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Panerai history: the story of the Panerai Luminor

1993 is a key year in the history of Panerai and its most iconic watch, the Luminor.

In that year, for the first time, the brand presented the Luminor and its variation Luminor Marina to the public. Before then, Panerai watches had been available only to military forces.

The Panerai Luminor presented to the public in 1993 - Courtesy of Martin Wilmsen

Directly inspired to a model of the past, the Luminor model quickly achieved an exceptional worldwide success. But let's step back to the origin of the firm and the main events that brought to the creation of this iconic watch.

Founder Giovanni Panerai opened his watchmaker's shop in Florence in 1860 soon becoming the authorized dealer of some of the most important Swiss brands, including Rolex, Vacheron Constantin and Patek Philippe.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Panerai became an official supplier to the Royal Italian Navy (Regia Marina in Italian) supplying high precision instruments.

The invention of Radiomir, a radium-based powder giving luminosity to the dials of sighting instruments and devices, was a remarkable turnaround for Panerai. A patent - the first of a long series - was filed in France on 23 March 1916.

At the time, the effects of radiation exposure were not yet understood and radium was used in several products including food, toothpaste and cosmetics (!).

In 1935 the Royal Italian Navy approached Panerai and other watch manufacturers with the request of designing a watch resistant to extreme conditions while at the same time keeping exact time for the frogman commandos of the First Submarine Group Command and offering excellent readability even under water.

The prototype submitted by Panerai in 1936 was called Radiomir, from the name of the luminescent substance used for hands and indices, and passed all tests successfully.

The 47 mm cushion-shaped case, with its large screw down 'onion' crown, was manufactured on an exclusivity basis by Rolex taking inspiration from the design of a Rolex pocket watch and using Staybrite stainless steel (at the time the steel that offered the best resistance to corrosion).

Wire lugs were welded to the case. A water-resistant strap, long enough to be worn over a diving suit, completed the watch.

The hand-wound movement was also from Rolex, the Calibre 618 made by Cortebert exclusively for Rolex.

Rolex Calibre 618

Just 10 prototypes were produced in this phase, testing various design layouts for the dial protected by a 4 mm thick Perspex crystal.

Reference 2553 had barred and dotted hour indicators while reference 3646 was characterised by a top half with Roman numerals and a bottom half with Arabic ones, a design that was inspired to some Rolex models. Today this type of dial is often nick-named "California" because, in the 1980s, a large number of Rolex Bubbleback were refurbished by a California-based company using this style.

Above: the Radiomir reference 2553 with barred/dotted hour indicators.
Below: the Radiomir reference 3646 with Roman and Arabic numerals. 
Courtesy of John Goldberger

Panerai won the order of the Royal Italian Navy and, following an extensive secret test phase, the first lot of watches (reference 3646) were supplied as of 1938.

The legibility of the watch was enhanced by the particular construction of the so-called "sandwich" dial with two overlapping plates, the lower part containing the radium compound covered by a thin transparent Perspex layer and the upper part having perforated indices and numerals so as to make the radium paint more readable and luminescent. 

The design of the dial was also modified by adopting four Arabic numerals at the cardinal points integrated by a series of barred indices.

The watch kept evolving to better fit the Royal Navy’s requirements and in 1940 the soldered wire lugs were replaced by larger lugs made from the same block of steel as the case for better underwater resistance (reference 6152-1).

Radiomir reference 6152-1 with integrated lugs and sandwich dial - 1940

In the following years, as Rolex's role as supplier was coming to an end, Panerai started equipping its watches also with an Angelus 240 movement delivering eight days of power reserve, a great improvement compared to the 41 hours offered by the Rolex Calibre 618.

The Angelus 240 movement 

This way, by reducing the number of times that the wearer had to pull out the crown to wind the watch, it was easier to guarantee water tightness over time.

In 1949 Panerai introduced a new self-luminous substance called Luminor which was not only safer than radium-based Radiomir but also more luminous.The new tritium (hydrogen isotope) based compound was patented on 11 January 1949 under the "Luminor" trademark.

