Keeping an eye on the time: new releases and bygone classics
by Richard Holt
To a person of the digital age, the phrase ‘annual calendar’ doesn’t necessarily sound very impressive. A calendar wouldn’t cause the most rudimentary of electronic devices to break sweat. But to do it with moving mechanical parts that need to account for irregular months and create a watch that only needs resetting once a year — at the end of February — is far from simple. For a grand old watchmaker like IWC to make a show of unveiling its first annual calendar goes some way to explaining what it means in watchmaking terms.
With the month, day and date shown in three separate, semicircular windows at the top, the in-house movement for the Portugieser Annual Calendar took IWC almost five years to develop. To provide the extra power used up by all that extra complication, the watch has two mainspring barrels, meaning it will go for seven days before it needs winding up.
The watch is released as part of the 75th anniversary of the Portuguese watch family, which IWC has renamed Portugieser for 2015.
The Volkswagen Beetle wasn’t meant to be stylish, it was conceptualised as a tool to bring motoring to the masses. But Ferdinand Porsche’s car became loved in a way that transcended its utilitarian brief – so much so that we are mostly too polite to mention Hitler’s backing.
The role of another dictator in the evolution of Panerai is similarly glossed over. Mussolini saw control of the Mediterranean as an essential part of his plans for a new Roman Empire. In order for his navy to execute sabotage operations, and coordinate well-planned rescue and attack missions, it needed divers equipped with watches that could work reliably under the harshest of conditions.
Florence-based Panerai had patented a radium-based substance that provided luminosity for various pieces of naval equipment. Then in 1936, following orders from the regime for a waterproof wristwatch with a dial that was legible in conditions of very low light, Panerai produced its first diving watch. The chunky, no-nonsense design later became known by the name of the glow-in-the-dark coating on its hands and hour markings: the Radiomir was born.
The development of diving watches continued for the next 20 years, culminating in the Radiomir Egiziano made for the Egyptian navy in 1956. When the military contracts dried up, watchmaking was put on hold. Then in the 1990s, Panerai began making watches for the public for the first time.
The response was great and the brand, aided by a bit of muscular Hollywood support in the form of Messrs Stallone and Schwarzenegger, became massive. But while the watches have been developed and kept at the cutting edge under the guidance of Richemont, which has owned Panerai since 1997, it is striking how close they have stayed to the original designs hewn from military imperatives.
Panerai has a fanatical following, with a group calling themselves the Paneristi sharing their passions in online forums.
A measure of the brand’s power is that it just had its first single-manufacturer auction, with Artcurial putting 100 historic watches in a Paris sale. Among the lots was a 1956 Radiomir Egiziano, which sold for the record-breaking price of €125,800.
A 1997 special-edition Radiomir (left), a tribute to the earliest model, sold for a record €103,500. Paying tribute to the sale’s star lot, Panerai CEO Angelo Bonati said: “The Egiziano has an extraordinary iconic value and its lines have provided us with the inspiration for our contemporary watches.”
Once merely practical, its products are now cherished.
To the older reader, or one with an eye on motor sport heritage, BRM would stand for British Racing Motors, the Formula 1 team that employed the services of such giants as Jackie Stewart, John Surtees and Niki Lauda and which, in 1962, won the world championships for drivers and constructors with Graham Hill behind the wheel.
But when the French motor racing enthusiast Bernard Richards formed his watchmaking company in 2002, the F1 team was a quarter-century defunct. With the addition of the word “Manufacture”, a new BRM was born.
The BT6-46 is produced in conjunction with Gulf, the oil company and motor racing sponsor, and has a bezel inspired by a Moto GP engine. As Monsieur Richards puts it: “BRM watches are custom-made and hand-finished in a pure racing spirit. A mass-produced BRM wouldn’t be a BRM any more.”