When you look at Panerai watches that have been modeled on their historical predecessors, and, like them, have stationary bezels and leather straps, do you ever wonder if frogmen really wore the original versions on their dives? After all, a rotating bezel and metal bracelet or rubber strap are now considered mandatory for dive watches.
Of course, there’s ample proof that military frogmen really did wear these early Panerais. But what were their missions like and how did it feel to be part of them? We searched for clues with an experienced frogman who is a member of the Historical Diving Society, an international organization dedicated to preserving and protecting diving heritage. He donned an old-fashioned diving suit and brought along vintage equipment. He also brought along the Panerai Luminor Marina 1950 3 Days Acciaio, which looks very much like a Panerai replica watches from the 1950s, so we could revive a bygone era and experience how the frogmen of yesteryear might have felt.
Panerai made its first prototype dive watches for Italian military divers in 1936. The watches, which became known as Radiomirs, went into production two years later. In the mid-1950s, Panerai introduced a new version with a curved, crown protection bridge. It became known as the Luminor. Until 1993, Panerais were sold only to the military. Before then, collectors who wanted a Panerai watch had to find one at an auction.
The Panerai Luminor Marina 1950 3 Days Acciaio that we took with us on our dive looks very much like its ancestor. Like the original, the watch has a 47-mm case and a crown protection bridge. The small seconds subdial is also true to the earlier model: around 1956, Panerai replaced the watch’s Rolex hand-wound movement, which had no seconds hand and a 36-hour power reserve, with an Angelus caliber that had a small-seconds display and an eight-day power reserve. Although our test replica watches has a power reserve of three days, we feel that it’s more than sufficient for a hand-wound watch.
Then as now, it’s important for a military diver to use a “rebreather,” which is a closed circulation diving device. It makes a long dive possible, while assuring that no telltale bubbles rise to the surface and give away the diver’s location. Unlike recreational divers, a military frogman doesn’t take a large tank full of pressurized air with him; he carries instead a smaller tank full of oxygen that, despite its smaller volume, enables him to stay underwater for two to three hours. The air that he exhales is treated with soda lime inside the device to prevent carbon dioxide retention. But the disadvantage of this system is that as the depth increases, breathing molecular oxygen at increased partial pressures can quickly lead to oxygen poisoning. This is why divers who use these devices can safely descend to only about six meters, a depth that’s relatively shallow yet great enough for most military missions. These divers typically swim for long stretches, remaining under water and thus out of sight, and only after they’ve swum well past enemy lines do they come ashore to conduct reconnaissance or blow up a bridge.
Knowing his location is crucial for a frogman. A bathometer or depth gauge, a compass, a sketch of the coastline’s contours and, of course, a cheap replica watches are important equipment for him. For our dive, in addition to his watch, Höner strapped onto his forearm an instrument to survey the beach. This piece of equipment allows him to gather and record cartographic data about a stretch of coastline, information that can be used to support amphibious landing operations by frogmen on subsequent missions. We decided to do without some other pieces of equipment carried by frogmen, such as weapons and explosives.