Best Italian Watch Brands
Italy has built a global reputation for its history and art. They’ve notched countless architectural achievements that have been influential around the world. It’s a fashion mecca and the headquarters of numerous designer brands, including Prada, Dolce & Gabbana, and Versace. Yet, Italy is probably not the first place that comes to mind when thinking of luxury watches.
Italy may not boast the quantity of brands of Switzerland or Germany. However, there are still a couple that have solidified their place in the luxury watch world. Two such brands are Bulgari and Officine Panerai. These watchmakers and their offerings fully embody the Italian phrase “la bella figura.” It literally translates, “the beautiful figure.” However, its sentiment denotes an essential philosophy and way of life that includes dressing well and making a good impression. This guiding principle is what makes Bulgari and Panerai two of the best Italian watch brands on the market. Here, we dig deeper into these watchmakers and some of their top Italian models.
List of Top Italian Models
- Bulgari Bulgari
Sotiro Voulgaris, Bulgari’s founder, hailed from a long line of silversmiths in a small village in northern Greece. It’s here that Bulgari has its roots. However, the brand didn’t flourish until Voulgaris relocated to the bustling city of Rome in 1881. Here, he Italianized his family name to the phonetic spelling Bulgari. Still, it wouldn’t be until several decades later that the brand would change their logo to BVLGARI. This spelling replaces the “u” with a “v” in the tradition of the Roman alphabet. During this era of leadership, Voulgaris had passed away and left the business to his sons. Costantino and Giorgio helped usher the Bulgari brand into the next phase of growth.
Though it’s possible that Bulgari had been selling watches since their inception, the first existing examples are from the 1920s. These ladies’ models align with the brand’s roots in jewelry making. They’re notable for their high-level gem setting and Art Deco aesthetic. The Deco style continued to influence the brand’s designs for the next several years. In the 1940s, they debuted the first iconic Serpenti watch. The design took inspiration from ancient Rome.
Interestingly, the serpent’s head contained the dial. Today, the modern Serpenti collection still maintains its original spirit.
It wasn’t until the 1970s that Bulgari introduced their first men’s watch line produced on a large scale. The brand enlisted the help of the legendary designer Gerald Genta to develop the collection. Together, they created the Bulgari Bulgari. Similar to the Serpenti, the design drew inspiration from an ancient Roman coin. Ultimately, the Bulgari Bulgari helped put the brand on the map in the watch industry. The model was such a success, it prompted the company to create a designated watch division in 1982. Several years later in 1988, they debuted another one of their top Italian models: the Diagono. This marked Bulgari’s first line of sport watches.
In more recent years, the Bulgari brand has continued to grow and prosper in the watch space. The company remained in family hands until 2011 when the illustrious LVMH Group acquired them. With the resources of a larger firm, Bulgari was able to create one of their most groundbreaking collections: the Octo. What started as a collection of simple three-hand watches in 2012 quickly morphed into something bigger. In 2014, Bulgari unveiled the Octo Finissimo Tourbillon, the thinnest tourbillon movement ever made. Since then, the Octo line has continued to break records numerous times over.
While no doubt less opulent, Panerai is equally important in Italian watches. Officine Panerai’s beginnings trace all the way back to 1860. Giovanni Panerai began his namesake watch brand when he opened a workshop in Florence. It was also the city’s first watchmaking school. By 1900, the brand’s leadership had changed to Panerai’s grandson Guido. Like Voulgaris’ sons, he helped take the Panerai brand to the next level. They secured a key partnership with the Royal Italian Navy or Regina Marina.
Soon after, the brand began working to optimize their timekeeping instruments specifically for naval forces. They conducted extensive research into creating a specialized luminous substance that could provide high legibility in any conditions. By 1916, they had filed a patent for an all-new radium based powder called Radiomir. The substance performed well not only in low light conditions but also underwater, making it ideal for the Regina Marina. Still, it would be many more years before Panerai was able to implement this new material into their military issued instruments and timekeeping devices. Finally, in 1936, they debuted the first Radiomir prototype to the Royal Italian Navy. Two years later, they launched one of their top Italian models to the public, and the Radiomir was officially born.
In the mid-1940s, Panerai recognized the harmful side effects of radium. So, they began research and development once again for a new luminous substance. By 1949, they had created and patented a Tritium-based hydrogen isotope with the same luminosity and application. They called this material Luminor, which resulted in an all-new collection by the same name. Early Luminor models closely resembled the Radiomir. However, into the 1950s, the model began to develop its own unique look and feel. The Luminor eventually took the place of the Radiomir as the official watch of the Regina Marina as well as other naval forces around the globe. It wouldn’t be until 1993 that the Luminor would become available to the public.
Like Bulgari, Panerai stepped into a new era of leadership just before the turn of the century. They joined the renowned Richemont Group in 1997. In the new millennium, Panerai forged another important partnership with the famed Italian car manufacturer Ferrari. Together, they collaboratively created the Panerai Ferrari line. The collection was only in production for five years, yet it resulted in an impressive twenty-three limited edition models. Although the partnership was short-lived, it marked and important moment for two of the best Italian brands.
Choosing the Best Italian Watch Brand for You
Italian culture is synonymous with art, history, and an emphasis on aesthetics. Though neither brand may have the name recognition of Rolex or OMEGA, both Bulgari and Panerai embody the best of what is uniquely Italian. When choosing the best Italian watch brand for you, it comes down to your personal style. Say you’re looking for a model that combines technical prowess with a lavish design that balances modernity and history. Then, Bulgari is a smart choice. Perhaps you want a more utilitarian model with a rich heritage and one of a kind design. Then, Panerai is a great option. Whichever type of design best suits your lifestyle, you know it’s backed by one of the best Italian watch brands.