Officine Panerai has had, to put it mildly, an interesting history. In broad strokes that history is well known. The company began as a relatively obscure Florentine clock and watch purveyor, and then, in the late 1930s began producing, at a very small scale, watches intended for a very specific audience: practitioners of the deadly art of underwater warfare. The ur-Panerai is the Radiomir, which in its original form was a very large, cushion-cased wristwatch with a radium dial, and which was worn most famously during World War II by Italian combat swimmers piloting so-called human torpedos. These were essentially midget submarines, operated by two men sitting astride the main cylinder which contained the propulsion and maneuvering systems. Both sides operated such submersibles – the British versions were known as “chariots” – and they were used to carry limpet mines under the surface to target enemy vessels.
The divers would attach the mines, and hopefully, escape undetected; operations were generally only mounted when there was no Moon, to reduce risk of detection. Despite the extremely hazardous nature of such operations both sides enjoyed considerable success – Italian crews operating the electrically propelled Siluro a Lenta Corsa, or “slow running torpedo,” managed to sink or disable a number of Allied vessels in the Mediterranean. Perhaps reflecting the ambivalence with which their crews regarded their equipment (as well as its slow speed and general appearance) the Italian SLC was also nicknamed maiale – pig. With operations taking place under conditions of very poor visibility, reliability and legibility were a must, and the original form of the Radiomir was dictated strictly by necessity but as sometimes happens with objects designed to serve a purpose with singular dedication, they achieved a sort of renaissance as design objects in the early 2000s, and the Radiomir today is one of the most recognizable and iconic of all modern watch designs.
In the last 18 years Panerai’s watch production has expanded to include just about every conceivable complication, and the firm has been one of the Richemont Group’s most significant innovators in terms of materials science as well, but the basic Radiomir (and Luminor) designs remain as fresh as ever. As James Stacey noted in his introductory coverage, the new Radiomir Logo 3 Days Acciaio And Black Seal Logo 3 Days Acciaio don’t look like new models, but they are, and combine the basic Radiomir design with the 3-day Panerai caliber P.6000.
This movement can also be found in this year’s Panerai Luminor Base Logo 3 Days. It’s a relatively simple movement, but it does have features generally associated with watch movements intended to be sturdy and offer good rate stability, including (in addition to the three day power reserve) a free-sprung, adjustable mass balance (what looks like a regulator is actually the balance spring stud) and a balance bridge. Moreover, the two new Radiomirs are being offered at a relatively wallet-friendly price: $4,000 for the Logo, and $4,300 for the Black Seal.
I would never dare to describe myself as a dyed-in-the-wool Paneristi (especially around actual Paneristi) but I’ve followed the company’s evolution over the last two decades with enormous interest, as it has explored a wider and wider range of approaches to its own image and to watchmaking. Panerai has taken a lot of flak from the faithful in recent years for its perceived – well, not abandonment of functional integrity, but maybe one could say it seemed to purists to be a little too distracted by variety for its own sake and complexity for its own sake.
The problem of how to evolve a brand with such a distinct and very specific design identity is an interesting one and I personally feel that by and large, the watch world is richer for Panerai’s willingness to experiment, and its desire to see where pursuing a very basic design language in new directions can take it. At the same time, though, I think it’s essential for companies with as strong a basic visual language, and as strong a history in pragmatic tool-watch making, as Panerai, to make it possible for enthusiasts to own a tangible connection to that past and to make that connection as unfiltered as possible.
As a big fan of the original Radiomir design, I found these two watches enormously appealing right out of the box. They’re a return to fundamentals for Panerai – the brilliantly glowing dials, wonderfully elegant case shape, and deliciously archaic wire lugs all put together are a package that delivers a vibe often imitated but, as they say, never equalled. Seeing them is a reminder of why Panerai became the cult classic that it did. It’s probably hard for a lot of us to remember at a remove of two decades (or for those of us who weren’t around for the first round of Panerai fandom) but there really was nothing like the Radiomir and Luminor when they first began to attract a wider audience and while the degree to which they have been imitated has, through no fault of Panerai, somewhat diluted their impact, they remain some of the most instantly attractive and plain fun to wear watches anyone’s ever made. Much has been made of the roots of Panerai in conflict, and there’s no escaping the reality of that history but that’s only to observe that so often, useful and even beautiful things are routinely born from warfare, the ugliest of human occupations. The ambivalence is perhaps not Panerai’s, but humanity’s.
Water resistance is 100 meters, which is the minimum necessary nowadays for a watch to qualify as a diver’s watch per ISO 6425. From an historical perspective, this is probably a reasonable degree of water resistance – I haven’t been able to find any figures for the Italian SLCs, but the British Chariot manned torpedos had similar operating parameters and the maximum depth at which they were operated was around 30 meters. The Radiomir precedes by some time the birth of the modern dive watch in the 1950s, with the advent of the Submariner and the Fifty Fathoms but as a point of connection to the early history of diving with an artificial breathing apparatus, and the early history of underwater combat diving, it remains as interesting as ever. And if you do want a watch with bona fide modern dive watch credentials from Panerai, there’s always the Luminor Submersible.
I think these watches are a very welcome development from Panerai. I haven’t done an extensive on-the-wrist trial with one yet but worn around the office for a couple of days while we were shooting them, they were both a wonderful bit of wearable nostalgia, and a reminder that Panerai most fundamentally is about the celebration of how classic design can emerge from functional considerations. At this price, with that movement, the Radiomir is becoming something it hasn’t been in a while: kind of irresistible.
For more info, visit Panerai.com.