Firenze Finesse

Panerai was THE brand that ignited my interest in horology in my late 20s. Without even understanding the brand’s roots in the Italian Navy, I somehow sensed a pragmatic heroism encoded into its genetic blueprint. My brain took in Panerai like this: 1) Its size — which at 44mm in diameter, in the context of the late ’90s, was positively totemic. 2) The massive stylized Arabic numerals blazing away in ambient lighting with heretofore-unseen levels of Promethean luminescence were incredible! 3) And in particular, the unique bridge to seal the crown against the intrusion of water at depth, like the flying buttresses at Chartres, was form follows function in extremitus. All of this combined to create the single most unique timepiece I’d ever set eyes on. Little did I know at the time that how the historic military codes of Panerai were used to create these watches, while assuredly moving the brand into the future, was the work of one incredible man named Angelo Bonati.

It was specifically the Luminor Marina that had me on the hook… the same watch that Sylvester Stallone had fallen in love with and subsequently shown to Johann Rupert, the owner of the luxury conglomerate juggernaut Richemont Group, which had compelled him to buy the brand. The Luminor Marina was a 0.50-caliber sniper round traveling at 2,799 feet per second, slamming through my heart and decimating my impulse control. Soon equipped with my first Panerai, a tobacco-dialed titanium-cased PAM 61, I began to indoctrinate myself into Panerai lore with slavish devotion. Like a new initiate in a cult. And soon my mind was filled with an encyclopedia’s worth of Luminor Marina reference numbers all belonging to watches I would one day hope to acquire.

And although the very first Panerai created by the Group in 1997, the PAM 21, featured a platinum, Radiomir shaped case and new old-stock Rolex movements, literally found in a box in the archives of the Florentine workshop, you could say that the Luminor Marina has comprised the vast majority of Panerai’s offering over the now-20 years of the brand’s ownership by the Group.

Since the day that ownership of the brand was transferred to the Richemont Group, it has been guided by its remarkable CEO Angelo Bonati. And while there have been others to impact the brand — in particular, marketer extraordinaire Franco Cologni and designer Giampiero Bodino — it’s thanks to Bonati that Panerai began its trajectory of ascent into the realm of the most recognizable and desirable watch brands in the world.

What is extraordinary about this, is there is no other luxury watch brand with the same visibility, same resale value for models, same quality, same technical aspiration and same downright desirability, that has been lead from inception by one man. Though if you were to point this out to him the ever humble, ever understated and self-effacing Bonati would say, “No it wasn’t me it was just the right watch at the right time.” And while I consider Angelo Bonati a friend, I’ve realized that I’ve never really asked him questions about his children, because to me his child, which he raised with extraordinary finesse and with utmost refinement, has always been Panerai.

Thanks to Bonati, Panerai has experienced two distinct stages of growth. The first relates to its transformation, first from a creator of military tools into a luxury-watch brand. What is extraordinary about this was that since transforming Panerai into a modern luxury brand, military watches that were made between the ’30s and the ’50s are now some of the most-collectable rare watches in the world. Collectors look to them as Rosetta stones or Shrouds of Turin for the modern timepieces. Even the so-called “Pre-Vendôme” watches, which were essentially created as novelty items by the brand as a first stab at civilian consumer watches, have soared to insane values. Meaning that Bonati has so perfectly written the present and future of Panerai that he has massively empowered its past as well.

The second phase in Panerai development was unveiled at its 10-year anniversary celebration in Florence in 2007, when it was transformed from a luxury brand into a true manufacture, with the capacity to create movements such as the 30-second tourbillon, which Bonati showcased during those festivities, to the local/home-time carillon minute repeater, which was unveiled just a few days ago. And while, like many Panerai fans, I have immense affection for the first generation of Unitas-powered Luminor Marinas (my collection features a PAM 4, 9, 27, 28, 29, 57 and 61, all from that era of ETA-derived movements, and I am also contemplating a PAM 632), I also very much applaud Bonati for shifting production of all his movements — from simple manual-winding, to chronograph, to equation of time, perpetual calendar, sidereal time and tourbillon — in-house because I know he wanted to guarantee the best quality for his watches.

So it is that on 17 May 2016, a year shy of the brand’s 20th anniversary under the Richemont Group, Bonati has unveiled a new family of Luminor Marina watches with a very different identity, in the process of the continuing evolution of his brand. Named “Due”, and comprising a 42mm manual-winding model and a 45mm three-day automatic model with micro-rotor, the family brings something you might not have previously thought of as synonymous with the military-derived design underpinnings of the Luminor Marina. That is finesse and sleek elegance.

