I’ve always loved the PAM 36. To me, it is the single most stunning, impulse-control-eviscerating, modern Richemont-era Panerai ever made. And I remember the first time I ever saw it on someone’s wrist — improbably enough, a rather attractive woman at a dinner party, who later explained to me that she had coopted it from her fiancé’s watch box. The four lines on the dial — “Marina Militare” at 12 o’clock and “Luminor Marina” at six o’clock — are to this day indelibly seared into my consciousness.

It was around 2004, six months before I was about to launch Revolution, and I immediately rushed to the one and only resource for all things Panerai, www.paneristi.com, and after a bit of searching through their reference section, I found the object of my unbridled, carnal, electric lust. It’s a watch that I would discover was rich with history.

In terms of Panerai chronology, it was the second limited-edition watch created by Angelo Bonati, the man who has so ably led Panerai in its transition from a military secret to a luxury brand over the last two decades. The first was the legendary Panerai PAM 21, a platinum Radiomir with a vintage Rolex movement built using a Cortebert ebauche. Famously with the sale of this series of 60 watches, Bonati recouped the entire cost of purchasing Panerai. (You can read my interview with him where he talks about this here.)

The PAM36B was the first titanium Luminor Marina ever made (the diving watch PAM 25 was the first titanium Panerai). It was the first Luminor Marina with a sapphire back, and as such, it was the first watch to display Panerai’s highly decorated Unitas cal. 6497. It came in a massive limited-edition box with an impressive-looking limited-edition document, upon which its sequential number out of 200 watches was handwritten. And perhaps most of all, it was the first modern Panerai with a “four liner” dial and the first Panerai created by Bonati to feature the words “Marina Militare”.

It’s an amazing example of how words in Italian sound so much more colorfully evocative. Specifically the seven alliterative syllables of “Marina Militare”, which bristle with the pioneering machismo of the clandestine Italian Decima Flottiglia MAS, who wore them in underwater sorties against Ally warships, in actuality combine to just mean “Navy” in English.

Panerai’s history with the Italian navy stretches back to the 19th century — though by common consensus, by the 1900s, Florentine Guido Panerai, founder of the eponymous firm, was the official supplier of luminous devices and other equipment to the Regia Marina, the Royal Italian Navy.

The words “Marina Militare” appear on a wide variety of Panerai’s military timepieces. We’ve seen examples of the soldered-wire-lug ref. 3646 Radiomir watches from the ’30s with these dials, though it is widely suspected that these have been retrofitted. The tome Vintage Panerai by Ralf Ehlers and Volker Wiegmann back this belief up. The Marina Militare dial is most often associated with the solid-lug Radiomir models of the ’40s and, of course, the iconic ref. 6152 models with their half-moon-shaped, patented Panerai crown-locking lever device from the ’50s.

By 1993, the Panerai family was no longer supplying watches to the Italian Navy, which, like all militaries of the world, has gone the way of increasing reliance on electronics. As such Panerai made a courageous effort to reposition itself as a maker of civilian timepieces. Using the typography of the vintage dials and the basic design blueprint of the ref. 6152 case, Panerai created a series of 44mm watches featuring the Unitas/ETA cal. 6497 movement originally designed for pocket watches. The brand had a stroke of immense luck when, in 1995, actor Sylvester Stallone strolled into its Florentine premises and was instantly enchanted with the sense of rugged adventurism encoded in these watches. He subsequently made four different limited editions of these Panerai watches, which he gave away to friends such as Richemont Group owner Johann Rupert, who subsequently purchased the brand in 1997 and appointed Angelo Bonati as CEO.

In the modern, non-military era, there have been a total of six watches honored to bear the words “Marina Militare” on their dials and we’ll look at them all by the time we’re done with part two of this story. The first was created by the Panerai family in 1993. It is ref. 5218/202/A, a manual-wind watch in black PVD-coated steel, with the words “Luminor Panerai” at 12 o’clock and the words “Marina Militare” at six o’clock. One hundred and forty of these watches were made and their value seems to hover around the USD100,000 mark today.

