The first watch company to ever make me feel, as an adult man, that I had found “my brand”, was Officine Panerai. Why? Because what could be more appealing than the idea that the modern luxury watch you are strapping onto your wrist, is based on the dive watches worn by Italian naval commandos? Panerai’s watches are so rich in narrative, so powerful and emotive, that the first time I saw one, I knew I had to have one. So I saved the better part of half a year’s freelance-writing salary to purchase my first Panerai, a PAM00061, a titanium-cased timepiece with a stunning tobacco-colored dial. And the moment I bought this watch, I knew it was the start of an addiction.
Panerai was also the subject of my very first freelance watch story for the national newspaper in Singapore, a story that turned out to be easy to write because the brand is so brilliantly steeped in the most extraordinary mythology. Panerai began as a maker of luminous sighting devices, before being tapped by the Italian Navy in the ’30s to create robust dive watches with dials that would glow even in the dark depths of the ocean. In the ’90s, the brand began to make a few limited series of civilian watches, using its core military design iconography, as well as the famous crown lever-locking device in a model known as the Luminor Marina.
The story goes that the Hollywood actor Sylvester Stallone came across a Panerai one day and fell in love with it. He showed it to his friend Johann Rupert, the owner of Richemont Group, who subsequently purchased the brand. Upon taking ownership of Panerai, the new owners found a box of new, old-stock vintage Rolex movements. They put these movements inside a 60-piece series of platinum Radiomir (the brand’s cushion-shaped case) watches and, with this first model, recouped the entire cost of purchasing the brand. However, even more amazing is the fact that this watch — the PAM00021 — is today one of the world’s most collectible timepieces.
It was at the onset of the Richemont Group era for Panerai that a very special man was tapped to helm this brand — to, in essence, guide it from being a military tool to becoming an established high-luxury brand. That man’s name is Angelo Bonati, and what he didn’t tell anyone at the time, was that his vision for Panerai’s future surpassed even their loftiest expectations. Because inside his mind’s eye, he could see where he wanted to guide Panerai, to move beyond a luxury watch brand to become a true manufacture, creating some of the most ambitious in-house technical achievements, including an in-house tourbillon, an equation of time and sidereal-time display, and a split-seconds chronograph, always as an expression of Panerai’s roots in function and performance. His decision to approve a 50-piece limited-edition REVOLUTION watch was an extraordinary statement in his confidence in our journalistic integrity and a gesture of amazing largesse.
The genesis of this watch occurred in Singapore earlier this year, when I finally met the man who is something of a legend in Panerai-collecting circles. His name is Alan Bloore, but he is much better known by his Internet handle, “Hammer”. His story of courage and perseverance in his recovery from a freak accident that left him paralyzed from the waist down has already been chronicled in the pages of our magazine. But what distinguishes Hammer is his incredible charisma and his wonderful enthusiasm. So when I first mooted the idea of a REVOLUTION special-edition Panerai to Hammer, he replied, “You know, Mr. Bonati probably won’t do it, but it doesn’t hurt to ask.” Similarly, when I asked my great friend Alexandra Zoller, Panerai’s international retail director, she laughed and told me, “You know, Mr. Bonati will probably say no, because he doesn’t like this kind of editions, but it doesn’t hurt to ask.” Finally, when I asked Jean-Sebastien Gerondeau — also a good friend and Panerai’s managing director of Asia Pacific — his answer was also, “It will be unlikely to happen, but it never hurts to ask.”
So finally, I gathered my courage and asked Angelo Bonati. My face was literally frozen in slack-jawed shock when Mr. Bonati thought about it for a moment and replied, “Yes.” When I recovered, I asked Mr. Bonati why he had said yes. To which he replied: “Because you are a friend. Basically, I disagree with this kind of things. We receive a lot of requests and I almost always say no. First, to protect the integrity of the brand. Second, I cannot continue to do special editions, because doing too many special editions in the economy of production doesn’t make sense. You lose money with these watches. This is the reality. But frankly speaking, with you, I cannot say no.”
I immediately contacted Hammer to tell him that, first of all, the “00” prototype of this watch would be jointly auctioned by Panerai and REVOLUTION for his charity, the Sporting Wheelies and Disabled Association, which uses sports to help reconnect individuals with spinal injuries to a life beyond the wheelchair. Secondly, I explained that we needed to start designing a watch! Amazingly, we both said the exact same two words: “Black Seal”. But let’s place these words in context. One of Hammer’s and my favorite eras in Panerai history relates to the “pre-Vendôme” era, which includes watches made between 1993 and 1997, when the brand started making 44mm Luminor Marina watches and 42mm Mare Nostrum chronographs for civilian consumption upon the cancellation of its contract with the Italian Navy.
