There are reasons why people love and wear their watches.  Maybe their watch has some emotional connection to an event in their past, maybe it was a gift, and if you are like us (watch nerds) you simply love having a useful mechanical toy on your wrist that also has style. While I usually readily understand my fellow watch enthusiasts, I will be the first to admit that initially I did not understand the subgroup of watch nerds who are quite frankly fanatics of the Officine Panerai brand, otherwise known as the “Paneristis”.

If you are not familiar with this breed of watch lover, just spend a few minutes perusing the Paneristi forum and I pretty much guarantee that you will leave the site astonished, if not perplexed, by the genuine enthusiastic and frequent posts from Paneristis all over the world.  They discuss every model, post pictures, speculate on new models, give advice to newbies, and even frequently throw parties (all over the world) where fellow Paneristis come for a good time, make friends, and of course show off their beloved Panerai models…

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[youtube] Paneristi club of Malaysia

I was simply blown away when I discovered the Paneristis and did not understand why they existed in the first place. Also mesmerizing was why Panerai, a relatively newly revived watchmaking company with limited styling, had become such an iconic brand? That is, I was ignorant, until I got my first Panerai…  In this post I will review my Panerai Luminor 1950 GMT or PAM 321 while attempting to shed some light onto the Paneristi movement.  While I don’t consider myself a member of the “cult” yet, I do now have a learned appreciation for the brand and its products and I believe I also understand what the passion is all about — or at the very least I will share with you my opinions on the subject.

As I mentioned, Panerai, like many other watchmaking brands and for a variety of reasons, had a discontinuous history.  The company started in Florence (Firenze) in 1860 where Giovanni Panerai setup a watchmaker shop and sold maritime equipment.  In the early part of the previous century Panerai’s roots in horology were cemented as they became the supplier of watches for the Italian Navy.  At that time, Italian frogmen would use their watches to time and synchronize attacks and in some cases even mount torpedoes that they would navigate to bring down docked enemy ships.  Having a personal time instrument that you could wear and see underwater was a must for these operations and Panerai provided just that with their large watches which included a patented luminescent radioactive material: radiomir.

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Original Panerai store in Florence, Italy

Working with Rolex, Panerai helped develop some of the initial water resistant timepieces.  Earlier Panerai models even included Rolex movements…  However, maybe due to Italy’s loss in World War II or due to the quartz crisis of the 70’s, or maybe a bit of both, the brand pretty much disappeared…  What happens next is well documented, but suffice to say that American actor and noted watch enthusiast and collector Sylvester Stallone gave the brand a boost of life by wearing a Panerai in one of his movies and by sporting the watches on the red carpet and during interviews.  What followed was the acquisition of the company by the Richemont Group and its flourishing, aided by the fanatical Paneristis and online forums.  Jake’s Panerai World blog has a thorough account of the Panerai history, including the Rolex connection, that I recommend the interested reader peruse for details and illustrations.

While the somewhat romantic history with the new Hollywood tie-in would make for a great movie, it doesn’t promise a great watch. I really wanted to understand what was so special about Panerai and its watches, especially after seeing my cousin Alain, a medical doctor in Miami, and someone I truly respect, constantly sporting one.  There must be a deeper set of reasons that some guys (and even gals) are attracted to the brand and become obsessed with it.  After wearing my PAM 321 for a week straight during part of my winter vacation, I think I finally cracked the mystery…  but first let me describe the PAM 321 and the common design language that it shares with all Panerai models.

Similar to many successful watchmakers, Panerai follows a common style and design language for all of its watches.  The most common traits are: a large cushion case, highly legible and simple dial with super-legible font, and a flexible assortment of straps.

On my PAM 321, the case is the so-called 1950 case which is a cushion case formed from a solid block of brushed stainless steel.  The crown is polished steel and is protected by the unique-to-Panerai crown protecting device which helps make the watch watertight.  Essentially it’s a half-crescent crown guard (tight seal device) of brushed steel that entirely covers the crown except for a small lever that when pulled (with nail or finger) releases the crown.  Once released, the crown can then be pulled and turned.  It’s an ingenious device that has become a defining visual differentiator for the brand and that is now trademarked by Panerai since the 1960 patent rights have long expired…

Like most Panerai watches, the PAM 321 is quite large at 44mm and sits high at 19mm.  It’s not for small guys though I have seen various pictures on the Paneristi forum of what appears to be smaller guys and even women wearing 44mm and even larger Panerai models…  For me, on my almost 7 1/2 inch wrist, the 44mm case seats perfectly as the lugs are curved down without overpowering my wrist.  The black alligator strap that came with it is high grade and looks to be machine stitched in white.

Perhaps the most incredible part of the PAM 321 (and of many Panerai watches) is its amazing legibility, day or night.  This is the result of the sandwich dial construction where the hour markers and the 12, 6, and 9 hour marks are filled with Panerai luminescent that simply shines with a little bit of charge.  Historically, Panerai has had various innovations in that space, including using radium-based luminescent, which was replaced by the non-radioactive luminor material which gives the series its moniker.  The legibility is so good that simply using it during the day, you will get all night legibility… so it’s the perfect watch to sit on your night table.  Aiding in that legibility is a nicely domed sapphire crystal on top of the grandfather clock-like simple dial with the Panerai unique font that can be read from a distance.

Using the included tools (strap change and flat screwdriver) I can quickly change to the provided black rubber strap.  It gives the watch a more sporty look and turns it into a veritable “diving” watch.  While not a real diver (no rotating bezel, though it is 300m water resistant) I had no issues with it at the pool and at the beach where I used it, to the dismay of my younger brother Laurent, as my preferred snorkeling watch as we hunted, off the waters of Montrouis, for lionfishes (Pterois)—a predatory species that has invaded the waters of the Atlantic.

