Panerai and the patent for radium paint

April 28, 2021By Bonetto Cinturini

The most enthusiastic admirers of luxury watches are surely familiar with the Panerai brand, a synonym of prestigious, quality accessories, but they are probably less familiar with the story of a brand that is closely tied to Tuscany and the city of Florence.

To better understand the historical-artistic fabric and context in which the brand is rooted, here is some information from a text by the famous art critic Filippo Daverio.

According to the historian’s interpretation, between 1865 and 1871 Florence was not just the cradle of all Italian culture and art, but also the nerve centre of the new Unified Kingdom of Italy, with Turin no longer being the main capital of political and economic power.

We are in Florence, a city in constant turmoil, a hotbed of artisanal workshops and shops that were spreading like wildfire, artistic centres and famous art schools, like the Scuola d’Arti Applicate that opened in 1867.

Just a few years earlier, in 1860, the artisan and inventor Giovanni Panerai opened his first workshop-watch shop on Ponte delle Grazie; a few years later, it moved to the Palazzo Arcivescovile in Piazza San Giovanni, where it can still be found today.

Giovanni Panerai’s shop, L’Orologeria Svizzera (The Swiss Watchmaker’s Shop in Italian), is well-known for a famous patent, designed to satisfy the Regia Marina, Italy’s Royal Navy: we are talking about radiomir, a special fluorescent radium paint applied to watch dials to enhance vision and illuminate the dial.

The commitment of the Panerai reality became even more important during the Second World War, a period when innovative strategies for supporting the military commandos of the Italian Navy, above all during underwater operations, were elaborated.

Examples of these strategies include the manual charge mechanism, luminous marks for helping underwater vision, and the special connections for fixing watches to the diving suits of the Italian Navy’s soldiers and military.

Over the years, the radiomir patent was developed and became even more elaborate: the watch acquired character and its luminous numbers became bigger, the overall design became more solid and robust, making use by the Italian Navy easier. This is how the Panerai model from 1940 was created.

Luminor, the Panerai watch from 1950

The water resistance and impermeability performances of a watch that has no equals in the history of global watchmaking were developed further: Panerai patented the Luminor model, which used tritium, a luminescent compound with a hydrogen isotope base, to make the dials very luminous and visible.

In the 1990s, Panerai presented its first prêt à porter collection to the public: the line presented from 1993 to 1997 was called Pre Vendôme by the insiders, before becoming the property of the Richemont Group (coincidentally called Vendôme at that time), which purchased the Panerai brand and created an Italian line that was distributed worldwide after a few months.

Today, Officine Panerai is an Italo-Swiss brand with headquarters in Neuchatel, and its watches fuse the Italian artisan care of the company’s founder with the precision, technology and innovation guaranteed by the Swiss.

When together, Italian design and the Swiss manufacturing culture generate a short-circuit that rhymes with prestige, history and centenary culture, passion and love for beautiful, handmade, luxury things.

A patent that has marked history

It is impossible not to remember the famous Panerai sandwich, a dial with two plates, one on top of the other, and a layer of radium paint between them. The layer of paint makes the characters and Arabic numbers visible even underwater, and in conditions where light is scarce.

It was a patent designed for the Italian Navy, so an innovation, a bringer of great prestige for all the Made in Italy manufacturing of that time.

Officine Panerai watches have many distinctive traits that make history with every stroke of their hands: from the 1950s to our times, the brand has been studied and experimented on in laboratories, to offer ever better performances, like the famous Mare Nostrum with two chronograph counters, or what is called the Egyptian model (reserved for the Egyptian Navy with the concession of the Italian Navy) with a crown guard, a trademark that still identifies the excellence of Officine Panerai.

After the move from Radiomir radium paint to Luminor and luminescent hydrogen paste, the Panerai brand passed through a series of historical events that marked its dynamic essence that is always in step with the times.

Upon the death of Giuseppe Panerai in 1972, the company was passed to the ex-Italian Navy officer Dino Zel, who became its CEO.

They were years of transformations and technical innovation, but also of changes to the company, which went from being a family-run business to an international fashion and technology phenomenon: in the 1990s Officine Panerai became part of the Swiss group Richemont and started its adventure on a global scale, with the distribution of easy to dress watches for a vast public and the marketing of something that was previously a niche product, or rather a military prerogative.

Officine Panerai Today

The period from the 1990s until today was a time of experimentation, but also when the main key points of the brand were consolidated, starting from the meticulous restructuring of the original workshop in the Palazzo Arcivescovile in Piazza San Giovanni, Florence.

Those were the years when models with in-house calibration were being designed, but also when the collection dedicated to the genius of Galileo Galieli was launched, three planetary watches that could monitor celestial movements.

In more recent years, Officine Panerai has not only been experimenting in-house with the mechanism and manual energy charge movement, but also designing bronze models and creating collections inspired by another great passion of deluxe watch admirers: boats and off-shore.

After opening a prestigious boutique in Hong Kong, in 2018 Officine Panerai designed what is still its most complex watch, the “Radiomir 1940 Minute Repeater Carillon Tourbillon”, with a Luminor 2 case: it is the most advanced and technologically cutting-edge model of the whole Neuchatel production.

A high-class watch, technological and innovative

Today, when you hear about Officine Panerai, you immediately think of Italian class blended perfectly with typical Swiss experience and precision: Panerai watches are not just unique accessories and high-performance, deluxe chronometers, but true status symbols.

From military rigour comes the technical aspect, which translates into high-performance professional watches that are elegant and refined, unique and design.

The natural chromatic palette of chocolate, aluminium and black blend wonderfully with the clean, essential lines, typical of an accessory that is rigorous but at the same time glam, simple, and never out of place.