Italy is steeped in history and art. Its architecture has given rise to many styles and is famous around the world. It is a fashion mecca, and the capital for many designer brands including Prada, Dolce & Gabbana, and Versace. The Italian phrase “la bella figura,” or good impression, harkens to their ideal of dressing-up and dressing well. The culture is synonymous with art, fashion, and the good life. However, Italy is probably not the first place that comes to mind when thinking of luxury watches.
Though Italy may not boast the quantity of brands of Switzerland or Germany, there are still a couple that have solidified their place in the luxury watch world. Two of these brands are Bulgari and Officine Panerai. Neither brand has the name-recognition of many of their Swiss counterparts. However, they have still produced some iconic models.
Bulgari started in Rome as a jewelry shop in 1884. Oftentimes you will see Bulgari printed as BVLGARI. This trademark is written in the classical Latin alphabet. It gives a nod to the company’s founder Sotirio Bulgari, a Greek silversmith.
Bulgari’s sons, Costantino and Giorgio, were an integral part of their father’s vision. They helped him open his second shop, and ran the company together after his death.
Though it’s possible that Bulgari sold watches from their inception, the first existing examples are from the 1920’s. In 1940, the Serpenti made its debut. The design took inspiration from ancient Rome. Interestingly, the serpent’s head contained the dial. The modern Serpenti has strayed from the original inception, but still maintains its spirit.
The company remained in family hands until the early 2010’s and though their production is now Swiss, Bulgari watches are uniquely Italian in their design. Many models, including the Diagono, have “BVLGARI BVLGARI” or “BVLGARI ROMA” inscribed on the bezel reminiscent of a roman coin. Some of their watches also have a signature bracelet technique called “tubogas.” It gets its name from the resemblance to an Italian car’s gas pipe from the 1920’s. It still appears regularly on the Serpenti.
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. They were the official supplier to the Royal Italian Navy (Regina Marina) where Panerai outfitted them with precision instruments and watches. However, it wasn’t until 1916 when they filed the Radiomir patent that Panerai became the brand we know now.
Panerai filed for a patent for Radiomir, a radium-based powder, in 1916. Though toxic, when used, it gives dials and sighting instruments high luminosity. It also maintains its qualities underwater and with great adhesion, making it perfect for the Navy. However, the original Radiomir prototype, didn’t launch until just prior to WWII. Modern-day Radiomirs do not use the exact same technology for luminosity, eliminating the toxicity of the original, but keeping the name.
Panerai’s other famous model, the Luminor, didn’t make an appearance until the very late 1940’s and early 1950’s. The self-luminous substance used on the dial and hands gives the watch its name. Originally, its intention was to be an updater to the Radiomir. However, each watch stands alone on its own merit.
It is important to note that these watches were designed specifically for the Navy, and were never available to the public. In 1993, Panerai finally released models to the public quickly making them a cult favorite.
The Italians are known for their deep history, their love of life, and their attention to 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.