The evolution from Radiomir to Luminor was completed in the Fifties with the invention of the signature crown-protecting device which was patented in Italy in 1955 and almost one year later in the USA. The patent application for a "Tight Seal Device" was filed by brother and sister Giuseppe and Maria Giuseppe Panerai, also listed as the inventors.

We provide here a few excerpts from the US patent application that can be helpful to understand the drawing above:

"Fig. 1 shows, on an enlarged scale, a diagrammatical cross-sectional view, taken along the line I-I of Fig. 2, of the sole device according to this invention, there being depicted a portion of both the case and the winding shaft;

Fig. 2 shows an end view of the device of Fig. 1, taken in the direction of the arrow II of Fig. 1.

In order to wind up the watch or to set same, it will be sufficient to rotate the lever arm 2 about the pivot 9 carrying said lever to the position depicted in dotted lines.

The arm 7 thus disengages from the knob 3 releasing the engaging pressure between the knob and the seal ring; the knob 3 which is thus freed can be actuated as in any other watch."

The solution ensured water resistance to 200 metres / 660 feet, a remarkable performance at the time.

While the first prototypes still had 'Radiomir'on the dial, various designations including 'Marina Militare' and 'Luminor', were used after the actual production started. All the models, with or without the new tight seal device, were identified by reference 6152-1 and were equipped with either the Angelus 240 or the Rolex Calibre 618.

Reference 6152-1 made in 1955 with the patented crown protection system, dark brown "sandwich'"dial and Radiomir Panerai signature - Courtesy of John Goldberger 

In this reference 6152-1 made in 1955 the signature on the black dial is 'Marina Militare' - Courtesy of John Goldberger 

Another 6152-1, manufactured in 1956, with 'Marina Militare' and 'Luminor Panerai' signature and small seconds sub dial at 9 o'clock - Courtesy of John Goldberger 

In addition to the Italian Navy, in the Fifties also the Egyptian Navy requested some supplies of Panerai watches with specific variations. The 'small Egiziano' (ref. 6154), without crown protection device, was similar to reference 6152-1 but slimmer. The 1956 'big Egiziano' (ref. GPF 2/56) was a radically modified watch with a huge diameter of 60 mm and a new revolving bezel with scale graduated for measuring the duration of immersion. Both had the Radiomir designation on the dial.

Small Egiziano and big Egiziano - Courtesy of John Goldberger 

The supplies to the Italian Navy continued but in limited quantities and under military secret, making it very difficult to estimate the exact production quantities. Most experts agree that Panerai produced around 300 watches until 1992. The rarity of these watches well explains the high valuations achieved at international watch auctions.

The all time record for sale of a vintage Panerai watch was set at Sotheby’s auction "Important Watches", held in Geneva on 14th May 2014. An extremely rare example of a stainless steel Luminor from 1955 was acquired by a Panerai enthusiast who bid the record sum of Swiss Francs 425,000. A reference 6152-1 that can be dated circa 1955, this unique Luminor had a rotating bezel made of polycarbonate, transparent and with small luminescent or black dot markers. The removable bezel, a never before-seen feature, suggests this was probably a prototype that never went into production.

This ultra-rare Panerai Luminor with transparent rotating bezel manufactured in 1955 was auctioned for the record amount of Swiss Francs 425,000 - Courtesy of Sotheby's

We are again in 1993, the key date that we mentioned at the beginning of our story. The G.Panerai & Figlio firm is now Officine Panerai. The change of name happened in 1972 when engineer Dino Zei took the lead of the company after the death of Giuseppe Panerai.

In the month of September Officine Panerai presented to the public a collection of three series of limited edition watches, the Luminor, the Luminor Marina and the Mare Nostrum, which were designed drawing direct inspiration from the historical models created fifty years earlier.

Italian advertising of the Panerai Luminor, for the first time available to the public

The new Officine Panerai Luminor reference 5218-201/A was immediately nicknamed Logo because of its use of the distinctive "OP" logo on the dial, just above the '6' numeral.

