Panerai: It’s Not Broken, But Here’s How to Fix It
by Raman Kalra
Raman Kalra is the founder of The Watch Muse blog and has kindly agreed to share some of his articles with us here on Quill & Pad.
Panerai watches are unique. There is no denying that they are beautiful and have that Italian design flair. Panerai watches are unmistakable at a distance and have rightfully earnt their fame. For this reason, I am a big fan of the brand. The watches, despite being originally designed for diving, are elegant and timeless.
There are clear strengths of what Panerai produces and how they do it; however, there is a good amount of repetition. As we see other brands push the boundaries of design or follow trends to stay relevant, Panerai seems to be lagging.
Unless you are a Paneristi (a large online community of Panerai fans), it is a relatively tough task in distinguishing between references. A regular watch collector buys a Panerai to buy a Panerai, not necessarily because they are fully aware of the differences between the PAM01084 and PAM00915 for example.
This is not to say that there aren’t interesting propositions on offer. You just need to look harder because at first glance everything looks similar, or you buy a Panerai with extra complications on top.
However, in this era of growing watch enthusiasts and broader competition across all price ranges, there is a risk Panerai gets stuck. We don’t want this! I believe it might be time they consider expanding their lineup, creating a new collection and drawing on their expertise in design to entice a new audience.
Before going into more depth, I’m not knocking the brand. I love what Panerai does and want them to continue to thrive. Those die-hard Paneristi should never be forgotten by Panerai, but those same fans should understand that the brand needs to evolve and grow. At the end of the day, everyone will win by Panerai succeeding!
Panerai was established in Florence back in 1860 by Giovanni Panerai. At the time, his store consisted of watch repairs, a watchmaking school, and a showroom where it became an influential distributor of Swiss watches in Italy. There are a couple of notable developments in the history of Panerai and watchmaking that led to its first model as we know it.
Firstly, in 1915, Panerai worked on producing a source of illumination for Italian military equipment – this was built upon the discovery of radium in 1898. Panerai ended up creating a radium compound named “Radiomir”.
Secondly, the invention of waterproof watch cases by Rolex in 1926, which ended up becoming instrumental in the success of combat divers in the Navy. It was in the 1930s that the development progressed, initially starting with Panerai supplying the Italian navy with Oyster-cased pocket-watches, followed by a collaboration between the Navy, Panerai and Rolex leading to the first Panerai as we know it – the Ref. 3646.
For the next 18 years (1938-1956), this setup continued. Watches were produced by Rolex and modified by Panerai to suit the needs of the Navy. These modifications included highly visible, lume-filled sandwich dials, enlarged bezels, shatter-resistant plexiglass crystals and wired lugs. A number of these were innovations by Panerai. They were the first to use plexiglass (1936), the first to create sandwich dials (1938) and they even developed the 8-day movement to reduce wear and tear on the crown.
There were even further developments along the way in the late 1940s and 1950s. Panerai started producing its own cases with integrated lugs and, as chemistry progressed, tritium was discovered and became the basis for their next luminescent material – trademarked “Luminor”.
Despite the wide successes Panerai was achieving, the brand started to decline at the end of the 1950s when its partnership with Rolex ended. It did, however, remain a manufacturer of instruments for diving and aerospace until the 1990s, but it was not a typical watch brand like many of its counterparts. The big shift came when Richemont bought Panerai in 1997, moved it to Switzerland (thankfully the Italian design remained), and started to make it more commercialized. This is where Panerai as we know it began.
The current collection that Panerai produces spans four collections – Radiomir, Luminor, Luminor Due, and Submersible. Each of which with their own distinct details while following the Panerai aesthetic.
Starting with the Luminor. This is not based on those original, early designs from Panerai, but rather uses the design language that evolved in the 1950s. What does this mean? It builds on the Radiomir cushion case by using integrated lugs and, more importantly, the famous crown lock mechanism that has become synonymous with the brand. If you have not seen it before, it is a clever piece of engineering which uses a lever locked into place, holding the crown down. You have to release the lever in order to use the crown. This was Panerai’s answer to the Rolex screw-down crown to ensure water resistance. In doing so, they managed to find a very charming solution to the problem. It is no surprise that it continues to be produced this way to the day, and it is a large reason why the Luminor is the best-known line.
