The Mare Nostrum chronograph is an exceptionally rare and mysterious watch within the vintage Panerai family. The original prototype (s) went missing and the only available evidence of its existence was a photographic plate from the 1950s which shows the Mare Nostrum in a three quarter view.
The photographic plate depicts a bi-compax chronograph with an enormous diameter of 52mm. “Mare Nostrum” (Latin: Our Sea) was a Roman name for the Mediterranean Sea. The name was revived by Italian nationalists and fascists who were driven by imperialist ambitions to restore the “Roman Empire” in the Mediteranean Sea.
It is said that the chronograph was developed for deck officers of the Italian Navy. Only very little is known about this project and although Richemont and several other sources claim as production date the year 1943, by taking the design language into consideration this date is most certainly incorrect.
In 2005 one of the Mare Nostrum prototypes surfaced out of nowhere and was auctioned by Christie’s in Geneva. The watch had been authenticated by renowned experts prior to the auction. The winning bid was placed by Angelo Bonati who bought the watch for the Richemont Panerai Museum.
In March 2016 I had the opportunity to meet a very knowledgeable watch collector in Bangkok. We also talked about the Mare Nostrum, a watch that had not been on my radar until then, and he suggested to have a closer look at it.
After having studied the watch in all details, especially the design of its back, I am left with more questions than answers.
In 1993 Officine Panerai SpA in Florence introduced a replica of the Mare Nostrum with reference number 5218-301/A. The watch had been designed after the only available evidence for the existence of such chronograph in the past, a photographic plate found in the archives.
The plate gives us an idea of the proportions of the watch and shows the More Nostrum in a three quarter view. Crown and chronograph pushers are visible. The dial had two levels, the outer upper ring bearing four Arabic numerals, hour and minute markers and the central lower area with two subsidiary dials and brand/model engravings.
This type of photographic plates were made in the 1950s and 1960s to document and archive all products made by G. Panerai e Figlio.
The following early Officine Panerai SpA (Pre Vendôme) sales ad from 1993 featuring a Panerai 5218-201/A “Luminor” and a Panerai 5218-301/A “Mare Nostrum” probably mentioned the vintage Mare Nostrum for the first time ever in public.
“Nel’43 la Panerai progetto, sempre per la Marina Italiana, uno speciale cronografo, marinizzato e con il quadrante visibile in ambiente buio, che chiamo MARE NOSTRUM, destinato in particolare all’impiego da parte degli Ufficiali di bordo. Questo orologio non entro mai in produzione per il precipitare degli eventi bellici.”
“In 1943 Panerai developed a special chronograph for the Italian Navy. The water resistant watch was equiped with a luminescent dial for dark enviroments. It was named Mare Nostrum and was specifically designed for the needs of deck officers. Due to the precipitating events of WW2 the watch was not put into production.”
Note that this is the only available information about the Mare Nostrum. Every book that has been published about vintage Panerai until today, except for one, uses a variation of these sentences to describe the watch.
A few examples:
“The Mare Nostrum chronograph, a watch which took up the name of the timers used on torpedoes, and which was intended for deck officers. It was developed to the prototype stage in 1943 but it was never put into production.”
Source: Panerai Historia, From the depths of the sea, Giampiero Negretti, 1999
“Progettato nel 1943 per gli Ufficiali della nostra Marina. Ne furono allestiti solo alcuni prototipi (come quello raffigurato nella foto) a causa del precipitare degli eventi bellici.” (Developed in 1943 for the officers of the Italian Navy. Only a few prototypes were made due to the precipitating events of WW2)
Source: La Panerai in Firenze, Dino Zei, 2003
“In 1943, Panerai developed a 52 mm bi-compax chronograph for navy officers. Due to the turmoil of war, the legendary Mare Nostrum never went into production and was presumed missing for years.”
Source: The References, Ehlers & Wiegmann, 2016
It is further worth mentioning that the above Panerai advertisment from 1993 also refers to the events of December 19, 1941 in Alexandria Egypt when six Italian assault divers under the command of Luigi Durand de la Penne successfully damaged the HMS Queen Elisabeth. It claims that those divers were wearing a “Luminor” watch on their wrists. Accuracy it seems, is not really an attribute of this advertisment.
Other Mare Nostrum timing devices
Mare Nostrum was also the name of a series of delay and timing devices for torpedoes and other explosives during WW2.
