Over 150 years ago, luxury Italian watchmaker Officine Panerai first set up shop on Ponte alle Grazie in Florence. The year was 1860, and the brand’s founder and namesake Giovanni Panerai had opened the small flagship store (which contained a workshop and the city’s first watchmaking school) to import and sell Swiss pocket watches. At the time, the pocket watches arrived unassembled, compelling Giovanni Panerai to open his own workshop and learn to put them together himself.
Fast-forward to the present and Panerai has enjoyed a long and rich history as one of the finest watchmakers in the world. The company is renowned for producing distinctly masculine pieces with a persistent aesthetic – in other words, you instantly know a Panerai when you see one. From their clearly military-influenced design to their trademark luminosity, Panerai watches are indisputably conspicuous. On first glance, some Panerai models might seem near identical. The company’s most iconic timepieces – the Radiomir and the Luminor – are two such examples that could be mistaken for the other. And given their shared history, it’s not hard to see why.
Both watches are heavily rooted in Panerai’s past with the Royal Italian Navy. Shortly after its inception, Panerai began making a number of diving instruments for the navy to assist with navigation, visibility, and timekeeping underwater. In 1916, in an effort to further improve the visibility on its naval tools, Panerai started using and patenting Radiomir, a radium-based powder that offered luminosity to the dials of sighting devices. At the time, radium was favoured for its high visibility and good adhesive qualities underwater. In 1936, the very first collection of Radiomir watches was launched. They were named after the Radiomir material and designed for the frogman commandos of the First Submarine Group Command of the Royal Italian Navy. The same substance was used in the watches to give the hands and numerals the right amount of luminosity, ensuring they were visible underwater. In 1938, Panerai began large-scale production of the Radiomir watch collection for the wider naval forces.
Eleven years later, Panerai developed and patented a new form of self-luminous material called Luminor. This time, the substance was based on tritium instead of radium, which had since been phased out. The Luminor watch followed shortly after in 1950, replacing the radium-based Radiomir and bearing its own set of unique design characteristics. The Luminor became favoured for its wider bezel, reinforced wire lugs drawn from the same block of steel as the case, and its crown-protecting bridge, a design feature patented by Panerai in 1956 and now synonymous with the brand.
Until the early 1990s, Panerai solely supplied timepieces to the Italian navy, but in 1993, the company started producing watches for the general public. Throughout that time and until today, Panerai enjoyed a period of significant growth: in 1997, the family-owned company was bought by the Vendome Group (today known as the Richemont Group), and in 2002, manufacturing was moved to the epicentre of watch-making, Neuchâtel in Switzerland. Then, after years in retirement, the Radiomir and Luminor were resurrected and re-released for the modern market.
The Radiomir and Luminor lines now make up most of Panerai’s contemporary offerings. Each collection comprises a number of modern and heritage-influenced models (namely the Radiomir 1940 and the Luminor 1950), as well as special edition versions that incorporate cutting edge technology such as 3D printing. In spite of their shared history, there are a few features that separate the modern interpretations of the two watches.
Firstly, each line differs in proportions. While there are multiple sizes of Radiomir and Luminor watches available, the base models vary slightly: the Radiomir starts at 45mm and the Luminor starts at 44mm.
The current rendition of the Radiomir is sleek and sophisticated, and has retained many of the same features as the original prototype: a large, cushion-shaped steel case; wire lugs that have been welded to the case; hand-wound mechanical movement; and, in line with the watch’s naval origins, a water-resistant strap that can be worn over a diving suit. Typically, today’s Radiomir models have a dark face with enlarged Arabic numerals at 3, 6, 9 and 12 o’clock with stick indexes for each other hour.
The modern Luminor is decidedly more rugged. It has heavier lugs than those on the Radiomir, and the case surrounding the bezel is thicker and has a more rounded shape. It also maintains the addition of Panerai’s patented crown-protecting bridge, which makes the watch watertight. It can be opened and closed using a small lever, allowing the wearer to adjust the watch when necessary. Thanks to the addition of the bridge, the Luminor better withstands usage underwater. It can be taken to a depth of 300 metres, while the Radiomir stops at 100 metres. The Luminor is thus considered the sportier model of the two.
Today, the watches are largely only connected through their materials and interior mechanisms. In fact, many models even share the same movements. For example, the Radiomir S.L.C. 3 Days Acciaio and the Luminor 1950 3 Days Acciaio are both powered by an identical hand-wound mechanical, P.3000 calibre. Traditionally, Panerai has turned to seasoned Swiss manufacturers Rolex and ETA for its movements, modifying them to fit its designs. More recently, however, Panerai has steadily taken over the interior construction of its watches. Just this year, the company announced that its entry-level models – the Luminor Base Logo and the Marina Logo – would use an internally made hand-wound P.6000 calibre. The news marked an impressive milestone for Panerai: now, every watch will be produced entirely in-house, indicating an exciting future for Panerai timepieces of all shapes and sizes.