Those who collect stamps are known as philatelists. Coin enthusiasts are called numismatists. People who profess their undying love for timepieces are called horologists. And some of the most passionate watch collectors are the Paneristi—folks who live and breathe the Italian heritage brand Officine Panerai.
Watch enthusiast Hans Zbinden coined the name as an alternative to the rather sinister-sounding Brotherhood of Panerai. The Paneristi operate like a loosely organized fraternity with members around the world—including some particularly enthusiastic people in Manila who call themselves the Pinoyristi.
They have some similarities to the Illuminati featured in Dan Brown's tomes, who meet under a shroud of secrecy. For the Pinoyristi, secrecy is merely a matter of security and has nothing to do with enigmatic missions like the recovery of ancient Templar treasures. In reality, a Paneristi meeting resembles a reunion among friends. Food and drink are plenty, and there's a palpable air of excitement as watches are taken out of their iconic wooden cases.
The Pinoyristi organized themselves in 2004. Most of them are professionals, although membership is not exclusive. In fact, a person doesn't even have to own a Panerai watch to join in the discussions. The only requirement is a passion for the brand.
There was no shortage of passion at a recent Pinoyristi meeting. On one side of the room, a group discussed how old leather belts could be repurposed into spare watch straps. Right across, some men argued whether genuine patina (referring to the natural aging that turns the numerals from white to a shade of light or deep yellow) was superior to the "faux-tina" of newer watch models.
For those who have not yet had the pleasure of joining such an event, a visit to the website (paneristi.com) is the next best forum to experience this unusual devotion to all things Panerai.
Neither the site nor the Paneristi are officially sanctioned by Officine Panerai but the relationship between the Paneristi and Officine Panerai is symbiotic and special. Senior Panerai executives are known to engage members of the online forum, and it's an open secret that the company listens in on the conversations among the Paneristi for inputs on product development. Officine Panerai released a commemorative watch on the 10th anniversary of the global fan site, proof of the Paneristi influence on the brand.
Panerai traces its origin to Giovanni Panerai who set up shop in Florence in 18643. In the 19343s, Guido Panerai (Gionvanni's grandson) began producing tool watches (timepieces manufactured for specific occupational use), compasses, depth gauges, and other instruments for the Italian Navy (sterling examples of which have successfully been sold by auction houses such as Sotheby's, Christie's, and Antiquorum).
Through innovative Italian engineering, designs changed for the better. The numerals on the dial and the hands acquired improved luminescence (the mixture that used radioactive radium in Radiomir models gave way to the safer mixture used in the Luminor watches); the signature crown waterproofing mechanism, similar in function to notary seal application devices appeared; and eight-day watch engines were installed.
The Paneristi are eager to point out that the first Panerais were powered by movements made by the Swiss watchmaker Rolex. This bit of horological trivia adds to the mystique of early Panerai models such as the Marina Militare, Panerai Luminor, and Panerai Radiomir. These highly collectible vintage models are the holy grail of the Paneristi and fetch the highest prices at auctions.
In 1997, Panerai was bought by the Vendome group, which in turn is part of the Richemonte group that owns luxury watch brands such as Cartier, IWC, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Piaget, and Vacheron Constantin.
Rather than reinvent the brand, Vendome capitalized on Panerai's heritage and fanatical following. Vendome continued using the same distinctive Panerai designs but produced the watches in small batches. A small number of "limited editions" were minted with special movements or cases, following a shrewd marketing strategy common in the luxury watch business.
Considering the simplicity of the Panerai design, many wonder what it is about the brand that makes fully grown but otherwise rational men act like schoolboys at Paneristi events.
Perhaps Panerai's appeal lies in the military pedigree of the watch itself. Or in the simple lines and curves that evoke the art-deco influence of the period it was first created in. Or it could have something to do with the romance of wartime bonding a la Band of Brothers.
"I think [the appeal] lies in the strong sense of community the brand brings out among the Paneristi," explains Tim Lua, a Manila-based Paneristi. "It's a strong fraternity among like-minded individuals who help each other in the search for anything, such as a particular model or a certain strap."
Most of the time, however, the passion for the brand is driven by the simple law of supply and demand. As an anonymous enthusiast on the Paneristi website points out, "The modern Panerai has hit the nail right on the head when it comes to creating a cult watch with great collectibility. The watches have striking looks, and are produced in relatively small numbers."
Among the more collectible watches are reissues of classics like the Panerai 249 Radiomir Case 1936 with California Dial, which combines Arabic and Roman numerals on the watch face. Only 1,936 were made in homage to the year it came out. Another is the PAM 127 Case 1950, which is based on the first 47-mm model. Only 1,950 units were made.
Since 2006, Panerai has been issuing watches with movements created entirely in-house, a development that has raised the value of their watches among collectors.
However, not all collectibles are true to Panerai's roots as a robust military watch. Recent models with tourbillons—those highly complicated mechanisms that compensate for the effects of gravity—are highly prized among wealthy collectors, but are a cause of discomfort among the faithful.
The temptation to pander to the market and supply the growing number of collectors in China and emerging markets with investment-grade watches threaten to strain the brand's relationship with hardcore Paneristi.
Lua points out this worrisome trend: The watches are getting to be too expensive, that's why when they release a historic piece, collectors scramble to get one. In the process, there are not enough for the multitude of collectors, disappointing many in the process."
Success, for Panerai, is a paradox. If the brand chooses to bend to the market too eagerly, it may win big for its shareholders, but end up losing credibility among its most ardent followers. Only time will tell.
This story first appeared on Vault Magazine Issue 1 2011