Next is the Radiomir. This is where it all began for Panerai and the modern iteration is based on the original watch that was produced for the Italian Navy. It comes with a cushion case, although when compared to the Luminor, it is slightly more squared off. Some models in the collection are still offered with wired lugs, but the most notable difference is that it has an exposed crown. This means you don’t get the famous crown guard here, or the same levels of water resistance, but you do get a more faithful interpretation of the original that feels less sporty.
The Submersible is where we see the modern interpretation of Panerai. It is a modern divers’ watch that the brand can push to the limits in terms of depth ratings and technology. It maintains the distinct Panerai look with a cushion case, however, you don’t get the 12-3-6-9 numerals that are traditionally found on the other models. Here everything is more purposeful. The indices are a combination of batons and circles, and the hands are broader and filled with more lume. On top of this, there is a rotating bezel. Again though, unmistakably a Panerai.
Finally, the Luminor Due which is the most recent addition launching in 2018. It is no secret that Panerai did not focus on smaller watches before. Historically, they have all been 42 mm and upwards in diameter. However, this changed with the launch of the Luminor Due. The sizes vary but start at a reasonable 38 mm. It is not just the diameter that changed either, but they are housed in thinner cases. Overall, they took a Luminor and decided to make it into more of a dress watch. You lose water resistance, but take the best of the Luminor design and lean into the beauty of the watch.
It is hard for me to say which of the 4 models I would go for, let alone the exact reference! There are so many small details on different ones that I like, it would come down to what felt best on the wrist. And I don’t have a large wrist! What you have on offer though is a set of very capable watches that offer a lot for the money.
As we have seen above Panerai has a strong history, design and following: so where is the problem? There isn’t one necessarily, but over the last few years we have seen exponential growth in mechanical watches. There are more publications, YouTube videos, Instagram and Blogs that have all helped in bringing new consumers to the market. Brands have been aware of this, even if sometimes they like to think they are bigger than trends.
We are seeing tougher competition at all price ranges. You have never had better options for a watch, whether below $1,000 or over $100,000! On top of this, we are seeing an evolution in design. Yes, the backbones of brands are remaining pretty similar, but you are seeing some venture into new areas to create excitement and bring in new customers. I cannot see into the future, but from a pure business point of view, it makes sense. As long as brands retain their identity and classic models, I am all for it.
Panerai, however, has maintained the status quo apart from adding the Luminor Due line. As more people are interested in watches, more will end up loving Panerai. However, interest in other brands has risen much faster. I am going to try and show this with hard facts to start, and then move on to more anecdotal ways you can see this.
Firstly, I will look at Google Search trends. This may not be the most accurate when compared to metrics like sales figures and footfall in shops, but it does allow us to get a general sense of overall awareness and interest. This is important because it indicates the whole range of people looking at Panerai – it might be a potential customer, or someone discovering Panerai for the first time. This is what I want to capture considering the new number of watch enthusiasts out there!
As we can see on the charts, Panerai very much had the advantage back in the early 2000s. This is to be expected as it was the time larger watches were in fashion. It was also after they had partnered with Sylvester Stallone in the late 1990s. He wore a watch in Daylight in 1996, and with the help of Arnold Schwarzenegger, who also fell for the brand and wore a Luminor in Eraser that same year, popularity picked up.
However, over the last decade, there has been an adjustment in tastes. No longer is the mentality of the bigger a watch, the better it is. There has been a shift to smaller watches where a 40-42 mm case diameter is now sitting on the larger side of the scale, rather than the smaller side. There have been other trends as well. An increase in interest in vintage-inspired watches (no issue for Panerai here), but in addition, there has been a drop in attention span and new collectors want the latest shiny new things. I am not a behavioral scientist, but this most likely stems from social media, and we are now in a position where having the newest model of a watch matters to some. A brand that is not reinventing itself is in a tougher position.
