watches&Wonders is about image, he adds. "For Panerai it is an opportunity to strengthen our contact with our clients and to make ourselves known to potential clients who are interested in niche products," Bonati says. "Panerai is well known in Asia, but in China we have only been present in a structured manner for four years. Watches&Wonders, therefore, represents an important opportunity for us."
While recognising the economic development of Asia and the surge in Chinese consumerism, Bonati says that Panerai has a fairly evenly balanced international distribution.
"The market is evolving towards the emerging countries with strong potential, hence steady growth is expected for the whole watch market. Our strategy is clear: to continue being exclusive in the haute horlogerie sector by promoting the brand with its high quality products which it manufactures itself. Clients will always look for quality and exclusiveness."
So, Officine Panerai timepieces have an appeal that crosses continents. In the past few years Panerai has designed watches closely linked to Chinese culture such as the Fu watch, which displays the symbol of fortune and prosperity on the dial at six o'clock, and also of the Luminor, dedicated to the signs of the Chinese horoscope. These are watches enriched by hand-engraving carried out by skilled Italian craftsmen which come in limited editions intended for collectors, while the Panerai range as a whole remains essentially international.
With this in mind, Panerai is showing seven timepieces at Watches&Wonders. Among them is the special edition of Radiomir 1940 Chrono Monopulsante in its Oro Rosso (red gold) and Oro Bianco (white gold) versions, limited to 300 and 150 units respectively. "The Radiomir 1940 gives us the opportunity of developing a sophisticated range of products which is more in tune with the taste of the Asian market," Bonati says. The watch combines the Radiomir 1940 case design with the P.2004/10 movement with skeletonised bridges and barrels.
The three barrels of the P.2004/10 give the generous eight-day power reserve which has been a hallmark of Panerai watches since the 1940s. Time remaining is displayed by the linear power reserve indicator on the dial. The P.2004/10 calibre also has the second time zone function.
Like most Panerai aesthetics, the cushion-shaped 45mm Radiomir 1940 case is a rethink of traditional elements with references to the Luminor 1950 case. The result is simple but sophisticated. With two counters and a central seconds hand, the chronograph has a single button at eight o'clock which controls the start, stop and reset functions. The sapphire window in the caseback reveals the movement.
The colour and design of the dial differentiate the two versions: the Oro Rosso has a brown dial with a satiné soleil finish with large Arabic numerals and bar hour markers, while the Oro Bianco has a black dial, also with a satiné soleil finish, but with minimalist graphics, and with bar and dot hour markers.
Of equal interest to Panerai fans will be the Radiomir Vintage Special Editions, Radiomir Platino and Radiomir Oro Rosso. These large (47mm) cases in polished platinum or red gold are inspired by historic Panerai models with a 12-sided bezel and spherical winding crown.
The construction, too, follows the 1930s original in which the bezel and back are screwed directly to the caseband. Even the typically clean and strong Panerai dial design is protected by a slightly cambered Plexiglas crystal, as in the historic models.
The movement is OP XXVII, already used by Panerai in other rare special editions. The new Radiomir Platino and Radiomir Oro Rosso are only being made in editions of 100 units each.
Panerai is also taking the chance at Watches&Wonders to introduce its new in-house movement, P.5000 with eight-day power reserve. Collectors can see it in the Luminor Marina 8 Days and Luminor Marina 8 Days Oro Rosso.
The famous eight-day power reserve concept was pioneered by Panerai for the commandos of the Italian Navy, so P.5000 is in a grand tradition. Panerai says that the two new timepieces "respect the classic aesthetics of the Luminor Marina, notable for the minimalist design of the case and dial".
The 44mm case has an iconic bridge device with locking lever to protect the winding crown. In stainless steel or red gold, with black and brown dials respectively, the hand-wound mechanicals Luminor Marina 8 Days and Luminor Marina 8 Days Oro Rosso are part of the Historic Collection. Another special edition from Panerai which will delight Watches&Wonders guests is the Radiomir 8 Days GMT Oro Rosso (PAM00538), limited to 300 units worldwide. In a cushion case of polished red gold, this model also salutes the 1930s with the minimalist design of its deep blue dial.
The hand-wound calibre, P.2002/10 is a complex version of the first in-house movement made by Panerai in Neuchâtel. Its aesthetic and technical details can be seen through the open back, showing the finely skeletonised bridges and barrels. Like all Panerai watches, the new Radiomir is water resistant and tested to five atmospheres (equivalent to a depth of about 50 metres).
Bonati is positive about the future of haute horlogerie in Asia. "It is growing fast and the Asian world of collecting is extremely advanced," he says. "Not only in terms of collections and watches acquired, but more especially in terms of their specific knowledge of the product."