These two Italian watch brands have a lot more in common than initially meets the eye...

What did you do over Christmas and the New Year? For me, it was a road trip that started off in Italy and ended up in Switzerland, taking in Milan, Florence, Lucca and other bits of Tuscany, before snaking up the Ligurian coast, crossing through Piemonte via the old city of Cuneo, and crossing the Swiss border just north of Aosta: one of only five provinces in Italy that govern themselves autonomously, as a result of the traditional disputes over borders that have formed a regular part of Italy’s patchwork history. Italians are renowned for many things but not necessarily precision. Maybe it’s because of that, rather than in spite of it, that there’s constantly been a thriving business in watchmaking. After all, in any country characterised by arid desert, selling water is always a good idea.

Giovanni Panerai in front of his watch store - 1860

Probably the most famous Italian watch company is Panerai, which, like most artistic objects in Italy, originally comes from Florence. Leonardo da Vinci’s city is in fact the home of Italian watchmaking, with time-measuring devices created there since the fourteenth century.
Panerai is, of course, best-known for its oversized diving watches, which led to a contract with the Italian navy just in time for the Second World War. Yet Panerai wasn’t just about watches: they also made military products such as triggers for mines and submersible navigation tools, while developing the luminous hands for which the company would become famous, courtesy of the Radiomir.

A selection of kit made by Panerai over the years...

Rather than a simple watch company, it was more of a research and development military think-tank, which is at the heart of the company’s appeal to enthusiasts. While the book of Italian military heroes is popularly renowned as a short one, Panerai was also enthusiastically adopted by the German armed forces in the Second World War: an endorsement that the company is less keen to capitalise upon these days. However, it’s really only in the last 20 years or so that Panerai has hit the mass market. And the reason behind it is exactly the same one that propelled another previously obscure Italian watch brand to fame: U Boat. U-Boat was inspired by Panerai but has a very different story behind it, having been revived as a brand only in the year 2000, when the fashion for larger watches really took off. The company comes from Lucca: a medieval hidden gem of a city, surrounded by the second most extensive network of ancient walls in Europe. U-Boat was rediscovered by Italo Fontana, having been originally founded in the 1940s by his grandfather in response to a commission from the Italian navy. Italo set about relaunching the company and soon established one thing – or rather, person – in common with Panerai.

And that’s Sylvester Stallone, whose Italian roots have given him a love for all things from Italy. Especially large watches: a passion he shares with another Hollywood action giant, Arnold Schwarzenegger. “I get a 55 and Arnold has to get a 60,” Stallone recently pointed out – but rather than collar sizes or Oscar nominations, the Rambo star was talking about watch face sizes.

In the mid-1990s, Stallone started to wear Panerai watches (including onset in the 1995 movie Daylight), which really launched the brand into the public consciousness. Around 10 years later, probably much to Panerai’s chagrin, Stallone started wearing U-Boat watches as well. Schwarzenegger soon followed and the reputation of both brands was complete.

Although superficially similar, the U-Boat watch is quite a different animal to the Panerai. The guiding philosophy, according to Fontana, is to make a watch that’s “easy to read, but impossible to destroy.” Maybe that’s why U-Boat still makes watches for the Italian police special branch now. The price point is generally lower than Panerai, with a number of collectors sampling a U-Boat watch as a stepping-stone towards one. However, U-Boat has a personality all of its own, with a younger and sportier image, which the company describes as “brutalist”.

Best of all, it’s a watch company first and foremost, which still remains relatively off the radar (despite fans of the brand including Tom Cruise and James Blunt).

Because what ‘Made in Italy’ stands for most of all – for better or for worse – is well-established brands that are force-fed to the world. One of the best-known is Bulgari, which actually has its roots back in the nineteenth century, courtesy of Stefanos Voulgaris: a Greek immigrant who Italianised his name after his jewellery business unexpectedly took off in Rome.

Bulgari now forms part of the monolithic Louis Vuitton empire, which also includes Hublot, TAG Heuer and Zenith. A Bulgari (or Bvlgari, as the company has stylised itself) watch isn’t for everyone but still has to be taken seriously as a proper timepiece, rather than merely a fashion accessory – which is what many Italian watches these days unfortunately are, as companies take mercenary advantage of that all-encompassing ‘Made in Italy’ tag. There are some exceptions: Anonimo, Visconti, and Giuliano Mazzuoli make proper watches in Italy, but none of these brands have yet touched on the dominance enjoyed by Panerai. And it’s easy to see why: love them or hate them, every Panerai has an instantly recognisable stylish simplicity that sets it apart, best exemplified by the Luminor and of course the Radiomir. Probably no other company could pull off the feat of making Italy synonymous with advanced timekeeping: a massive triumph in itself.

The PAM00683 - Image Credit: Panerai Press

Next stop on the New Year tour of Italy was the Ferrari Museum in Maranello. Of all the celebrated Italian names, Ferrari is arguably the most famous: one of the reasons why six-time British Formula 1 champion Lewis Hamilton has been linked with a move to the squad next year. With speed (and therefore time) being an essential component of performance, Ferrari has linked up with a number of watchmakers over the years, most recently Panerai (check out the Panerai Ferrari family) and Hublot. What’s more surprising – and not in a good way – are the watches that

Ferrari market themselves, both on their website and at the Ferrari Museum, as well as via several different retail outlets all over the world. These aren’t actually watches that seem to be of particularly exclusive quality or design and the price reflects that. Some have even described Ferrari’s own watches as “garish”. But you can’t argue with the economics: Ferrari is selling huge numbers of these cheapish watches all over the world, and no doubt making far more money out of them than they would do from a limited series of top-end watches (which of course they have as well, courtesy of Hublot). The same horologic logic applies for pretty much every other automotive manufacturer, with watches now being a must-have accessory to cement a driver’s relationship with his or her choice of car. There’s even a Skoda watch – but that’s a topic for another blog on another day.

Their watches may have been a disappointment, but the Ferrari Museum certainly wasn’t. Visit if you have the chance.