Posted on July 01 2020
A Selection of Affordable Alternatives to this Classic Italian Divers Watch
I first discovered this cult Italian brand through its biggest celebrity fan. Like many other watch geeks, it wasn’t until Sylvester Stallone started wearing their watches that I really became aware of the company.
While strolling through Rome, looking for a watch to wear in the film Daylight, Stallone stumbled across a Panerai Luminor. He bought several watches and gifted some to friends, including the watch Arnold Schwarzenegger would go on to wear in Eraser.
The little known Italian military watch manufacturer was then introduced to the world outside of Italy. As Stallone said, “I immediately knew this watch had star power”.
The watches are certainly distinctive.
Their history plays a large part in that unique styling. The first Panerai, the Radiomir, was produced in very small numbers for the Italian Navy in the mid-1930s. Created for the Frogman Commandos, it was an over-sized watch with a cushion-shaped steel case. The California style numerals and indices were lumed and the wire lugs were welded to the 47mm case. The watches were hand-wound, water-resistant and came with a strap big enough to be worn over a diving suit.
Like the early pilot’s watches that I’ve highlighted in the past, the styling of the Radiomir was determined by the strict specifications required.
Panerai watches were used in WWII by the Italian Navy, and I remember seeing one on the Antiques Roadshow - it had been claimed as war booty by the guest’s grandad, having been taken from an Italian corpse. So there’s an authenticity to the brand, and most of their watches retain those original design points.
They’re still big. They’re still highly legible. And they’re still an acquired taste.
Unlike some of the other well-known luxury brands, there’s not a large selection of affordable Panerai style watches out there. This could be due to a combination of factors, including their recent court case against Chinese manufacturer Awsky and the bold styling of their watches.
I’ve noticed over the years that some nice watches are released that take inspiration from Panerai, but most of them don’t remain in production. I’m thinking about Rotary’s Elite 200M (eBay), Bulova’s EC900, and maybe also Shinola’s Brakeman (eBay). They all take something from the Italian classic, but they’re all discontinued.
Panerai has released a number of models through the decades, with the Radiomir and Luminor being the standout designs. I’m going to stick to the Radiomir here, and give you a selection of watches that take that first Panerai as inspiration. I’m not looking just at homages, but also watches with their own design elements mixed with that familiar Panerai DNA.
Spinnaker is a relatively young watch brand owned by Hong Kong-based manufacturer Dartmouth. I’ve already featured Spinnaker in a couple of posts as they offer quite a selection of watches at the price-point I like to shop in.
You’ll also be aware of a couple of other brands in their stable, the likes of Balast, Dufa and Avi-8 (See my detailed look at Avi-8 here). They’re affordable brands, produced in Hong Kong and readily available in the UK and US.
The Spinnaker range initially began as a series of designs based around sailing and the ocean. Although they’ve expanded that somewhat, the majority of their watches are still focused on this niche, with the Hull collection reminiscent of Panerai.
There are a number of variations of the Hull watch, all housed in a cushion case. My choice would be for the model that retains the simplicity of the early Radiomir designs. Although not a functional diver, it does boast a Japanese automatic movement and a hardened mineral crystal. Not bad specifications for a watch with an RRP of less than £200.
Spinnaker Hull SP-5071-01
British watch company Geckota is one of those cool smaller brands that I love to discover. Like a lot of these niche businesses, the brand’s story is the founder’s story. In this case, self-confessed watch geek Jonathan Quinn.
Based in Tewkesbury, Jonathon began as Watch Gecko, selling unbranded watch straps. From there he quickly grew the business to the fully-fledged watch brand it is today - managing to become carbon neutral along the way.
The brand’s range is much broader than Spinnaker’s and includes divers, aviation and racing models. The G-01 Vintage is from the dive line, and the most clearly vintage-inspired. However, it was the deep red dial that initially attracted me to this design. It manages to add bold colouring to the watch, while still retaining an understated aesthetic.
It’s this subtly that I find pleasing. It has an angular case, but it’s not oversized. The harsher edges are softened by the curved hands. The colourful dial isn’t overwhelmed by large numerals, and the vertical brushed pattern isn’t obvious until I take a closer look. It all works to evoke the style of an Italian divers watch, but each touch makes it a little more Geckota - like the Ostrich Leg leather strap.
A great watch from another Great British small business.
Geckota G-01 Vintage
This newer Chinese brand pays homage to a number of larger, older brands. Among their offerings, there are watches that remind me of Seiko, Rolex and IWC. Based in the Pearl River Delta, the company do make quite a broad selection of watches, with an emphasis on bronze models. What seems consistent is a strong retro styling.
Their take on the Panerai design is a very simple interpretation. It’s the Radiomir in its most basic form. No logo, no date, and no complications. A plain dial, with bold numerals, welded lugs and an over-sized crown.
This is a watch for the purist.