The black dial, made from brass, had four Arabic numerals at 3, 6, 9,12 and barred hour markers, all milled and filled with a tritium compound (the "sandwich" structure will be reintroduced at a later time). The hour and minute hands were also treated with tritium. The signature at 12 o'clock was 'Luminor Panerai'.  To protect the dial, a 3.5 mm thick sapphire crystal.

Prototype of reference 5218-201/A manufactured in 1993 featuring a "non-matching dial", so named because the hands and numerals have different colours due to the fact that the dials were initially treated with a varnish that attacked the tritium, turning the colour of the numerals to a brownish-orange colour, not matching the colour of the hands - Courtesy of John Goldberger 

The polished 316L stainless steel case was smaller than the original models but, with its 44 mm diameter, it was nonetheless one of the largest timepiece offered at that time. It featured integrated lugs and the signature crown-protection device guaranteeing water resistance to 30 ATM (300 metres / 1000 feet). The design of the cushion-shaped case was slightly reworked compared to the historical reference 6152-1 giving to the new model its own identity.

The 12-side screwed case back was engraved with Officine Panerai Firenze and the 'OP' logo.

The movement of choice was the hand-wound Unitas 6497 beating at 18,000 vph (2.5 Hz) and offering 46 hours of power reserve.

The watch was accompanied by a mahogany box with silvered Panerai plaque on the front, an additional strap and a screwdriver and replacement screws and tubes for removing/installing the strap.

After 10 initial prototypes, Panerai planned to manufacture 899 pieces of reference 5218-201/A but only 677 were actually produced. In fact, the remaining 212 units will be later used for three special editions associated to Hollywood superstar Sylvester Stallone.

Panerai also presented a second Luminor model (reference 5218-202/A) dedicated to the Italian Navy. The 44 mm steel case was treated with a PVD (titanium nitrate) coating for a matte black look. The black dial bore two designations: Luminor Panerai at 12 o'clock and Marina Militare at 6 o'clock.

Following the customary 10 prototypes, Panerai produced 150 pieces of this model.

In 1995, a lucky event will determine a major turning point for the worldwide success of the Panerai watches. While in Italy, popular actor Sylvester Stallone noticed a Panerai watch in a jewelry and liked it so much that he requested to Officine Panerai a special edition to be used during the shooting of the underwater scenes in the movie Daylight.

Officine Panerai produced the Luminor Submersible, featuring a black dial with small seconds at 9 o’clock and two designations: Luminor Submersible at 12 o'clock and Slytech Panerai at 6 o'clock (Sly is the nickname of Sylvester Stallone). Production included 12 prototypes (reference 5218-201/A) and 95 regular pieces with reference 5218-205/A.

Officine Panerai Luminor Submersible Slytech reference 5218-205/A

Stallone later requested a new Luminor Submersible edition with a white dial, named Daylight produced in 105 pieces (reference 5218-207/A).

Officine Panerai Luminor Daylight reference 5218-207/A

All these watches bear the actor's signature engraved on the back.

In addition to wearing the Officine Panerai Luminor in his Daylight movie, Sylvester Stallone also gave some examples to his friends as a gift.

One of these friends was Arnold Schwarzenegger which also became a fan of Panerai and wore a Luminor Marina in his Eraser movie.

These circumstances contributed to create a huge buzz around Panerai  and attract the attention of the Vendôme Luxury Group (today Richemont Group) which in 1997 completed the acquisition of the Officine Panerai watchmaking business. Watches produced between 1993 and 1997 are generally referred to as "Pre-Vendome" models.

The following year, the brand debuted on the international fine watchmaking market expanding the collection with various Luminor and Luminor Marina variations (as well as a new version of the Mare Nostrum), identified by the new PAM (PAnerai Models) reference numbering,

The Luminor Base models had a diameter of 44 mm and housed the OP I hand-wound movement - with hour and minutes - based on the ETA 6497 and beating at 21,600 vph with a power reserve of 56 hours.

The Luminor Marina models had a diameter of 44 mm and housed the OP II hand-wound movement - with hours, minutes and small seconds at 9 o'clock - based on the ETA 6497/2 and beating at 21,600 vph with a power reserve of 41 hours.

