Besides wristwatches, history fascinates me. So, when I delved into the origins of the luxury watch brand, Panerai, I found myself engrossed in a gripping account of elite Italian frogmen and a disaster for the British Navy. The true tale also told of a somewhat baffling connection between two watch manufacturers whose collaboration at the time was not only unprecedented; it probably led to hundreds of workers in a Florence-based workshop contracting radiation poisoning.
And you thought this was going to be just another watch blog, right?
Russian Spies, Elite Frogmen and a Surprising Collaboration of Watch-Makers. The Story of Panerai.
To begin at the beginning: If the Rolex Oyster was the first waterproof watch, then the Panerai was the world’s first professional diving watch. But Panerai and Rolex have a lot more in common than you might think. Panerai is known today for being a luxury brand producing prestige watches to wealthy celebrities such as Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger. But the company had humble beginnings. Panerai had initially produced working tools, designed to perform a function, and not for posing.
The Panerai company was founded in 1860 by Giovanni Panerai, in Florence, Italy. By 1934, Panerai had started supplying instrumentation, compasses and depth gauges to Regia Marina Italiana, the Royal Italian Navy. But when in 1935, the Navy asked Panerai to provide them with watches as well, the company were unable to develop a diving watch in-house. However, Panerai had heard of the Oyster waterproof watch, and not wanting to miss out on a lucrative government contract, the Italian company turned to Rolex for help.
In a move that was unheard of at the time, Rolex agreed to provide cases and mechanisms for all Panerai branded watches supplied to the Italian Navy between 1936 and 1956. The timepieces had to be waterproof, of course, and large enough to be seen underwater. Back then, most men’s watches were around 30 mm in diameter, and at 47 mm, Panerai’s diving watches were massive in comparison. Another stipulation that the wristwatches should be readable at depths where there was very little light was an issue Panerai could take care of themselves.
The company held the patent to Radiomir, a mixture of barium and radium. The radiation given off by the radium caused the barium to glow a beautiful green colour. Thus, with Radiomir applied to the numbers, hands, and the number markers, the watches became readable under water. The process had a potentially lethal downside. Radium was the material used to poison and kill the Russian whistle-blower, Alexander Litvinenko in 2006, so you can imagine what it did to the (mostly women) workers who applied the luminous mixture to the Panerai watch dials. Before beginning the Radiomir application, many of them would first moisten the brushes between their lips, which meant they were ingesting massive amounts of gamma radiation. Of course, in the 1930s, little was known about the devastating effects of radiation.
On the 19th December 1941, Panerai watches were used in a daring operation to blow up four British ships in the Egyptian harbour of Alexandria. Six members of the Decima Flottiglia, an elite commando frogman unit of the Italian Navy, wore specialised diving gear and used a manned torpedo to attach explosive charges to the ships. The stealthy attack utterly destroyed the battleship HMS Elizabeth and three escort ships suffered severe damage from the resulting fire. Luckily, there was no loss of life on either side.