Of the pre-Vendôme Luminor Marinas, nine different models were created, including the ref. 5218-201/A “Logo” in 677 examples, the ref. 5218-201/A Slytech Submersible in 12 prototypes, the ref. 5218-202/A Marina Militare with a black PVD-steel case in 140 pieces, the ref. 5218-203/A Luminor Marina with a black PVD-steel case in 200 pieces, the ref. 5218-205/A Slytech Submersible in 95 examples, the ref. 5218-207/A Slytech Daylight — in conjunction with Sylvester Stallone’s film Daylight — in 105 examples, the ref. 5218-209 steel Luminor made in 12 pieces, and the ref. 5218-210 Luminor with a PVD case made in just two pieces.
However, the most famous pre-Vendôme Panerai comes from 1996, and is the ref. 5218-218/A Luminor Marina with a black PVD-steel case and the four lines “Luminor, Panerai, Black Seal, Slytech” on its dial. It is simply stunning, and part of its lore is that it was prototyped in five examples, but due to the sale of Panerai to Richemont Group, never produced in series. It is today one of the most collectible Luminor Marina watches, fetching well in excess of a quarter-million US dollars if — and that’s a big if — you can find one. Hammer and I instinctively knew we wanted to pay homage to this incredible watch.
Mr. Bonati replied, “I am saying no to your first proposal, but I propose to you something different.” Little did we know at the time that Bonati and Panerai had already prepared an incredible homage to the Black Seal, in the form of a set of paired pre-Vendôme-inspired watches, dubbed PAM00785.
In the end, I think we created a watch that wonderfully unites two different eras in Panerai’s history. Its design is definitely pre-Vendôme in spirit; in particular, the three lines of text combined with the logo, which, in Panerai-collecting lore, makes it a coveted “four-liner”. Hammer says, “If you look at Panerai’s history, many of the most collectible watches are ‘four-liners’.” The DLC (diamond-like carbon) case is a fitting homage to the pre-Vendôme era’s PVD case, and also emphasizes Panerai’s pioneer status as the first high-luxury brand to use blackened steel cases. For many years, Angelo Bonati would refuse to make more black-cased watches because he felt the technology at the time was not good enough. He reintroduced black watches by using ceramic, the first of these being a Radiomir watch. But for small, nostalgic limited productions, he would agree to make black steel cases, but now with DLC coatings, which are far more robust than the PVD (physical vapor deposition) coatings of old. We asked for the Super-LumiNova, as well the dial and hands, to be made in ecru to replicate aged vintage tritium, and also to distinguish our watch from the PAM 195 four-liner Luminor Marina made several years ago for the website Paneristi. But while all of these design codes were backward-looking, inside would be Panerai’s in-house manual-winding movement with an eight-day power reserve — an incredible testament to Angelo Bonati’s vision to transform Panerai into a true manufacture. In totality, the watch is an incredible gesture of friendship, and moving beyond words.
* The PAM00599 millesimation no. 00/50 will be presented for sale at the Sotheby’s Hong Kong “Important Watches” spring auction (April 2015), with all proceeds going towards Sporting Wheelies and Disabled Association, Queensland. The donation will be made in the name of Mr Alan Bloore, also known as “Hammer” in the worldwide Paneristi community. To read Hammer’s side of the PAM00599 story, visit the Paneristi.com forums.
LUMINOR MARINA 8 DAYS SPECIAL EDITION FOR REVOLUTION MAGAZINE
Movement: Hand-wound mechanical, Panerai P.5000 calibre, executed entirely by Panerai, 153⁄4 lignes, 4.5 mm thick, 21 jewels, Glucydur® balance, 21,600 alternations/hour. KIF Parechoc® anti-shock device. Power reserve 8 days, two barrels. 127 components
Functions: Hours, minutes, small seconds
Case: Diameter 44 mm, Steel with DLC coating
Bezel: Steel with DLC coating
Back: “10° ANNIVERSARIO REVOLUTION” engraved
Device protecting the crown: (protected as a trademark) Steel with DLC coating
Crystal: Sapphire, made of corundum, 2.5 mm thick. Anti-reflective coating
Water-resistance: 30 bar (300 metres)
Strap: PANERAI Assolutamente black strap