Panerai Mare Nostrum PAM00008
You could be forgiven for thinking the watch I'm holding right now is a fake. After all, it says 'Panerai' on it, yet looks nothing like the Radiomir or Luminor shapes the brand has become famous for. I can assure you, however, that this is a legitimate Panerai model, and not just any Panerai model—the Panerai Mare Nostrum is one of the most mysterious Panerai has ever made.
Watch our video review of the Panerai Mare Nostrum PAM00008
Like all Panerai watches, there's an element of heritage to the design of the Mare Nostrum. Latin for 'Our Sea', the Mare Nostrum was first developed as a 1943 prototype, but never made it to active service. It was 52mm in diameter, steel, and ran on an Angelus calibre 215.
And that's about all that's known about it. In fact, that's more than is actually known about it, because even the date of the prototype's creation is hotly debated. Whilst Panerai insists the Mare Nostrum can be traced back to 1943, the case style bears closer resemblance to the Panerai dive instruments of the 1950s.
Either way, nobody knows for sure, and that's because almost all the records of the Mare Nostrum were destroyed when Florence, home of Panerai, flooded in 1966. All but one photographic plate. If it wasn't for that, the prototype that surfaced at auction in 2005 may well have been dismissed as fake.
The Mare Nostrum was first developed as a 1943 prototype, but never made it to active service
So, what was the Mare Nostrum supposed to be exactly? Panerai made diving instruments, but the Mare Nostrum was a long way off being water resistant with those unsealed pushers. The chronograph hands didn't even have Panerai's patented luminous paint on them, so use underwater was well and truly out of the question. The original also had a plain bezel, so it wasn't even used for measuring speed like most chronographs.
The clue's in the name, 'Mare Nostrum'. 'Our Sea'. It was what the Romans called the Mediterranean, a name revived by Benito Mussolini as part of his campaign to reclaim the old empire. It's a name that also appears on Panerai torpedo timers manufactured for the Italian Navy, and suggests that the wristwatch would have had a similar use: as an officer's deck watch, for timing manoeuvres.
But the end of the war put an end to the Mare Nostrum. The watch just wasn't needed anymore. And by the seventies, with the last of the founding family, Giuseppe Panerai, having fallen ill, the doors of Panerai itself were about to close. The Italian Navy had other ideas, however, keen to maintain a supply of diving instruments, and so naval engineer Dino Zei was placed in charge of the company.
Mare Nostrum was what the Romans called the Mediterranean, a name revived by Benito Mussolini as part of his campaign to reclaim the old empire
Zei worked to develop a replacement for the Luminor, a titanium prototype deep dive watch, however it never came to fruition. The military contract dried up, and Panerai fell into hibernation.
It was with the rise of vintage Rolex collecting in the 1990s that Zei sensed an opportunity. Many of Panerai's military watches had been built by Rolex and ran Rolex movements, and so Panerai was being picked up on collector's radars.
Using the historical records that had survived the flood, Zei produced three reissue watches: the Luminor, the Luminor Marina, and the Mare Nostrum. While the records for the Luminors were more thorough than the single photographic plate used to style the Mare Nostrum, Zei still used a little creative license to modernise the designs. The Luminor case become more angular, while the Mare Nostrum gained a tachymetre on what should have been a plain bezel.
Inside the PAM00008 beats an ETA 2801-2 with Dubois Depraz chronograph module
But the biggest and most fateful change for the Mare Nostrum was a reduction in size by a centimetre, down to 42mm, while the Luminor only shrank 3mm from 47mm to 44. So, when Hollywood actor Sylvester Stallone strolled into the boutique one sunny afternoon, looking for a large watch and intrigued by the ones on display in the window, it was the Luminor that found his favour. He went on to wear it in the movie 'Daylight', and the rest is history.
Imagine, then, if it was the Mare Nostrum that had carried the larger case size. Stallone had been impressed by the heft of the Luminor—this was a time when 40mm was about as big as watches got—so if the watches had been proportioned correctly to each other, it could very well have been the Mare Nostrum gracing jeweller's windows across the world today.
If it wasn't for that one photographic plate, the Mare Nostrum could have disappeared completely
But they weren't, and so it doesn't. Zei's success with Panerai lead to a buyout in 1997 by Vendôme—now Richemont—who carried on the Mare Nostrum until the existing parts were used up. As seen here, the design was modified slightly to move the minute track to the outside of the dial, and a step was added to the bezel—but the case was the same, as was the ETA 2801-2 with Dubois Depraz chronograph module. It was to be the last Mare Nostrum for over a decade.
It's almost a miracle that Panerai exists today, let alone the Mare Nostrum. The classic, unmistakable shape of the Luminor—and some good luck—secured the brand's destiny, throwing the mysterious Mare Nostrum into the shade. Forever stuck in a transitional period—first the shift of the world from war, and then the changeover of Panerai itself from family ownership to that of Dino Zei—the Mare Nostrum clings on to the Panerai legacy by just a few special editions. If it wasn't for that one photographic plate, it could have disappeared completely.
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