If there were an Academy Award in the watch world for brand that’s evolved not only furthest, but also the most intelligently, from its origins, the ladies and gentleman of the Academy might well have to give the award to Panerai.  For much of its history a somewhat obscure maker of instruments for the Italian Navy, it has, since being rediscovered by enthusiasts in the mid-1990s, gone from being something of an outsider, pure sports-watch brand to a name now associated –with a naturalness that speaks to the sophistication with which relationships have been forged and collections developed –with everything from vintage yachting to one of the world’s most interesting (and, we think, underappreciated) tourbillons (the calibre P2005) to exotic astronomical complications.  In short, Panerai’s made the move, in under 20 years, from mil spec combat instrument creator to cultural icon with an apparent ease that belies the extremely sophisticated long range planning that made the transformation possible.

Having acquired and repeatedly justified its place in a seat at the high table of high end horology, Panerai this year did something which, while perhaps a surprise in and of itself, is all of a piece with its patrician presence: it introduced three pocket watches.  The first was actually teased two years ago, at the 2012 SIHH, where it was shown in a dark exhibition vault buried deep inside the Panerai stand –one felt almost as if one were in some deep submarine lair and that one had come across an exotic treasure by some unlooked-for stroke of good fortune.  That watch is the PAM00446 Tourbillon GMT Ceramic.  Built (as are its two brothers, unveiled formally at SIHH 2014) on the lines of the Radiomir case, it’s a tour-de-force of ceramic engineering –the case, bow, and chain, as well as the elaborate stand that comes with the watch and allows it to be used as a table clock, are all made of tough technical ceramic, in a deep black that sets off the 16 1/4 ligne, calibre P2005/S beautifully.

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The impact of the watch itself is remarkable but the very thick icing on the cake is the incredible chain supplied with the watch –it’s a fantastically elaborate piece of ceramic engineering, with all the cleanly articulated, coiled visual power of a scorpion’s tail.

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The two additional pocket watches shown this year are the Pocket Watch 3 Days Oro Rosso PAM00447, and Pocket Watch 3 Days Oro Bianco PAM00529.  At 50mm they’re smaller than the 59mm GMT Ceramica, and though they don’t have the same out-of-this-world exotic impact of that watch, they do show just how versatile the elegant cushion-shape of the Radiomir case really is; it seems born to have been made into a pocket watch.

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The shape makes the watches extremely appealing visually but where they really shine is in their tactility –one of the most important acid tests of a pocket watch is how seductively it sits in the hand, and these nestle in the palm with all the irresistible touchability of a napping kitten.  For all that, they’re still impressively and solidly masculine –and perhaps the purest interpretation yet of the Radiomir case.  Without the lugs, the case shape has all the uncluttered cleanliness of line of Brancusi’s Bird in Space.  Pick up a few waistcoats and get one in your pocket –you’ll be glad you did.

Special thanks to the Panerai Madison Ave. boutique staff for their gracious assistance in photographing the pocket watches, and to the Panerai USA public relations team for their assistance as well.  Pocket Watch Oro Rosso, $71,800; Pocket Watch Oro Bianco, $75,700; both limited to 50 pieces world wide.  The Pocket Watch Tourbillon GMT Ceramic, $215,000; limited to 50 pieces worldwide.

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