This auction season, Phillips Hong Kong got their hands on pure gold. Four previously unknown and historically important vintage Panerai watches belonging to a Japanese collection surfaced out of the blue and are about to enter the collectors market.
Timepieces of this magnitude don’t come up often. What we are dealing with is a spectacular accumulation of untouched vintage Panerai heavy metal put together by a discerning Japanese collector – nota bene – BEFORE Officine Panerai SpA in Florence decided to make watches for the general public in 1993. At a time when Panerai was largely unknown. This in itself is absolutely thrilling but it gets even better.
As a matter of fact, one of the watches is listed in a Marina Militare (Italian Navy) inventory list from 1988 and another was the cover of a Japanese watch magazine from 1992. The 16 pages long article therein about Panerai and their history – followed by the enthusiastic feedback from the Japanese watch collecting commununity – gave the Florentine company the very idea to recreate the watches supplied to the Italian Navy between 1935 and the late 1960s.
Now imagine my own excitement when I first heard of this amazing pile of come alive Panerai history; and was asked to check the watches thoroughly in addition to write the very catalogue essays for every single one of them. Aside from the watches, the collection also includes two gorgeous Panerai instruments, a compass and a depth gauge.
Panerai GPF 2/56 – Matr. N.E. 019
The Panerai GPF 2/56 was developed for the Egyptian Navy in 1956. This model was the first serially produced Panerai watch which except for the movement was designed and manufactured completely in-house by G. Panerai & Figlio in Florence. The Angelus 240 8-days movement was supplied by Stolz Frères SA in Le Locle Switzerland.
Auction link: Lot 996 – Panerai GPF 2/56 – Matr. N.E. 019
The iconic cushion-shaped Panerai models made prior to the GPF 2/56 were in reality Rolex Oyster watches outfitted with Panerai-made dials. In this context, the GPF 2/56 marked Panerai’s emancipation from Rolex. The name GPF 2/56 was a company specific code for Guido Panerai & Figlio (Guido Panerai & Son) and second product development in 1956.
The history of the GPF 2/56 goes back to the proclamation of the State of Israel in May 1948. The Arab League led by Egypt vehemently opposed a Jewish state in Palestine. One day after Israel’s declaration of independence, a massive Arab invasion force entered Palestine launching the first Arab-Israeli conflict. Egypt knew that in order to significantly weaken Israel, the Arabs needed to cut off Israel’s supply lines through the Mediterranean Sea. Thus was born the idea for an Egyptian frogman unit based on the famous Italian Decima Flottiglia MAS from World War Two.
In June 1948, an Egyptian delegation led by the secretary of King Farouk of Egypt, Amin Fahim, travelled to Italy in search for a Decima Flottiglia MAS veteran willing to go to Egypt and help create the first Egyptian frogman school. Ex Gruppo Gamma frogman Ferdinando Pacciolla accepted the challenge and was quickly sent to Alexandria with the help of the Italian secret service. The Gruppo Gamma was the frogman unit of the Decima Flottiglia MAS.
Around the same time, another Decima Flottiglia MAS veteran named Fiorenzo Capriotti – a fervent fascist – went to Israel and helped establish the famous Shayetet 13 (Flottiglia 13) unit. As an explosive motorboat pilot, Capriotti participated in a failed attack on the British Naval Base of Malta in July 1941. Badly injured, Capriotti was captured by the British and held captive until 1946.
Both, Ferdinando Pacciolla and Fiorenzo Capriotti, had the approval of the Italian Secret Service and secretly reported back to Italy about what was happening in the corresponding countries.
Pacciolla remained in his position until July 1954 and trained up to 300 Egyptian recruits. For his services, King Farouk awarded him the title Knight of the Order of the Nile 5th Class.
In 1952, Pacciolla accompanied Egyptian Navy officers to Italy in order to acquire desperately needed professional underwater equipment from companies likes Salvas, Pirelli and Galeazzi. In Pacciolla’s memoirs there is no mentioning of a visit of G. Panerai & Figlio in Florence.
The Egyptian frogman unit was named Al ferka al sierra, which is Arab for The Secret Team, and was led by Commander Fawzi Abdel Rahman Fahmy. In 1955, Fawzi was invited to train with the Italians at the Varignano Fortress in La Spezia, Italy. During the six months long course, Fawzi came in contact with G. Panerai & Figlio instruments and watches which were exclusive to the Italian Navy. To be able to acquire Panerai products, the Egyptian High Command needed permission from the Italian Navy. After approval, the Egyptians learned that the watches were subject to an exclusivity agreement between Panerai and Rolex which forbid Panerai to supply Rolex-made watches to foreign countries. After hundreds of Rolex-made Panerai watches fell into the hands of Nazi Germany during World War 2, Rolex wanted to make sure this never happened again. This is one of the main reasons for the birth of the GPF 2/56. If Panerai wanted to get the Egyptian business, they had to develop their own watch.
The next picture shows an Egyptian frogman wearing a so-called Trittico consisting of Panerai compass, depth gauge and GPF 2/56.
During the Suez Crisis in late 1956, Egyptians and Israelis clashed once again after Egypt nationalized the Suez Canal and blocked the Strait of Tiran, Israel’s access to the Red Sea. The Israelis were in a secret alliance with Britain and France with the goal to take back control of the Suez Canal. It is possible that during this conflict, Egyptian frogmen used the first examples of the GPF 2/56 for the first time. To render the Suez Canal useless, Egypt blocked the canal by sinking numerous ships at the entrance in Port Said.