While using the PAM 321 for snorkeling or diving is making use of the watch in the context of its historical roots, the ability to easily, quickly, and precisely change straps means that I can modify the character of my PAM 321 in an instant to match my outfit or the current situation.  The provided alligator strap is great for office work while the rubber works well for the ocean or the pool…  however, the beauty of owning Panerai watches is acquiring third party straps while at the same time completely changing your watch.

There are literally 1000’s of aftermarket straps available for all Panerai models.  They are sold from all over the world, some starting as low as a few dollars and some reaching well into the $1K range.  The materials vary from calf leather (new or distressed and everything in between) to alligator and crocodile, and to more exotic leathers such as stingray, sharks, reptiles, ostrich, and many more.  The available colors are multitudinous and the comfort level will vary with the material and construction. For mine, I was able to acquire a set of distressed calf leather Big Belt straps from TimeRepublic vendor on eBay for about $60 each (with shipping) and with a pre-V (pre-Vendome) buckle included.

And of course, this is not mentioning official Panerai straps and bracelets that you can also purchase.  At the Panerai store in Bal Harbour, FL, for significantly more money, I was able to add the legendary assolutamente deployment strap to my collection as well as a rare brushed stainless steel bracelet.  Both are very hard to find at authorized dealers (ADs) or on eBay.  As mentioned, each strap simply completely changes the watch as if I had purchased a new watch.  This is also from comments of friends and family during my vacation where I used the watch daily.  With the stainless steel bracelet, I essentially converted my PAM 321 to a PAM 347 since the bracelet is the only difference between the two models.

On top of all of that, the PAM 321 comes with the in-house P.9002 automatic movement which includes some interesting and useful features.  First, the PAM 321 is C.O.S.C certified and comes with an exhibition caseback that shows the 3/4 plate movement decorated with blue screws and rubies.  The decoration is not overly done which works well for the main tool character of the watch.  The movement is a GMT where the hour hands (when the crown is released and pulled to position one) will change quickly in jumping fashion.

Interestingly, the GMT hand is colored the same as the dial and is thin such that by moving the hour hand above it, you can hide the GMT hand and convert the PAM 321 to a non-GMT watch.  This is unlike what is usually possible with other GMT watches where the GMT hand makes one revolution of the dial in 24 hours.  The date changes when the hour hand makes two revolutions of the dial.  However, one drawback here, highlighting that this is not a “real” GMT watch, is that you don’t easily know if the GMT hand is indicating AM or PM.  Some Panerai models, e.g., PAM 270 and PAM 335, include an additional AM/PM indicator using the P.2003 movement.

Two additional features of this movement are the quick reset seconds and the 3-day power reserve indicator.  First, by releasing the crown and pulling it to the second position, you can move the minutes hand and the GMT hand.  However, what is cool is that once you pull the crown to that second position, the seconds hand immediately moves to zero and the movement stops.  This allows you to precisely set the current time to a reference time.  No longer do you need to wait for the seconds hand to reach 60 in order to stop it and set it accurately. The P.9002 movement does that for you automatically.

Finally, the PAM 321 has a 72 hour power reserve with an indicator at 4 o’clock that uses a typical Panerai lumed hand (similar to the seconds hand) moving across a marked semicircle indicating zero to 72 hours.  The indicator interferes slightly with the GMT hand when the lumed arrow head travels across it, however, that is a small price to pay to quickly know that you should wear or wind the watch.  I also found the power reserve indicator to be accurate, showing exactly 36 hours remaining when I fully charged the watch and left it on my Wolf Designs watch winder with a 36 hours start delay.

As mentioned, I wore the PAM 321 in various contexts: at the pool; socializing; at parties; and even snorkeling and skin diving at the beach.  What became clear after that week is that I think I finally “got” what makes Paneristis so mad about their Panerai watches.  It’s a passion that develops from having a watch with unique style that is versatile (myriad of available third party straps that can be changed easily), that is legible (simple, super clear dial and fonts with amazing lume), and that has a strong presence on the wrist that is difficult to match with any other watch.

With such a strong cult-like following, the demand for Panerai watches keeps getting stronger with some models selling out completely after they are introduced.  The PAM 321 reviewed here is an 2012 N series which is limited to 2000 units and retails for  $9,800.  The PAM 347 which is the same model but with the bracelet is priced at $10,600.  Since the bracelet is hard to find and retails at the Panerai store for $2,400 (when you can find it!), I’d recommend getting the PAM 347 if you like steel bracelets or would be thinking of getting a bracelet in the future.  The main disadvantage of the bracelet is adding 60 grams to an already somewhat heavy case that weighs in at 140 grams without straps.

I am now so happy with my PAM 321 that I am considering adding a Submersible 47mm version to my list of future timepiece acquisitions…  And believe me that after I got the PAM 321, I thought this would be my first and last Panerai, since at the time, in my eyes they all looked the same.  Now I see each model and I quickly lust at the additional features or slight differences.  You can say I caught the ‘risti bug…

Necessary Data
>Brand: Panerai
>Model: Luminor 1950 GMT (PAM 321)
>Price: $9,800
>Size: 44mm x 19mm (53mm lug to lug)
>Weight: 165g with leather straps, 200g with steel bracelet (with about three links removed), and 140g just the case
>Would reviewer personally wear it: Yes
>Friend we’d recommend it to first: the guy who wants a versatile watch and who is built average to big.  Smaller guys can wear this watch but I am guessing not all smaller guys will enjoy the extra weight and size on their wrist.
>Worst characteristic of watch: hard to tell the exact minute in between the minute markers (5 minutes increment).
>Best characteristic of watch: versatility, legibility, and presence on the wrist.

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