I first saw a Panerai watch on an airplane returning to Portland from an Orthopedic Surgery conference in Chicago during the winter of 1996. Panerai watches were rare among civilians having been used strictly by the Italian military during the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. They were not sold to the general population at all until the mid 1990s. A well-dressed, handsome, European man was stretching his legs in the aisle and reaching for something in his bag stored in the overhead compartment.
I caught sight of his left wrist. A soft-blue dress-shirt with the cuff rolled up revealed an utterly unique watch. Suddenly and with a declarative power of it being the only entity, at that moment, worth looking at, the Panerai hove into view. There was an immediate sense that this was unlike any previous watch that had entered my visual field. All else blurred into the background as my eyes lit on the rounded curves and angles of this gleaming tool from another era. My intellectual powers were relinquished under the spell of this object. Emotions within me kept peering out towards what looked like the strong curves of a woman in a military stance guarding a hidden gem beneath the crystal. A rich chocolate brown leather strap with white contrast stitching, in oiled distress, secured the watch to his wrist. It was large but not overly so. Proud to sit exposed yet obscured in its artistry, it was akin to an armored car in a dream by Picasso. There was a glorious presence to this piece. It sat slightly off-center on the wrist as he gripped his garment bag and reached in its pocket for a book.
Sitting across the aisle on the left of this passenger allowed me to hone in on the watch as he held his book reading. He was silently mouthing the “elegies” by Rilke in German. On his wrist, I could feel the natural Florentine flourishes bold and novel with no regard for subtlety taken over by Swiss intricacies internally and maybe polished up by the muscularity of an over-engineered German sensibility. The last part was an incorrect guess on my part, but it could have been, only it would be tighter with sharper angles. It was enough that the glowing lantern was born in Florence in a small workshop run by Giuseppe mining the possibilities for underwater illumination needed by the Italian navy frogmen. Radioactive paints coating large discs formed the base-plate over which a stenciled dial was laid allowing the torch-light illumination to shoot through the slits and crevices emblazoning underwater endeavors and sneak attacks. It now only required the Swiss movements within, a time-telling apparatus to move the hands of fate across the wide screen of the dial.
Having looked at and studied innumerable timepieces in my life, I have a specific taste in a sports watch and this was not it. It was not that this was not it, rather, it was that the it of my timepiece desires had not entered my awareness, therefore I had no idea yet what the it was to me. This timepiece hit me like an uppercut with a chaser of smelling salts. There was a specific quality that jumped out at me that I had not conceived of and this was followed by an overriding attraction that quickly enveloped me. I was reminded of castles with geometric turrets and clandestine drawbridges bypassing treacherous moats. There were control-levers and knight’s armor with crossed swords and monogrammed shields clashing with the scrape of steel on stone and the polished severing of human tissues in silence. I reverted to dreams of artillery shells raining onto bivouacs hidden inland under glacial palms.
This started as an almost obsessive fixation on the crown guard. Obsession is desire unhinged from reason. This can be rather unpleasant, or the obsession can lead to a sort of spiritual learning of the educational variety using a material object as a trajectory. With a watch, especially a vintage watch, the historical significance can generate a runner that encapsulates an era where vicarious transport takes one beyond the mere material appreciation of the object at hand. It was that type of experience, a feeling of being transformed, of having arrived in the presence of a watch whose entire package felt like home.
A heavy metallic outcropping adorned the crown-side of the case. It surrounded and enclosed the winding crown like a muscular steel extension of the body of the case with serious military aspirations. It spoke a new horological language to me. This crown-protector was full of bluster and serious attitude, artisanal in its soul, a proud tool for underwater battlefields stamped on its façade. The case itself had smooth, curvaceous shoulders and cushions as the lugs extended slightly downward forming itself to the wrist’s contours. It did not matter how I viewed this watch or from what angle my eyes came upon it, the crescent moon crown-guard drew me in with the intensity of a red-hot alloy being forged before my eyes. I imagined the curved arc of this brushed metal excrescence fluidly locking in the control point of the watch and then disengaging the lever to release the crown’s functions. As I allowed my eyes to climb up the medial aspect of the polished smooth bezel the sharp edge of the domed crystal became apparent as the periphery of the dial became distorted and slightly blurred by the fish-bowl effect of the sapphire. Again my attention was struck by the crescent steel guard proudly encasing the knurled edges of the movement control-wheel soundlessly shouting a masculine drum-beat, fortifying and barricading the only entrance for renegade fluids or particulate debris with designs on the internals of this manual-wind machine.
As my in-flight neighbor handed me the watch I was so obviously inspecting, and complemented me on my Omega Seamaster, I held this artfully created diving tool in my hands. It had a warm, charged, volcanic quality that started speaking to me in a novel lexicon of watches I had never experienced. The fierce attitude of the crown-guard leveled any strong feelings of minimalism in a dive watch I might have had, and awakened a shift in my desire towards a watch with an overt proclamation for its own existence and function. This was a trumpet-call, a sledgehammer crushing stereotypes and preconceived ideas of military timepieces designed for divers. I immediately became an Italian Frogman during WW II, immersed and directed towards a mission on my double-leg torpedo guided by the illumination of this firefly torch lighting up the depths.
As I now examined this Panerai watch, other qualities revealed themselves between surges of attention to the crown guard. There was the dial itself with a special simplicity to its Arabic indices at 12, 3 and 6 o’clock. Theses numerals and the stick-like indices for the remaining hours were cut outs in the dial with a yellowish substance showing through. The dial had stencil-like openings in the shape of hour indices to let another pattern show through. If I shined the light of my cell phone onto the dial it lit up brightly and glowed strongly. This was the luminor of its namesake inscribed on the top center of the dial.
The remainder of the dial had a power reserve indicator and a running seconds sub dial at 9 o’clock. Power reserve is a complication I find useful on a manual-wind watch. It serves to indicate if one needs to wind the watch soon. I do not see the need for a power reserve on an automatic timepiece yet one sees them frequently in this setting as well.
When I look at my watch I appreciate some indication that the watch is running. Many Panerai base models have no running seconds indicators and this offers a level of simple readability that I respect, but I still prefer to see the seconds tick by when I glance at the time.
After twenty minutes, I hand the watch back to my neighbor and give him kudos regarding his style. My watches are projections of the various selves I have assembled in the closet of my being. Childhood stories and memories form alloys with dreams and hooks of songs that recall scenes from films gelling together with overheard conversations and passages from novels growing extensions in imaginative shapes all congregating and assembling into the decisions of who I am at a given moment, and all this plays with the fire for that unique melting pot displayed to the world at large and if that results in a gracious complement regarding my watch that day I return a thankful nod with friendly eye-contact. The same applies to any source of identification especially when it transcends cultural boundaries. I indicate an acknowledgment that I too, respect Rilke’s work. He reapplies his Panerai to the wrist and I resume my book while sinking back into the music plying on my headphones. I close my eyes and fantasized about bygone eras. I imagined underwater missions, illuminated views of submarines surrounded by sea-organs voicing their own songs of the time.