After the ceasefire, the internationally crucial waterway was cleared with the assistance of the United Nations. Ferdinando Pacciolla, who was an established expert in clearing operations, returned to Egypt and was hired to take part of the international clearing team.
Dial and hands
The present watch has developed an outstanding patina. The aluminium multi-layer dial was initially black anodized but turned to a striking and sought-after brown hue, commonly referred to as tropical. The radium-based Radiomir lume which is visible through the cut-outs in the upper aluminium disc developed a cream-like colour that goes well with the brown hue of the dial surface.
Hour and minute hand are the long version exclusively used by Panerai in combination with Angelus 240 movements. Similarly shaped hands can be found on Angelus alarm and table clocks, although in a considerably shorter version. The small seconds hand has the distinct lanceolate leaf shape. All hands present a heavily oxidized surface which is common for unrestored watches.
A special feature of GPF 2/56 dials compared to other Panerai dials is the presence of the circular 8 Giorni – Brevettato logo at 3 o’clock. It means 8 Days – Patented and refers on the one hand to the newly adopted Angelus 240 8-days movement and on the other to the patented crown-protecting device.
The engravings on Panerai dials were executed with a manually operated pantograph milling machine. Working with a pantograph is very tricky and in this particular case, this led to a minor imperfection of the letter P of Panerai.
The depth of the engravings can vary depending on the operator. There are Panerai dials with very thin engravings and some with deep and thick letters.
The GPF 2/56 was the first Panerai watch to feature the half-moon shaped crown protecting device that has now become a signature feature of modern Panerai watches. Giuseppe Panerai and his sister Maria filed the patent application on November 30, 1955. An important aspect of this device is that the crown is linearly driven against the rubber gasket, thus preventing torsion stress on the seal as occurs on regular screw-down crowns.
Download US patent: Tight Seal Device (US2954665, Pdf)
The GPF 2/56 was basically designed around the Tight Seal Device. Accordingly, the crown guard is not a foreign part as on modified Ref. 6152/1 watches from the late 1950s (so-called Luminor) but rather an integral part and homogeneously embedded onto the case.
Designwise, Panerai’s first own watch was considerably different than the Rolex-made watches with their distinct cushion-shaped case. The cushion case was a signature feauture of Rolex since at least 1926. The GPF 2/56 looked like a Panerai instrument and had a similar size. With a case diameter of 60 mm excluding the crown guard, the watch was of titanic proportions – a veritable crossbread between Chronos (time) and Poseidon (sea) from the Greek Mythology.
In addition to the crown-protecting device, the GPF 2/56 featured also another mechanism that was new to Panerai. A rotating bezel. The inspiration for this time-recording device came from the Rolex Submariner and the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms which were both released a few years earlier in 1953. The time-recording bezel was mainly needed to measure submersion and decompression times during dives on compressed air.
The underwater special units of the Marina Militare used closed-circuit oxygen rebreathers which recycled the exhaled air, thus not forming bubbles in the water and allowing the divers to sneak undetected into enemy waters. The maximum depth was 40 ft/12 m as oxygen becomes rapidly toxic under pressure. Diving with oxygen rebreathers did not require decompression. Watches had the sole purpose to tell the time.
Diving with compressed air on the other hand, was a bit more complicated. It required precise planning of diving profiles ahead of dives and the calculation of decompression times in order to prevent the bends, a condition that occures when dissolved nitrogen gas comes out of solution in the bloodstream. With compressed air, divers could securely descent to 200 ft/60 m for short periods of time. Compressed air diving employed open-circuit breathing devices which naturally created lots of bubbles in the water each time the diver exhaled.
It can be assumed the Egyptians wanted a more versatile watch that could be used for diving with compressed air as well which is why they requested a rotating bezel.
Most GPF 2/56s have bezels with numbered 15, 30 and 45 markers with a cylindric form. The present watch, however, has unmarked hemispheres instead. Of the known fifteen GPF 2/56s that have surfaced so far, only six have unmarked hemisphere-shaped 15, 30 and 45 markers.
In terms of calibers, Panerai broke new ground with GPF 2/56. The gigantic watch was powered by an Angelus 240 8-days caliber developed for table and travel clocks which had never been used in wristwatches before.
Angelus movements from this era featured the Incastar regulator. Incastar was invented in 1947 and combined the celebrated Incabloc shock absorber with an ingenious regulation system shaped like a star. The trademarks Incabloc and Incastar respectively, originated from Incassable, which is French for unbreakable.
Stolz Frères SA, the owner of the Angelus brand, assembled the GPF 2/56 movements specifically for G. Panerai & Figlio. The Stolz Frères logo SF can be found on the balance cock. These movements had brushed bridges and a 12.55 (Dec. 1955) date stamp on the main plate. Aside from not featuring the usual alarm function, the calibers made for Panerai had 17 instead of 15 jewels and were refined with a monometallic Glucydur balance wheel.
