Watches of the 21st century are probably better made (and often just better) than watches have ever been before. But the fact remains – with the odd exception such as the Hublot Big Bang – that the best-selling models of today are invariably marketed on a glorious past. Think of the Rolex Cosmograph Daytona, the Omega Speedmaster, the TAG Heuer Carrera, any Zenith with an El Primero movement, the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak, Patek Philippe’s perpetual calendar chronographs, the Breitling Navitimer.

The list goes on, of course, and certainly wouldn’t be complete without mention of Panerai, the historical maker of military watches for the Italian Navy that, prior to being bought in 1997 by the Vendome Group (now Richemont) had more or less sunk without trace.

Panerai CEO Angelo Bonati, who has led the brand throughout its transformation from horological non-entity to high-luxe watchmaker since the day of the Richemont buy-out, once told me how he quickly realised that the key to Panerai’s success was likely to lie in capitalising on its past and resisting any temptation to stray from the essential features that made its watches different from all the rest: variously, the sandwich dials, the cushion cases, the patented crown locking device and so on.

Panerai Mare Nostrum
The 2015 Mare Nostrum is closer than ever to the 1940s original
Panerai Mare Nostrum

He was clearly right and, as a result, Panerai products are made and marketed from a largely historical perspective – even though the original firm’s notable watchmaking history only spanned the period from the creation of its first military watch in 1936 to the late 1950s, with a certain amount of “down time” during and after WWII.

Yet the relatively tiny number of watches made during that short period have proved more than sufficient to fire the imaginations of the world’s Paneristi, and none more so (save, perhaps, for the “Egiziano’” of the 1950s) than the almost mythical Mare Nostrum chronograph – a watch that never actually made production in its original form.

“Mare Nostrum”, which translates as “Our Sea” and dates as a phrase from the successful conquests of Egypt and Spain by the Romans, refers to the Mediterranean waters in which the Italian naval fleet operated during World War II. It was adopted by Panerai as a name for the torpedo timers which formed a key part of its manufacturing business.

Panerai Mare Nostrum
An original Mare Nostrum prototype
Panerai Mare Nostrum

The story goes that the firm was asked to develop a chronograph wristwatch for the Navy’s deck officers in 1942 and, by the following year, had produced a small (but unknown) quantity of prototypes featuring a vast, 52mm steel case that contained an Angelus Calibre 215 column wheel chronograph movement, with an escapement operating at 18,000 vibrations per hour.

The dial was coloured an unusual “seaweed” green and protected by a synthetic crystal, while the simple brass hands, indices and Arabic numbers (at 12, 3 , 6 and nine) were coated with Panerai’s patented “Radiomir” paste to provide luminosity. A screw-down winding crown and case-back, meanwhile, enhanced the Mare Nostrum’s seaworthy credentials.

But the Allied invasion of Italy in September of 1943 put paid to the watch ever going into production. This would make the prototypes hugely collectable more than half a century later.

Examples rarely appear on the market, but probably the most significant one to be offered so far was sold at Christie’s Geneva in November 2005 and was bought back by Panerai itself for CHF 132,000 ($100,955). As well as serving as an important exhibit in the brand’s museum, it was also used as the template for a re-issue of the Mare Nostrum which was launched at SIHH in 2010.

Panerai Mare Nostrum
Original Mare Nostrum
Panerai Mare Nostrum

Limited to 99 pieces, the edition closely matched the original in terms of case size and material and used a Minerva-made movement of virtually the same specification as the Angelus, but which could be seen in all its well-finished glory through the modern-day addition of a sapphire crystal case back. Designated PAM 300, it retailed for around €25,000 and almost instantly achieved its own collectable status, with pristine “boxed and papered” examples now fetching double the original retail price.

The 2015 re-issue

That collectability was almost certainly a factor behind Panerai’s decision to launch another Mare Nostrum re-issue at this year’s SIHH. This time the case, while still 52mm in diameter, is made from brushed lightweight titanium rather than stainless steel. The dial, meanwhile, retains the original’s two-tier construction but is finished in a deep, chocolate hue complemented by a suitably chunky strap in brown leather.

Panerai Mare Nostrum
Panerai Mare Nostrum

The watch was the sensation of Panerai’s 2015 range, although some griped about the solid, screw-down case-back obscuring the hand-wound Minerva caliber, the same as in the previous re-issue and in last year’s special edition chronographs (Panerai alone, for reasons unclear, has a supply of Minerva movements despite the historic manufacture’s modern-day ownership by Montblanc).

Panerai Mare Nostrum
Panerai Mare Nostrum

Indeed, it does seem a shame for an owner not to be able to ogle that beautifully finished movement whenever the idea takes his (or her?) fancy – but there are those who will appreciate the “authenticity” of the solid back in terms of its respect to the original, 1940s design. In any event, it seems unlikely to prevent the 150-piece edition from selling out quickly, despite the rather hefty price tag of £29,700 (which, on past performance, might even seem like a bargain in 10 years time).

Panerai Mare Nostrum
Panerai Mare Nostrum

The Essentials

Panerai Mare Nostrum Titanio

Price: £29,700
Case material: Brushed titanium
Movement: Panerai OP XXV hand-wound Minerva chronograph
Diameter: 52mm
Power reserve:55 hours
Limited edition: 150 pieces


The "pre-Vendome" Mare Nostrum

If that’s too high a price but you still fancy the idea of having a Mare Nostrum on your wrist, there is a potentially less expensive way of doing so: by buying one of the more practically-sized versions produced between 1993 and approximately 2000.

These watches began as an attempt by the pre-Vendome Panerai to return to watchmaking under the guidance of former Naval officer Dino Zei after a lull (save for the creation of a single prototype made in 1988) of more than 30 years. To this end, it produced a range of smaller, 42mm Mare Nostrum chronographs for general sale which were powered by ETA 2801-2 movements fitted with a Dubois Depraz chronograph module.

Between 1993 and 1997, 492 are believed to have been made, and it is this model that supposedly drew the brand to the attention of Sylvester Stallone, who ordered a further 100 to dish-out to his friends in Hollywood. The standard production versions of these so-called “pre-Vendome” Mare Nostrum watches are distinguishable by their toothed, engraved bezels which are marked with “Km/h”, whereas the post-Vendome pieces – of which there were 398 made – have smooth-edged bezels engraved with the word “tachymetre”.

Panerai Mare Nostrum
A "Pre-Vendome" Panerai Mare Nostrum (Antiquorum)
Robert Atkinson / Atkinson Inc

The pre-Vendome (1993-1997) pieces tend to be the most sought-after by collectors: those preserved in excellent, original condition can sell for up to £10,000. In reality the post-1997 watches were probably better made having been subject to the rather stricter quality control of Vendome/Richemont, but fetch a similar amount.

Whether or not either deserves to carry the Mare Nostrum name is, however, debatable - especially if you believe that bigger really is better.

To find out more about the 2015 Panerai Mare Nostrum, click here.