Luminor Marina PVD Destro PAM 026 produced in 1998 - Courtesy of 9Maiali Watches

In the following years, Officine Panerai kept expanding the Luminor family and experienced a phenomenal success at worldwide level that was often described with the term "Paneraimania".

The Luminor case introduced in 1993 was joined, in 2002, by the Luminor 1950 case whose elaborated profile was directly inspired to the model created by Panerai in 1950, hence the name.

Produced in a limited edition of 1950 pieces, the Luminor 1950 PAM 127 had a 47 mm polished and brushed stainless steel case framing a black "sandwich" dial. The exhibition caseback displayed the COSC-certified Calibre OP XI based on the ETA 6497/2.

The Luminor 1950 47 mm PAM 127, nicknamed "Fiddy" (from Fifty = 1950)

The Luminor 1950 case is pretty similar to the standard Luminor when viewed from the front, but from the side it is easy to see the differences. The sapphire crystal is slightly domed to enhance the vintage look and the lever of the crown protection device is a bit thicker than the one used in the standard Luminor.

The Luminor case (above) and the Luminor 1950 one (below) - Courtesy of Martin Wilmsen

Today both cases are used. The standard Luminor case is generally available in 40 and 44 mm versions while the Luminor 1950 is currently proposed in three sizes: 42, 44 and 47 mm.

In 2005, Panerai introduced its first in-house movement, the P.2002 (from the year in which Officine Panerai inaugurated its production plant in Neuchâtel). The 8-day power reserve was a tribute to the historic movement adopted by Panerai in the 1940s.

The Luminor 1950 47 mm PAM 372 with its hand-wound manufacture movement Calibre P.3000 and matte black dial with "sandwich" construction is today one of the most appreciated models by Panerai enthusiasts for its clean design and for being particularly faithful in terms of size, case design and dial to the historical Luminor model.

Luminor 1950 47 mm PAM 372

Another current favourite is the automatic Luminor Marina 1950 PAM 1312 featuring a 44 mm brushed steel case with polished bezel framing a black dial with Arabic numerals and baton markers.

Luminor Marina 1950 3 Days Automatic 44 mm PAM 1312

In 2016, the reference PAM 661 was the first Luminor Marina made using Carbotech, a high-performance material with an irregular, matt black appearance, which makes each piece different from all the others. To form the plates of Carbotech from which these components are made, thin sheets of carbon fibres are compressed at a controlled temperature under high pressure together with a high-end polymer, PEEK (Polyether Ether Ketone), which binds the composite material, making it particularly strong and durable.

In the last few years, Panerai has been investing a lot in terms of research and development in the field of high-tech materials. Certainly for technical reasons but also because these innovative materials can enhance the appearance of a watch.

Luminor Marina 1950 Carbotech 3 Days Automatic 44 mm PAM 661

In 2021, Panerai released the Luminor Marina Quaranta in a 40 mm case which replaced the 42 mm references, thus becoming the smaller Luminor Marina in production.

The Luminor remains one of the most recognizable and appreciated sport watches ever designed, the essence of Panerai. With its unmistakable design and a fascinating history, the Luminor has been successfully developed in a full range of models with advanced functions: from the GMT to a complete range of chronographs, from the 8-day power reserve to the precious tourbillon.

By Alessandro Mazzardo. 
Latest revision November 26, 2022. Originally published on January 13, 2016. 
© Time and Watches. All Rights Reserved. Copying this material for use on other web sites or other digital and printed support without the written permission of Time and Watches or the copyright holder is illegal.

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Time and Watches | The watch blog: Panerai history: the story of the Panerai Luminor
Panerai history: the story of the Panerai Luminor
History of the Panerai Luminor. We trace the history of one of the most iconic watches, from the first Luminor models up to reference 5218 and the ones following the acquisition by the Vendome Luxury Group. The complete history of the Officine Panerai Luminor introduced in 1955 and its predecessors.
Time and Watches | The watch blog
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