The case construction of the GPF 2/56 was inspired by first generation Rolex Oyster cases from the late 1920 used for Ref. 2533 and 3646. The massive stainless steel middle case is clamped between rotating bezel, crystal and caseback by the means of six screws, creating an impermeable unit thanks to large ruber gaskets.
The inside of the caseback is engraved with the reference number Mod. GPF 2/56, Brevettato (patented) and the Egyptian matriculation number Matr. N.E. 019. The letter E in the matriculation number refers to Egitto, Italian for Egypt.
On the outside, the caseback bears Officine Panerai Firenze engravings which can also be found on Panerai wrist instruments from this era.
As of now, around 15 pieces with Egyptian matriculation numbers are known:
N.E. 001 – Panerai Archivio Storico (Panerai Museum)
N.E. 002 – Antiquorum November 2008
N.E. 007 – Artcurial November 2014
N.E. 012 – Christie’s June 2015
N.E. 017 – Panerai Archivio Storico (Panerai Museum)
N.E. 018 – Christie’s November 2011
N.E. 019 – Present example
N.E. 020 – Private collection
N.E. 023 – Private collection
N.E. 032 – Christie’s November 2007
N.E. 033 – Antiquorum April 1995
N.E. 035 – Private collection
N.E. 038 – Antiquorum September 2005
N.E. 040 – Christie’s May 2006
N.E. 041 – Private collection
Additionally, there are a number of GPF 2/56 without matriculation numbers. Some of these feature Luminor dials. Luminor dials were introduced in the mid 1960s. It can be assumed that Panerai updated some of the unsold examples with Luminor dials for presentation purposes.
The Panerai GPF 2/56 is undoubtely a rare bird. Discerning collectors have sometimes waited for years to get their hands on one of these elusive pieces. The present watch is of special interest as it was acquired before Panerai stepped into the limelight. As such, it remained out of reach from certain vintage Panerai dealers who messed up so many great watches in order to make an extra buck. The present watch is absolutely consistent with GPF 2/56s that surfaced in Egypt. In my opinion it is original in all parts. This watch appears to have remained untouched eversince it left the workshop in Florence. An indication for this is the consistent surface oxidation found on all hands. Hands were typically the first thing dealers would restore to create a more appealing watch. Back in the day, heavy patina was not as accepted as it is today. Another important detail is that the watch comes with its original leather strap.
Modified Rolex-Panerai Ref. 6152/1 – Matr. No. 31 – 124964
The next watch is something truly exceptional and historically important. Matr. No. 31 was the very first Ref. 6152/1 watch to ever feature a Luminor dial. 30 of these were made in total but only 8 pieces have surfaced until today.
The small batch of 30 examples marks the very beginning of Panerai’s Luminor chapter. Panerai modified these watches in the mid 1960s to promote a new tritium-based luminous compound named Luminor in addition to Angelus 240 8-days calibers.
Most of the 30 pieces were given to high ranking officers of the Italian Navy and the families of Gold Medal of Military Valour awardees from World War 2. Matr. No. 56, for instance, was presented to the family of Alcide Pedretti who in July 1941 took part in a combined Decima Flottiglia MAS operation involving explosive boats and manned torpedoes against the British Naval Base of Malta. Pedretti was the second man on Teseo Tesei’s manned torpedo.
Their mission was to blow up an obstruction attached to a bridge at the entrance of the port in order to allow six explosive boats to enter the base and attack naval shipping. During their approach, the two men were spotted by a British sentry who immediately opened fire with a 6 pounder gun and killing both. The bridge was later hit by an explosive boat, causing the collapse of the bridge spans which blocked the entrance for good. The mission ended in total failure. 16 were killed, 18 taken prisoner and 11 managed to escape. Alcide Pedretti was awarded the Gold Medal of Military Valour post mortem.
Dial And Hands
4-liner dials are extremely are. Aside from two 6152/1 with crown-protecting device, they can only be found on this type of watches. The anodized surface faded slightly to a dark brown over time and the tritium-based luminous compound turned to a Café Latte like colour. The thin Marina Militare – Luminor Panerai engravings are consistent with other pieces from this batch.
The lancette style hands are unique among the examples that surfaced until today. Overall they are more elaborate. Other pieces from this batch have similar hands but a more common version which can also be found in Angelus travel clocks. The lume colour is consistent with the dial lume.
With the introduction of Angelus 240 movements, Panerai also introduced the small seconds hand at 9 o’clock. The purpose of this small hand was not necessarily to keep track of the seconds but merely to immediately see whether the movement was running. The small seconds hands on the present watch is very particular. There are other Panerai watches which were found with similar hands.
In 1955, Rolex produced 500 pieces of Ref. 6152/1 for Panerai. These watches were made exclusively for the Italian Navy. All 500 pieces were equipped with signature 8 mm Rolex screw-down crowns (Big Crown) and powered by Cortébert-made Rolex 618 calibers with 36 hours of power reserve.
Panerai delivered the watches in small batches to the Italian Navy. Before delivery, Panerai outfitted the watches with their own Radiomir dials. By the end of the 1950s, Panerai began installing the patented crown-protecting device on Ref. 6152/1, which completely changed the look of the model. This gave birth to what today is referred to as Luminor Case.
