Panerais may now be the mandatory attire of macho movie heroes like Jason Statham, following the leads of Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger, but their history is as genuine and authentic as it gets. “Real” Panerais were manually wound, with only hour and minute hands, starting with the Radiomir in its cushion case, and evolving into the readily identifiable Luminor with the patented clamp over the crown. Their users were professionals who regarded their Panerais as tools.
As a starting point, the original 47mm Radiomirs created in the 1930s, with “onion” crown and without a clamping system, fitted with “wire” strap holders, are for many the definitive Panerais. These featured Rolex and later Angelus pocket watch movements. Their size was borne of necessity, both to house the large movements, in massive and robust cases, while allowing space for bigger, and therefore more highly legible dials. They are the most “authentic” of all the currently available models.
Unbeknownst to the originators, they created a design language that would dominate men’s watches by the end of the 20th century, because Panerai is as responsible as any brand for establishing the popularity of men’s watches more than 40mm in diameter.
Panerais evolved, as do all military diving watches, through usage in combat, formed by the needs of Italy’s crack underwater commandos. We are now able to buy production versions of watches that only existed as prototypes, such as the Mare Nostrum chronograph of 1943, so it is clear that Panerai’s designers never “settled” on a specific template. After the Second World War and well into the mid-1950s, Panerai released watches featuring the case style used for Luminors, with myriad refinements and detail changes.
These are the models that introduced one of Panerai’s most distinctive elements, the aforementioned patented flip-down crown lock. With the case redesign, the inconvenient wire strap attachments, which required straps to be stitched into place, were replaced with conventional lugs. Also produced during this period was the legendary Egiziano, or “Egyptian”, a massive 60mm beast that was reissued, not too long ago, in an exact-scale replica.