When we consider the top watch brands by sales from 2021, produced by Morgan Stanley, it confirms the wider trends. We can see that between 2017 and 2021 Panerai declined from 14th to 16th. On the other hand, some of those brands that have been gaining include Breitling, Audemars Piguet, Richard Mille, Tudor and Hermes. There are going to be many more factors that led to why this has been the case, but it confirms that Panerai has been steady declining compared to many other brands.
Finally, and this is more anecdotal, there are other ways of seeing interests change. Let’s take the recent Hodinkee series on YouTube – Spec Sheet. These are short videos of well-known watches that touch on the specifications of watches. Recently for example: there was a video on the Radiomir PAM210 with 10k views, IWC Mark XVIII with 17k views (read my thoughts here), and Omega Speedmaster Moonwatch with 25k views. I don’t need to break down what this tells us, even if we factored in an extra week of views for the Panerai, it would still be some way behind the IWC.
What if we now consider how much engagement the releases from 2022 generated in the Hodinkee comments section? The Panerai Submersible QuarantaQuattro has 23 comments, whereas the Oris ProPilot X has 116 comments and Tudor Black Bay Pro has 300 comments. All figures are correct as of 11 October 2022. This is by no means scientific but highlights that, while there is consistent demand for Panerai, others are capturing more interest from consumers.
I think that Panerai should consider expanding and creating a fifth collection. It might sound like a daunting task, but many other brands have successfully added a new collection to a historic brand. For example, the Omega Aqua Terra and Planet Ocean are now staples in those brands’ collections, but were only launched in the early 2000s. A. Lange & Söhne recently began producing their first sports watch collection – the Odysseus. This came in 2019 and the reception was initially mixed, but they now command large premiums.
There are many other examples of success stories. The two most sought-after Zenith watches currently are the Chronomaster Spot and Defy models, but that doesn’t that mean Zenith does not focus on its classic El Primero Chronomaster Original. Even Rolex is not immune to expanding! The Sky-Dweller only joined the rest of the collection in 2012. The point is that heritage and design language do not have to be compromised when creating something new.
What would I do if I was Panerai? Firstly, I believe that for a new collection they should move away from the cushion case. Panerai make beautiful cushion case watches and always have, but now is the time to add some variation to the collection. It should be a stainless steel, round case with a combination of brushed and polished surfaces. It would be offered on both a strap and a bracelet, and this could be the opportunity for Panerai to finally improve the chunky (unattractive to me) bracelet they currently sell.
The big question is what they could do with the dial. I have thought about this for some time. Would it be better to try something like a field watch similar to the Tudor Ranger? Maybe, but I’m not convinced. But they already have a viable base – the Panerai Mare Nostrum. Previously, this name and model have come up as a special edition and has always been a chronograph. It is based on the prototype presented to the Italian Navy in 1943. However, I would not limit the new model to just a chronograph, but I would use inspiration from the historic Mare Nostrum and create a whole collection. A time-only, chronograph, GMT… it is limitless.
And in various sizes so it caters to all wrist sizes. The case is also round so you have that desired variation to the collection while maintaining the nod to the original. Some case-work would need to be done to create a bit more depth compared to the slab-sided Mare Nostrum models we have seen before, but it is a good base to start with. There is potential here while retaining a historical connection and the much loved Panerai aesthetic, as well as opening the door to new consumers.
Launch the first models blue, white and black dial variations in 40mm and go from there!
Panerai is one of the most iconic brands out there. Not many are recognized across a room just from their case shape and dial font. They have a rich, deep history and are able to use that to build emotion into their watches. Panerai has created a strong devoted following and ultimately, a strong brand reputation. However, as trends change and consumer interests shift, it feels as though Panerai is somewhat stuck.
Attention is being drawn towards other brands that are pushing in various ways for recognition. To bring some of that interest back to Panerai, I believe a new collection should be created giving collectors more variety and options in terms of case and size, while maintaining the true Panerai emotion. It might cause some backlash amongst the die-hard fans of the brand, but I think in the long-run, a more successful Panerai is only better for everyone – especially Panerai!
For more information, please visit www.panerai.com/en/home.html
You can read more articles by Raman Kalra at www.thewatchmuse.com.