The present 6152/1 was modified at its very core. In order to compete with modern Eterna Super KonTiki dive watches powered by automatic movements, which at the time the Marina Militare were already considering, the Florentine company replaced the low power reserve Rolex 618 calibers with 8-days movements known from Angelus travel clocks. To show off the new movements, Panerai converted the original Rolex casebacks into display casebacks by removing the center part and installing a plexi glass see-trough window.
For this batch, Panerai ordered new custom-made Angelus 240 calibers from Stolz Frères SA. Just like the GPF 2/56 movements from 1956, these new calibers had 17 instead of 15 jewels and a Glucydur balance wheel. However, some crucial details were different.
In late 1957, Stolz Frères SA dropped the Incastar regulator and switched to the common Incabloc shock absorbing system. At the same time, the bridge decoration changed from brushed to wide Côtes de Genève (Geneva stripes). The present example with all of its particular features, including the date stamp MAI.61 (May 1961), is absolutely consistent with other known examples from this batch.
It is important to note that the date stamp does not necessarily reflect the production date of the movements. The date referred merely to the production date of the baseplates which were made in batches and used up as required.
The plexi glass window bears the matriculation number Matr. No. 31. Atop of the matriculation number, there is an –I– symbol which refers to the new harmless luminous compound Luminor and stands either for Innocuo which is Italian for harmless, or, for a special type of Luminor named Tipo I with a luminous intesity of 2.16 μ candela/cm3.
The stainless steel part of the caseback was engraved with Officine Panerai – Brevettato which is interesting given that nothing on this watch was protected by a Panerai patent. Luminor itself was not patented, only the name was trademarked. Perhaps Brevettato referred to the Oyster case and the screw-down crown which were the intellectual property of Rolex.
As mentioned above, Panerai made 30 of these 6152/1-based watches. They bore the matriculation numbers 31 to 60. A similar batch consisting of 30 modified Ref. 3646 left-overs from World War 2 had been made earlier. This batch bore the matriculation numbers 1 to 30. Both these batches were intended to promote tritium-based Luminor and Angelus 240 8-days movements.
In 1964, following a number of multi-million Dollar lawsuits against Rolex and growing concerns in the population, the Swiss government banned the use of highly radioactive radium-226 in the Swiss watch industry. Tritium-based compounds became quickly the new standard. Tritium was exclusively produced in American nuclear reactors, mainly as a booster for thermonuclear weapons. In the mid 1950s, the US started selling their overproduction of tritium to licensed companies for medical research (radioactive tracers) and other scientific experimentation. This is when tritium was found to be a valid replacement for radium-226 to illuminate watch dials. However, it was not until the early 1960s that prices for tritium dropped enough to make the new compounds an economically interesting alternative for radium.
Tritium is a radioactive isotope of hydrogen which compared to radium it is practically harmless. In Italy, the use of radium-226 remained legal within certain limits. The signs, however, were clear. The world was moving away from hazardous compounds. With this in mind, Giuseppe Panerai created his own tritium-based luminous compound named Luminor.
Mr. Panerai was not only an ingenious innovator, he also had a nose for business opportunities. Hundreds of highly radioactive Radiomir instruments and watches were in use with the Italian Navy. If Panerai could convince the Navy bosses to switch to Luminor, his company could make some serious profits. Eventually, Giuseppe Panerai came up with a brilliant idea to generate interest for the new luminous compound.
His workshop modified 30 Ref. 3646 left-over watches from World War 2 and awarded them to high ranking Navy officers and families of World War 2 heroes. The modifications were quite extensive. The fragile wire lugs were removed and in their stead, distinct solid lugs were welded onto the case.
The old Cortébert-made Rolex 618 calibers were replaced with Angelus 240 8-days movements. To show off the new movements, Panerai installed for the the first time in their history display casebacks with distinct Officine Panerai – Brevettato engravings.
The dials of these watches featured all sorts of engravings. Early examples had Officine Panerai or Marina Militare Officine Panerai signatures. It is possible that at this point, Mr. Panerai had not yet decided how to call the new tritium-based compound. The trademark Luminor was registered in 1949 together with other names but remained unused until the mid 1960s. After the first examples, Panerai settled on Marina Militare – Luminor Panerai engravings over four lines (4-liner).
Coming back to the present watch, with number 31 it is the earliest known 6152/1 with Luminor dial ever made. This very watch is listed in a Marina Militare inventory list from 1988. Recorded are the Marina Militare dial with small seconds at 9 o’clock and the matriculation number Matr. No. 31.
Case and Big Crown
The case of this watch is in excellent condition for its age. As with most Rolex watches from this era, the case number is engraved between the lugs at 6 o’clock. The case number 124964 is a typical Rolex Oyster number from 1955. The engravings are spot on, still crisp and perfectly visible. An interesting observation is the low crystal. This appears to have been an attempt at making the watch as thin as possible.
The Rolex case numbers of the eight known pieces are random. In 1955, Rolex sent all 500 pieces of Ref. 6152/1 (124495 – 124995) in one lot to Panerai. When orders came in from the Italian Navy, Panerai grabbed whichever watches were on top.
The Rolex reference number 6152/1 is engraved between the lugs at 12 o’clock. Like other Rolex watches from this era, there is additionally the word Brevet engraved, which is French for patent. This refers to the patented Oyster case and famous Rolex screw-down crown. Normally, there would be a Swiss Cross next to Brevet but in this case, the engraver probably rushed to go for lunch and forgot.