The case design
Various sources have mentioned that the Mare Nostrum case follows the typical design line of instruments (compasses and depth gauges) made by G. Panerai e Figlio.
A comparison with an early Panerai compass from 1940 featuring flexible lugs shows that the design language does not coincide at all.
A Panerai compass that was used by Nazi combat swimmers in 1944 shows more resemblance but the design lines still do not match properly.
A comparison with a later depth gauge from 1955 onwards shows striking similarities. The lugs have the very same shape and the area between the lugs is identical too. A perfect match! The Mare Nostrum Chronograph has a case design which is clearly inspired by the compasses and depth gauges produced by G. Panerai e Figlio from 1955 onwards.
The above depth gauge shows that G. Panerai e Figlio also experimented with multi-level dials on their instruments.
This comparison makes it pretty evident that the Mare Nostrum was developed in the 1950s.
The following picture shows a Panerai compass at the “History and Legend” exhibition from September 2015 in Singapore. The exhibition was hosted by Richemont Panerai. The type of compass shown in the picture was developed in 1955 and is definitely not from the 1940s. It seems that the continuous misrepresentation of vintage products made by G. Panerai e Figlio is part of Richemont’s marketing strategy to justify some of their models.
As mentioned above, most publications have just copied the scrace information that was printed on the Officine Panerai SpA advertisment from 1993, without conducting an own investigation.
The only exception is “Panerai – An Italian Story”. The authors of this book have obviously done some real research and used common sense when it comes to placing the Mare Nostrum into the appropriate time frame. The Mare Nostrum is correctly shown in the “postwar period” of the book.
A prototype surfaces
In 2005 a vintage Mare Nostrum prototype surfaced at a Christie’s auction in Geneva. Renowned experts in the field of vintage Panerai watches inspected the watch and gave their ok. The Mare Nostrum was sold for CHF 132.000 (Swiss Francs) to Angelo Bonati, CEO of Richemont Panerai. The watch became part of the Richemont Museo Panerai Collection.
According to information I have received, the watch had been sitting somewhere in France before the auction.
The present watch is almost identical to the one shown in the photographic plate from the 1950s. Each hand of the subsidiary dials features an arrow at the end whereas the one on the plate has simple straight hands. Another difference is the chronograph seconds hand. The one on the plate seems to have been treated with Radiomir. The chronograph seconds hand on the present watch was not treated to be visible in a dark enviroment.
Another detail which catches the eye is the damaged dial. The numerals at 6 and 9 have, for some reason, lost parts of the outer layer. Furthermore, the numeral at 3 has a peculiar shape. The marker at 5 shows some imperfections.
An interesting observation is that this dial does not have a plexi inlay like it was commonly used by G. Panerai e Figlio to retain the luminous material. The color of the Radium appears to be green.
The following zoom shows that the numeral at 3 could have been damaged as well. The highlighted area (green) looks like foreign material that has been added to repair the numeral.
The Mare Nostrum prototype is powered by an Angelus Cal. 215 chronograph movement with a diameter of 14 Ligne. The engravings on the balance cock suggest a production date between 1936 and 1942.
The engravings on the balance cock of the Angelus Cal. 215 follow the same rule as on the Angelus Cal. 240.
The back of the case
The back of the case is almost identical to the Pre Vendôme replica from 1993 and this fact really surprises me. When Officine Panerai SpA designed the 5218-301/A they had absolutely no clue how the back of the case on the prototype from the 1950s looked like. The only available view of the prototype was the three quarter view on the photographic plate.
Both cases have a convex shape around the case back (1) and the screwed case backs of both watches feature the very same thightening method with slots (2).
This is an amazing find in my opinion. Mario Paci, Manager of the Quality Assurance Department (AQU) at Officine Panerai SpA until 1997, told me that the case back of the 5218-301/A had to be improvised since there was no picture showing the back of the prototype. He also mentioned that the case back of the 5218-201/A, the “Luminor”, was designed differently than the flat case backs of vintage watches from the 1950s.
Using a slotted case back is very unusual for Panerai. All Rolex cases had screwed dodecagonal (12-sided) case backs. The compasses, the GPF 2/56 and the Mille Metri, all had case backs which used six screws to tighten it to the case.
What are the odds of such coincidence?
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Thanks for your interest!