Luminor Due 3 Days

The result of  a challenge issued to Mr. Bonati by Johann Rupert, who asked if Mr. Bonati could create a watch with all of Panerai’s iconography but one that he could wear with a tuxedo, these watches feature cases that are up to 40-percent slimmer than other Luminor models. Based on the bold and aggressive 1950 case distinguished by the slightly chunkier crown bridge featuring the brand’s historic trademark symbols, strapping on the 42mm model, available in either steel or red gold, is a rather startling experience. Here is the Luminor Marina as you know it, but at the same time, it is totally and completely different. It is simultaneously familiar yet foreign and baffling. At 10.5mm in thickness, it feels slender, incredibly ergonomic, and charmingly elegant. If the normal Luminor Marina were a saber, the Due would be a dandy’s épée. It invokes a sense of delicious tension created by this polar opposition between aggressivity and elegance, which is perfectly epitomized by the anthracite sandwich-style dial, suddenly imbued with a ravishing richness thanks to a beautiful sunray finish.

Says Bonati, “It was important to me that the Luminor Marina, which is the icon of Panerai, could evolve and come to express other characteristics, such as elegance.” A very intelligent move on Bonati’s part, expressing his understanding that to grow his brand, he needs to simultaneously expand his audience and reach all new clients that might have been charmed by the iconography of the Luminor Marina but intimidated by its clear sports-watch status and ursine heft. Here you have a watch that expresses much more of the sports-chic character you find in a Nautilus or Royal Oak, but in a way that is thoroughly Panerai. While both models are charming, the red-gold model benefits from a more-skeletonized version of the cal. P.1000 with a three-day power reserve. One particularly nice feature is the zero-reset mechanism on the watches, so that as soon as the crown is pulled out, the seconds hand immediately jumps back to 0.

The 45mm Luminor Due 3 Days Automatic features the cal. P.4000, which has a micro-rotor integrated into the baseplate to keep the movement as slim as possible. If this movement sounds familiar, you might recall its appearance in the Radiomir 1940 starting back in 2014. However, every aspect of the Due Automatic was maximized to achieve the minimum thinness, and at 10.7mm, a scant 0.2mm thicker than the manual-winding Due watch, the larger 45mm case combines to create what feels like the ultimate expression of Panerai’s aggressive elegance. It should be said that both the P.1000 and the P.4000 movements are created to provide the ultimate chronometric resilience, starting with the balance wheels mounted on a full bridge. The movement in the red-gold version features additional skeletonization to the barrel bridge while the gold rotors are decorated with a charming hobnail motif.

Bonati and Panerai have also spent considerable effort enhancing one of the brand’s best-selling models, the Panerai Luminor Marina 1950 3 Days Automatic. The key focal point here is the new cal. P.9010, which allows the cases of these watches to be much thinner, and subsequently lighter, than the previous P.9000-equipped models. The cal. P.9000, which has become something of a workhorse in Panerai’s stables, and which equips watches like my Bronzo, has now been modified to occupy diminished space while retaining all its key features. Chief amongst these is an hour hand that can be rapidly adjusted without affecting the running of the seconds or the minute hand. Date is synchronized to this hand. And it’s actually remarkably practical for frequent travelers who need to reset time between zones. Pull the crown out one more time and the movement hacks (the seconds are stopped) for precise time-setting.

The new collection of Luminor Marinas featuring this thinner caliber has been created in five new steel models, two with 42mm cases and three with 44mm cases. What is remarkable about these watches is that, thanks to their thinner profile, they retain all the design integrity of the original Luminor Marina watches with appealingly ergonomic proportions. The 42mm model comes in a white-dial version as well as a black sandwich-dial variant. The 44mm models come in a white-dial version with the same blue seconds hand, a black sandwich-dial model and a black-dial model with a full complement of Arabic numerals. All watches are distinguished by a blue seconds hand. And while Panerai would not go so far as to overtly express it, it is clear that the 42mm watch has great appeal to female clients.

New Luminor Marina 1950 3 Days Automatic Watches, featuring the P.9010 automatic caliber.

One final version of the 3 Days Automatic watch with the new cal. P.9010 features the brand’s Carbotech™ case. This material involves layered “leaves” of carbon fiber, which are compressed at high temperature and combined with a polymer that binds them and results in an incredible, strong lightweight case with a unique stealthy appearance.

The final timepiece rounding out the celebrations at Florence is a 47mm Radiomir, featuring extraordinary engraving both on its case and its movement. It pays tribute to the brand’s birth in Florence at a boutique just opposite the iconic Duomo church in Piazza San Giovanni. Made in just 99 pieces, the case is hand-etched by masters to evoke the marble facades of Florentine churches. The dial features the Florentine water lily, which has also been stamped into the watchstrap. And finally, the cal. P.3000 has been laser-etched with the same Florentine motifs, creating a staggering wealth of visual riches for the eyes. Together, these watches are a wonderful testament to the enduring evolution of a brand under the leadership of an extraordinary man named, Angelo Bonati.