The present watch is equipped with its original 8 mm Rolex Big Crown known from legendary Rolex Submariners such as Ref. 6200, Ref. 6538 and Ref. 5510.
An interesting fact related to the Rolex Big Crown is that according to Rolex case numbers, the first watch to feature this crown was not the Submariner Ref. 6200 as often assumed but Ref. 6152 from 1953. The latter was the first post war Panerai made by Rolex in very small numbers (around 30 pieces) for testing purposes. Ref. 6152/1 was a simplified version of Ref. 6152.
Coming back to the two batches of 30 watches each, these can be considered the very first Special Editions. As of today, only eight watches from the 6152/1-based batch have surfaced:
Matr. No. 31 – 124964 (Present lot)
Matr. No. 35 – 124666
Matr. No. 45 – 124719
Matr. No. 47 – n.a.
Matr. No. 52 – 124657
Matr. No. 55 – n.a.
Matr. No. 56 – n.a. (Alcide Pedretti)
Matr. No. 57 – 124965
As the earliest known 6152/1 with Luminor dial, Matr. No. 31 is an absolute milestone in Panerai’s history and actually belongs in a museum. In addition, with its unique lancette style hands and the low crystal, the present watch occupies an important place even within its own batch of super elusive pieces. The fact this watch is mentioned in a Marina Militare inventory list from 1988 and is absolutely consistent with the records, adds further to its desirability. Watches of this magnitude basically never come up and the known examples are firmly in collectors’ hands. Further complemented by its original leather strap, this piece is definitely a strong buy and hold.
Modified Rolex-Panerai Ref. 6152/1 With Prototype Plexi Bezel – 124614
Lot 997 is another remarkably rare piece. It is one of only four Ref. 6152/1 watches known to feature a prototype rotating bezel made of plexi. One of these watches is believed to have belonged to Admiral Gino Birindelli who as a manned torpedo pilot deployed from the famous Italian submarine Sciré in October 1940, participated in an attack on the British Naval Base of Gibraltar and was subsequently captured by the British. In 1944, Birindelli was repatriated in order to join the Allied forces in the south of Italy and fight against the German occupation forces in Italy.
This type of rotating bezel was developed to increase versatility. The Rolex-made watches produced for the Italian Navy were exclusively used for diving with oxygen rebreathers at maximum depths of around 40ft/12m. Below this depth, pressurized oxygen becomes rapidly toxic which in many cases led to fatal accidents. This form of diving did not require decompression stops. All the watches had to be capable of was to keep water out and be legible in murky waters.
Oxygen rebreathers are closed-circuit breathing apparatuses which recylcle the exhaled oxygen and therefore do not create bubbles. They are perfect to sneak undetected into enemy waters but useless for working at depth. To do actual work underwater, the divers relied on compressed air which allowed them to go as deep as 200 ft/60 m. The first working open-circuit self-contained underwater breathing apparatus for compressed air known as the Aqua-Lung was invented in 1942/43 by Émile Gagnan and Jacques Cousteau.
This form of diving requires planning ahead of the dive. Maximum depths and submersion times need to be precisely calculated. In addition, decompression stops are absolutely required before surfacing in order to expel dissolved gases in the blood and avoid the bends (decompression sickness). For this reason, modern diving watches like the Rolex Submariner were equipped with a time-recording rotating bezel.
Around 1964, the Italian Navy acquired a batch of Eterna Super KonTiki diving watches with automatic movements which could be used for both, diving with oxygen rebreathers and thanks to the rotating bezel also with compressed air. Panerai watches started to look outdated. The company was sitting on hundreds of unsold Ref. 6152/1 watches and faced with a big loss, they had to come up with ideas to keep the watches relevant.
One of these ideas was the present plexi rotating bezel which transformed Ref. 6152/1 into a modern dive watch. With its five minutes calibration, the bezel helped divers on compressed air to keep track of the elapsed time and measure crucial decompression stops.
Dial And Hands
The present watch features a multi-layer aluminium dial (sandwich dial) rendered luminous with tritium-based Luminor. The dial surface retained its black colour but may be slightly faded. The lume is off-white, which is typical for this type of dial. Perfectly matching are the thin Double Pencil hands with pointy tips. The minute hand has lost some of the lume which is common for watches of this age. Overall, the hands have developed an amazing patina.
The Luminor Panerai engravings are spot on except for a slight imperfection in the letter L of Luminor. As seen on the GPF 2/56, slight imperfections are nothing uncommon. The engravings were executed with a hand-controlled pantograph after all.
The very first dials made with tritium-based Luminor had Marina Militare engravings – as the watches were exclusive to the Italian Navy. At some point, however, Panerai started supplying these watches also to Italian law enforcement agencies like the Carabinieri (CC), Polizia di Stato (PS) and Guardi di Finanza (GF), whose underwater specialists received their basic training from the Navy special forces. The dials of their timepieces had Luminor Panerai engravings. Italian law enforcement divers used compressed air for their dives.
It appears Marina Militare signed dials were discontinued fairly early and all new batches received Luminor Panerai engraved dials. Evidence for this can be found in the fact that watches with the highest known Marina Militare matriculation numbers (e.g. SMZ. No. 189) pertaining to the very last batch supplied to the Navy featured Luminor Panerai dials. This is absolutely consistent with an Italian Navy inventory list from 1988 where SMZ. No. 189 is listed as having a Luminor Panerai dial.