Overall, it’s more of a true homage than the other watches on the list. Without the San Martin branding, we’re left with a watch that is all about its appearance. Judged on that, and the decent specifications, I’d class this as a success. It looks like the classic Italian diver that it was based on.
San Martin SN041
Not since I featured Paneza in my list of Bauhaus watches have I been able to use the phrase ‘Australian watch company’. I’ve been a fan of Panzera for a while now, but this has been the first opportunity in a while to highlight the brand.
What is particularly appealing is that they use a mixture of Swiss and Australian talent. As they state “all critical processes are carried out in our workshops in Sydney Australia and Lugano Switzerland”. Each watch, with its individually engraved serial number, is then shipped direct from Australia.
On the whole, they specialise in large tool watches. They do 47mm pilots watches and 45mm divers - like the one above.
Part of the Aquamarine collection, this is a contrast to the San Martin. It’s a modern take on the Italian style, with a busier dial and the addition of a date window. All the small touches, the fonts and hands for example, are all contemporary. At 45mm, it’s also significantly bigger.
I quite like this contrast. The San Martin is for the purist, for those who want that mid-20th century look. The Atlantic is for those who want a large, prominent modern watch that gives the slightest of nods to history. There’s a place for both.
Panzera Atlantic Descent A45-01R
Having taken a closer look at Boss watches when writing my piece on Fashion watches, I stumbled across another design that stood out. The Cape Town has just enough of the Radiomir to draw comparisons.
Again, it’s a modern interpretation. I particularly like the blue textured dial and the orange that has been used sparingly. It’s significantly cheaper than the previous watches, coming in at less than £100. Unsurprisingly, it’s a quartz-powered model, with minimal water resistance and a mineral crystal.
It’s a very affordable and attractive piece, probably best suited to those who are already fans of the brand.
Hugo Boss Cape Town 1513410
Imagine having the CV of Brice Jaunet, founder of French company Briston. Following his education at Oxford University, he went on to work at Cartier, Baume & Mercier, Raymond Weil, and finally Zenith. He then created Briston.
Although the brand was only launched in 2012, there’s a wealth of watchmaking knowledge and experience invested in the business. Jaunet took this knowledge and combined it with his love of British and French culture. In their own words
“Briston is a French brand born out of a very British spirit”.
The result is a range of watches built around the cushion case, mostly variations on their Clubmaster design. So there’s Clubmaster Sport, Classic, Vintage, Diver and others.
Among my favourites is this simple design that has a strong military aesthetic. It’s a very straightforward and common use of colours. The ever-popular black dial with white text and markers, complemented by the leather strap. It’s a popular colour choice precisely because it works so well - especially on a vintage-inspired piece.
Despite working at luxury watchmakers, Jaunet’s mission was to produce affordable watches. So this Clubmaster is a quartz watch with modest specifications, priced above the fashion brands, but below most mechanical pieces. It’s part of the Classic line - which features a series of colourful and more complex models. But for me, this more conservative model is the most attractive.
Briston Clubmaster HMS
If you’ve browsed watches on Amazon, you’ll be familiar with Megir. This Chinese brand produces very affordable watches. When I say very affordable, that’s exactly what I mean. My regular order to Dominoes costs more than a typical Megir watch.
As expected, there’s not a great deal of unique styling with this model. It’s a fairly standard quartz watch in the style of a Panerai. There’s a number of variations on the theme, but again I prefer this reasonably plain option. The black case works well in contrast to the white textured dial, and it has both a Japanese movement and a mineral crystal.
I’ve been tempted by watches at this price-point just to see if I like the general style. Don’t know if a Tudor Black Bay would suit you? Buy a £30 Chinese look-a-like and give it a go. That’s probably a good way to approach this watch.
Megir Simplism M1046
Getat is another Hong Kong-based company that appears to have little more than their website. What they do offer, however, is the ability to customise your watch. All their options begin with a Panerai homage as the base.
From these main base models, this is my favourite. Again, it’s an early Radiomir design. There are options to choose when configuring your watch, including a choice of glass, strap, buckle and a SS or PVD case.
This specific model has a hand-winding Asian movement and a chunky 45mm case. Like the San Martin, this feels like the design is everything. There’s no branding, no interesting back story or founder. It’s just a simple mechanical watch based on an iconic design.
Whether it’s the large case and bold design, or the court cases brought by Panerai, there are not many homage designs on the market. Some of those I found have been discontinued, and most of the full homages are small Chinese manufacturers.
What’s maybe of more interest are the small brands that have taken a subtle inspiration from the Radiomir or Luminor. Or maybe not even that. The Geckota and Panzera just remind me of Panerai without actually replicating any specific parts of the Italian diver. Other than the case there’s not a great deal that the watches have in common. But it’s the general themes that I’ve been most interested in here.
I hope I’ve given you some pointers as to where to begin your search for a Panerai influenced watch. There’s a mixture of price-points and a healthy selection of movements, and as ever, feel free to add your thoughts below.