Even many watch collectors would probably be surprised to know that the first dive watch produced by Rolex wasn’t the famous Submariner. It was actually a Panerai. Yes, that Panerai—the Italian watch company popularly known for brawny, generously-sized watches with unique half-moon crown guards. How did an Italian watch company become the first seller of Rolex dive watches? It all started back in Italy in the 1930s.
The Italian Navy Contract
Officine Panerai was founded in Florence, Italy in 1860. For the next sixty years the company primarily made precision instruments like compasses and other nautical equipment. In the mid-1930s the Regia Marine, or Royal Italian Navy, came calling with a new contract request: a watch suitable for underwater use by Italian frogmen—the navy divers of the elite Decima Flottiglia MAS.The Italian frogmen were highly-trained, daring commandos who specialized in hazardous underwater and seaborne attacks on enemy shipping. They would become feared and respected adversaries of the British Royal Navy in World War II. Panerai didn’t have a watch making capability so they turned for assistance to a company that did: Rolex. Luckily for them, Rolex had perfected the waterproof wristwatch in the previous decade with the immortal Rolex Oyster. It was a relatively simple matter to up-size the Rolex Oyster (the Rolex Reference 2081 of 1928-30 has the same square case shape of later Panerai watches) to the large 47mm case preferred by the Italian divers. The frogmen evidently requested a large watch to make the dial easily readable under all conditions. At the time most men’s watches were around 30-35mm in size, so a 47mm case was clearly intended for for serious combat use—not a fashion statement. It was a perfect example of “function over form.”
The Early Watches
Rolex supplied the first watches to Panerai in 1936 and originally they didn’t have the distinctive half-moon crown guards we now associate with Panerai. They looked very much like the aforementioned older Rolex Ref. 2081. The new Panerai Reference 3646 was the first Rolex-made Panerai to have the trademark 3,6,9,12 Panerai Radiomir dial. (The prototype had solid bars at 12, 3, 6, and 9 and dots at the other hour markers.) The Radiomir designation on the dial of the watch referred to the Radium lume used to illuminate the hands and dial in the dark. Radium is highly radioactive and it was famously discovered to have caused many deaths in female factory workers (click here Radium Girls http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radium_Girls for further reading) who worked with it in early years. Radium was still used in watch production as late as the 1950s.
Panerai and Rolex later added the crown guard to address the only real weakness of the burly dive watches. They had to be manually wound every day and the gasket that ensured the crown stayed watertight would wear quickly from use. The crown guard helped keep the seal snug and secure and made the watch more waterproof—a matter of life or death to the frogmen. The later models with crown guards were made in small numbers (300) and today all original WWII-era Panerai watches are highly collectible and valuable.
Rolex supplied their last watches to Panerai in the 1950s for sale to the Egyptian Navy. By then Rolex was selling their own Submariner watches and had little interest in selling dive watches or movements to a competitor. Fast forward to the mid-1990s and Panerai was still little known in the watch world. They only made a handful of watches each year. The company seemed destined for continued obscurity until American actor Sylvester Stallone bought a Panerai Luminor while shooting the movie Daylight on location in Italy. The action star was impressed and commissioned a special run of Slytech-marked Panerai watches, giving away many as gifts to his influential Hollywood friends. This singular event—the kind of advertising you can’t buy—was instrumental in rejuvenating the brand and spawned its burgeoning popularity. But it all started with the first purpose-built Rolex dive watches—the Panerai watches of the 1930s and 40s.