Prototype Rotating Bezel
The plexi rotating bezel was a typical precision part made by G. Panerai & Figlio in the 1960s. Three tiny spring-loaded metal pins placed at an angle of 120 degrees to each other engaged with a groove milled to the side of the plexi crystal and locked the bezel into place. Twelve round recesses drilled along the groove were responsible for the five minutes calibration.
Due to its construction, this type of bezel could not withstand heavy shocks and was lost easily. There are a number of Ref. 6152/1 watches with grooves and recesses on their crystals but only three of them are known to have retained the original bezel.
Both, the rotating bezel and the plexi crystal have uniformly changed colour to an almost identical hue which suggests this watch left the Panerai workshop in this very configuration.
The the present watch is powered by a Rolex 618 caliber made by Cortébert. With a large diameter of 16 Ligne which is equivalent to around 36 mm, these movements were meant for pocket watches. Rolex used this caliber for all references made for the Italian Navy. Over time, the engravings on the bridges changed slightly and the balance wheel received an Incabloc shock protection.
This particular movement is known among collectors as Rolex 618 Type 4. With 17 jewels, Breguet overcoil hairspring, Incabloc shock protection and one cap jewel for the escapement wheel it is the correct movement for this type of watch. As the photo suggest, this movement is in excellent condition for its age. The power reserve is of 36 hours.
The Cortébert signature Cort can be found underneath the balance wheel. Rolex used Cortébert movements for their pocket watch line since the 1920s and continued to do so until the 1960s as they were of superior quality. Rolex did not buy ébauches (row calibers) from Cortébert and finish the movements in the Aegler-Rolex factory as often claimed. The movements were finished to 100% by Cortébert according to Rolex’s requirements.
Italian frogmen were often exposed to strong magnetic fields emitted by limpet mines. To shield the movements against these magnetic disturbances, the watches were equipped with a soft iron cover. As conductive material, soft iron is able to absorb magnetic fields, thus blocking them from reaching the movement. Given Ref. 6152/1 was made in 1955, it can be considered the precursor of the Rolex Milgauss which came out one year later in 1956. The present watch has retained the original soft iron cover.
The inside of the caseback bears the usual Rolex stamps and the Rolex reference number 6152/1. The Rolex Oyster case and the Rolex screw-down crown were the intellectual property of Rolex and accordingly, the stamps include the word patented.
The outside of the caseback is polished and does not feature any special markings.
Case And Crown Guard
The case of the present watch is in stunning condition. The case number engravings between the lugs at 6 o’clock are crisp and spot on. 124614 is a typical Rolex case number from 1955.
Between the lugs at 12 o’clock is the Rolex reference number 6152/1 plus the remark Brevet which refers to the patents releated to the Oyster case and Rolex screw-down crown. The cross next to Brevet symbolizes the Swiss Cross.
The crown-protecting device of this watch has Brev. Ital. engraved on the back. This is an abbreviation for Brevetto Italiano which means Italian Patent. Additionally, there is the number 5 stamped below the B of Brev. Ital..
Most crown-protecting devices found on Ref. 6152/1 have numbers between 1 and 10. The significance of these numbers is unknown. It could be some kind of quality check or a remark related to the fit in case the part had to be replaced.
The present watch is a perfect example for Panerai’s ingeniuty and ability to react to new requirements. The prototype rotating plexi bezel was a simple yet useful solution that did not require invasive modifications. In the blink of an eye, it transformed an old fashioned World War 2 style dive watch into a modern instrument for professional divers. Due to its fragility, however, only a few watches were able to retain the bezel which makes this example only the more desirable. The way the crystal and the prototype plexi bezel have aged uniformly is absolutely stunning. The crystal is further interesting for its spiderweb-like craze. Crystals with this type of patina are extremely rare. The rest of the watch is in great shape and consistent with other pieces from this era, including the original leather strap with its stainless steel buckle.
Modified Rolex-Panerai Ref. 6152/1 – 124833
Compared to the previous three heavyweights, one could easily get the impression Lot 999 is just a regular Luminor as seen many time before. This, however, could not be further from the truth. The present watch is actually THE Panerai par excellence – the very watch responsible for Panerai’s revival in 1993.
Auction link: Lot 999 – Rolex-Panerai Ref. 6152/1 – 124833
The present watch was published on the cover of a Japanese watch magazine in 1992. It was also depicted on the inside in a 16 pages long article about Panerai and their history. This report was crucial for Panerai. As a matter of fact, it was this very article and the positive feedback from the Japanese watch collecting community that inspired Officine Panerai SpA to recreate the so-called Luminor in 1993. It is interesting to note that this article required the approval of the Italian Navy as Offcine Panerai was almost exclusively working on classified Navy projects.
The picture below shows a comparison between the cover and the present watch. It is one and the same.
The watch was also presented as part of the article itself, even with an open back showing the movement. More on this later.
What makes a Panerai a Panerai is without a doubt the presence of the half-moon shaped crown-protecting device. The iconic crown guard is the ultimate distinguishing feature that sets Panerai apart from other watch brands. First used in the gigantic GPF 2/56 from 1956, G. Panerai & Figlio soon found a way to install the bridge also on Ref. 6152/1.