In April of 1998, Angelo Bonati traveled to the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie Genève, the massive watch trade show, to unveil his first collection of Panerai watches. The distinct PAM 36 watch with titanium case and tobacco-brown dial appears in the 1998 catalog in all its transcendent glory. Yet somehow the watches weren’t released until 1999, which explains why they are engraved with a “B” serial number, corresponding with that year. A popular theory is that Bonati intended the PAM 36 as part of the first salvo of watches. Giving credence to this is the fact that the luminous indices of the PAM 36 are tritium. Tritium was used for all “A” series dials, however, because of changes in Swiss law, by the B series the following year, all Panerai dials (with the exception of their professional certified diving watches and special-edition PAM 40) would feature LumiNova indices. This would lead us to believe its dial could have been manufactured in 1998, along with all other A-series tritium dials.

So what was the cause of the delay? Very conceivably the cases, which were being manufactured at the then-family-owned Donzé-Baume Swiss case factory. (Donzé-Baume was subsequently acquired by Richemont Group in 2007.) When I visited many years ago, I was told by a surprisingly gregarious representative, “The titanium Panerai cases were a real learning curve for us. The problem is that when machining titanium, the heat can cause the metal to ignite. So it took us some time to perfect the technique related to this.”Regardless of its slightly delayed launch in 1999, the titanium Panerai PAM 36 Luminor Marina with tobacco dial, decorated Unitas movement and sapphire caseback — combined with its status as Panerai’s second-only special edition (made only in 200 watches) — was an instant hit and voraciously snapped up around the world.

Flash cut back to 2004: already the prices of PAM 36 watches had risen well above the USD10,000 mark when I checked them on Paneristi, and so the closest I could get to it, yet stay within the budget of a recently unemployed freelance watch journalist, was a Panerai PAM 61, a solid-caseback, manual-wind titanium Luminor Marina with a tobacco dial. To my dismay, by 2008, the PAM 36 would be a USD20,000 watch. Just as importantly, the relative rarity in comparison to the number of people eager to get their hands on one meant that watches posted on Paneristi’s collector’s market would be sold within a few hours of appearing — sometimes within a few minutes. By 2013, it would reach a price of USD30,000. And by 2014, sellers would be asking in the mid- to high-USD30,000 range.

Then suddenly, something strange happened. In the last year, prices for the PAM 36 have softened considerably, and for the first time since 2008, watches can be had for around USD20,000. They do, however, remain relatively illiquid, meaning they aren’t that easy to find. Globally, it seems that the values of the majority of modern or post-Richemont Panerais have softened somewhat, while the prices of the military models created between the ’30s-’50s are only growing stronger. Undoubtedly, part of that is based on the relative rarity of Panerai’s military timepieces, combined with the popular mystique of watches that actually served in military duty. Says mega-auctioneer Aurel Bacs, “Today, the individual who can afford something collectible in the world of vintage timepieces probably spends the majority of his time behind a desk. And so he naturally has a romantic longing for objects that were actually used in real action. Military watches fulfill this criterion perfectly.”

And while I certainly agree with this, I’ve never been particularly interested in military watches, because from my perspective, the relationship a soldier develops with his timepieces is immensely personal and not necessarily transferable. But before delving too much into the metaphysical, the reason I remain so enamored with the PAM 36 was that it had all the vast communicative power of the brand’s roots in the military without being a military tool — it had soul without being a soldier, if that makes sense. It was a watch I first saw when I couldn’t afford it, and now that the price seemed more acceptable, I rationalized that it could be the right time to buy one. Most importantly, the watch has not diminished in beauty one bit for me.

Sidebar: It is hard to discuss the PAM 36 without also sidetracking for a moment to discuss the Panerai PAM 40, a titanium manual-wind Luminor Marina with a black dial that was launched the same year, 1999. Why would Panerai launch two somewhat-similar titanium Luminor Marinas the same year? Well, if the PAM 36 had been intended for a 1998 launch, it is conceivable that the PAM 40 was intended to be its follow-up. Adding to the confusion was the fact that though also made in only 200 examples, the PAM 40 was only launched in specific markets such as the United States, Germany and Japan. Also intensifying the murkiness of the waters is the fact that unlike most B-series watches, the PAM 40, like the PAM 36, had a tritium dial. Possibly you could imagine the dials and hands on these watches being identical as that on the PAM 1 A, and were ordered at the same time. But that might be reaching, and as with many things in the watch world, is an unexplainable anomaly. What is interesting is that the values of the PAM 36 and the PAM 40 seem tied together, with the PAM 36 always trading at a premium.