To install the crown guard, the rounded 6152/1 case required some modifications. To provide a flat seat for the bridge, Panerai milled two grooves onto the side of the case. One to the left and one to the right of the crown tube. The Rolex Big Crown (8mm) was replaced with a shorter but wider winding crown (8.5mm).
Ref. 6152/1 was produced by Rolex in 1955. G. Panerai & Figlio ordered 500 pieces for their client the Italian Navy. Prior to Ref. 6152/1, Rolex produced a very small number of Ref. 6152 in 1953 and Ref. 6154 in 1954 for testing purposes. Both references had a distinct crease around the case which gave the watches a very elegant look. In addition, Ref. 6152 had a recessed Big Crown which can be considered Rolex’s first attempt at creating a crown guard. Only a handful Ref. 6152 and around twenty Ref. 6154 have surfaced until today. In tests, Ref. 6152 performed better and consequently, Rolex developed with Ref. 6152/1 a simplified version with less decorative elements and hence less expensive to produce.
Official Navy documents show that 6152/1 watches delivered to the Italian Navy in March 1958 still featured the original Rolex Big Crowns and Radiomir dials. G. Panerai & Figlio archive photos from the late 1950s/early 1960s show Ref. 6152/1 with crown-protecting device featuring Radiomir dials. It can be assumed Panerai started outfitting Ref. 6152/1 with their patented crown guard towards the end of the 1950s.
Until the mid 1960s, all watches delivered to the Navy were equipped with Radiomir dials. Radiomir was a radioluminescent mixture which used radium-226 as an energy source to excite zinc sulfide (inorganic phosphor). Zinc sulfide emits light upon excitation by radiation. If exposed to sun or artificial light, it glows for a short period of time.
The lifespan of radium-based Radiomir dials was somewhere between three and five years. This was the time it took for the radium-226 to completely destroy the zinc sulfide. For this reason, Radiomir dials had to be replaced periodically. After tritium-based Luminor became available, the Navy decided to replace all highly radioactive Radiomir dials with Luminor. The story goes that the old Radiomir dials, some outdated 3646 and a bunch of Radiomir instruments were sealed with cement into an ammunition crate and sunk in the Golf of La Spezia. According to Franco Zavattaro, former Commander of the Navy special forces (ComSubIn) until 1971, this event took place in 1968.
Dial And Hands
The present watch is outfitted with a so-called sandwich dial that retained its original black colour. Typical for this type of Luminor dial is the off-white tritium-based lume. Panerai dials from this generation did not develop heavy patina for some reason. The Luminor Panerai engravings are slightly thicker than the ones on the previously discussed 6152/1 with case number 124614 (Lot 997).
The watch is further equipped with thin Double Pencil hands with pointy tips. The hands aged beautifully with slight traces of surface rust on the minute hand and overall nice lume colour.
The movement of 124833 is a Rolex 618 Type 4 made by Cortébert. With features like 17 jewels, Breguet overcoil hairspring, Incabloc shock protection and one cap jewel for the escapement wheel it is absolutely consistent with other 6152/1. The ratched wheel developed some rust but the overall condition of the movement is very good for its age.
A comparison of the movement screw positions with the picture shown in the Japanese article reveals the watch remained literally untouched for the past 28 years. This, ladies and gentleman, is what a veritable time capsule looks like.
The inside of the caseback bears the usual Rolex stamps and the Rolex reference number. A unique feature of this watch is the circular spring found on the inside. This type of spring can often be found on Ref. 6152/1 watches with closed casebacks that were modified with Angelus 240 calibers.
Angelus 240 movements do not like vertical pressure due to their pillar construction. Too much pressure can cause the movements to stop. Panerai used this type of spring to avoid screwing the casebacks too tight. It is very interesting to find one of these rare springs in this watch.
As is standard for Ref. 6152/1, the present watch features a soft iron cover to protect the movement from strong magnetic fields emitted by limpet mines.
The outside of the caseback bears no special markings.
Case And Crown Guard
The case of this watch is in great condition. Between the lugs at 6 o’clock, the present watch has an easy to read and spot on case number. 124833 is a typical Rolex case number from 1955.
The Rolex patent referral Brevet + and the reference number 6152/1 are located between the lugs at 12 o’clock and still perfectly readable.
The patent crown protecting device of this watch does not have Brev. Ital. engravings. It is unknown why some devices have the engravings and others do not. One theory is that the first crown guards installed on Ref. 6152/1 did not have the referral to the patent. When multi national training operations with navy special forces from other NATO members became common practise, Panerai wanted to make sure everybody knew the idea was patented.
This particular crown guard bears the number 3. Other guards have numbers between 1 and 10. The significance of these numbers remains a mystery to this day.
For lots of watch enthusiasts, the present watch was the first Panerai ever seen and love at first sight. When the Japanese article came out in 1992, watch collecting as a whole was still in its early stages. Very few people had ever heard of the Italian company. At auction, these watches were known as Military Rolex. Panerai received so much love from the Japanese watch community as a result of the article, they immediately realized the pontential for recreating the old watches – in a time of financial struggle due to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the massive cuts in military spending that followed. The present watch started it all! It may not be a prototype or part of a special order for a foreign country but it is definitely a watch that deserves its own pedestal in the history of Panerai.
Panerai Compass & 50 m Depth Gauge
As mentioned in the introduction, this amazing collection also includes two stunning Radiomir wrist instruments made by Panerai, a compass and a 50 m depth gauge with adjustable dial made between 1957 and 1965.
Auction link: Lot 1000 – Panerai Compass and Depth Gauge
The very same compass was presented in the Japanese Panerai article from 1992 as well but with the strap that is now mounted on the depth gauge. It also appears the compass developed further patina in the past 28 years. The dial on the inside is not as clear as it was in 1992.
Wrist instruments made by Panerai were not only crucial for underwater orientation but also absolutely beautiful objets d’art praised by maritime special units from many other NATO members.
G. Panerai & Figlio’s main competence was the development and production of torpedo aiming calculators, instruments and gauges for the Italian Navy which thanks to their radium-coated indexes were visible at night. These highly sophisticated items could be found on war ships, torpedo boats, submarines and underwater craft.
For the famous Decima Flottiglia MAS frogmen from World War 2, Panerai developed for the first time in their history wrist compasses which were essential to lead the frogmen to their targets in murky port waters.
When the Paris Treaty restrictions imposed as punishment for the damages caused during World War 2 were lifted by late 1951, the Italian Navy officially started rebuilding their underwater units. Secretly, the units had never ceased to exist but their equipment had become outdated and the radium-based dials were burned out and no longer luminous. This is when the Navy asked G. Panerai & Figlio to supply new instruments, gauges and watches for their units.
In the early 1950s, Panerai created a new generation of compasses which were featured in an 1953 movie named I sette dell’Orsa Maggiore (Hell Raiders from the Deep).
The depth gauges from this era adopted the very same design featuring a large anti magnetic stainless steel case with an impressive plexiglas dome atop. Interestingly, the elusive Mare Nostrum chronograph prototype had an almost identical case design as these new instruments.
As with watch dials, the first compasses and depth gauges were illuminated by radium-based Radiomir. From the mid 1960s onwards, Panerai replaced the highly radioactive Radiomir with tritium-based Luminor.
While the first depth gauges had regular Panerai sandwich dials, later models received highly sophisticated dial discs which could be adjusted to allow a recalibration during routine maintenance in order to ensure a correct display of depth. Panerai patented the idea for this type of dials on May 14, 1957 (Italian patent no. 572839).
Link to patent: Quadrante per apparecchi indicatori (CH364634)
Early examples had brushed cases. Later cases were sandblasted to render them non-reflective in order to prevent the divers from being discovered. Some examples appear to be sandblasted and additionally coated with a dark grey colour.
In the post war period, the special forces of the Italian Navy were split into two main groups. The raiders (Incursori) and the so-called hard hat divers (Sommozzatori). The raiders were responsible for maritime operations against enemy targets at sea or in coastal areas while the hard hat divers specialized in de-mining, salvage operations and rescue of personnel from sunken submarines.
Panerai produced depth gauges for a variety of applications and forms of diving. The maximum depth for diving with oxygen rebreathers as used by the raiders is around 40ft/12m. Below this depth, oxygen becomes rapidly toxic and can lead to fatal accidents. Divers on compressed air can go much deeper but need to be constantly aware of the dangerous effects of nitrogen narcosis which kick in below 100ft/30m. Accordingly, Panerai produced depth gauges for maximum depths of 7, 15, 16, 30, 35, 40, 50 and 60 meters.
It appears that for the Egyptian Navy, Panerai produced hundreds of compasses and depth gauges. The Egyptian compasses are marked with the Panerai model name GPF 4/55 (4th product in 1955) and bear matriculation numbers between the lugs at six o’clock. The highest registered number so far is Matr. No. E 251.
Both present examples have Radiomir dials and sandblasted cases. It can be assumed they were produced between 1957 and 1965. The depth gauge features an adjustable dial disc with a maximum depth display of 165ft/50m. The first 20 meters are displayed in 2.5 m increments. From 20 meters to 50, the intervals change to 5 meters.
The compass (left) is signed Officine Panerai Firenze on the back. With Brevettato there is additionally a referral to the patented nature of the compass. Both instruments have retained their original leather straps but as mentioned above, they appear to have been swaped.
Panerai instruments are fantastic objects of art and collectibles in their own right. Just like the watches, the instruments were made in different versions and improved over time. With their impressive plexi domes they look stunning. The present lot is offered without reserve so this could be a great opportunity to acquire two important pieces of G. Panerai & Figlio history at a very interesting price.
Thank you very much for your interest. Make sure you follow me on Instagram to stay up to date.
The Panerai Time Machine
Panerai watches were shaped by historically important events. The timeline below represents the current state of research into vintage Panerai watches. Please click the graphic to download the highres version.
This timeline is available as a high quality print in two sizes:
- 120 x 68 cm (47 x 26 inch): EUR 85.00 (plus shipping)
- 150 x 85 cm (59 x 33 inch): EUR 120.00 (plus shipping)
Printed with HD Inkjet on heavy synthetic paper and laminated.
Limited edition: 50 pieces, numbered and signed by Maria Teresa Panerai in Giuseppe Panerai’s very own laboratory at the historical site of the Villino Panerai (Panerai Villa) in Florence: Sold out
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