Panerai has a reputation for being the OG oversized watch. The Italian-born watchmaker, which manufactures in Switzerland, started a trend that began on the wrist of Sly Stallone in the 1990s and became a legitimate force in style by the early aughts. But more recent times have witnessed a reaction in the other direction – a shift toward smaller, less obtrusive wristwatches.
Panerai is still making plenty unabashedly oversized watches, with several coming in at 44 to 47 mm (and wearing even larger thanks to their cushion case shape and frequent use of large crown protectors). This kind of watchmaking is, if you’ll pardon the cliche, a part of Panerai’s watchmaking DNA.
But in 2016 we saw a curious twist in the company’s lineup. It came in the form of the Panerai Luminor Due replica, which incorporated sunray burst dial motifs and arrived on alligator straps looking far more dressy than any other Panerai to date. Measured across, these were still large watches, but thin movements were deployed in order to keep the overall thickness down. It seemed that the idea was for the Luminor Due to have the look of a tool watch matched with the elegance of a dressier and more refined timepiece. For years people had been wearing Panerais with suits – some pulling off the look better than others – but the Luminor Due was a Panerai that was expressly made to be worn that way.
This year in Geneva, we were treated to an evolution of the Luminor Due that comes as a 38mm automatic watch, and which is the smallest Panerai to date. When I wrote about it from Geneva earlier this year, I knew that I would want to take this one for a spin should the opportunity present itself, which just so happened to be the case this spring. When my test watch arrived, it came on a black alligator strap that was a hair too short for my 7-inch wrist, so I promptly put it on the green leather strap you here, which matched wonderfully with the green lume markers and numbers.
The Panerai Luminor Due 38 is a smaller version of the classic Luminor style case and dial that most folks think of when they hear the name Panerai. There is the cushion shape of the case, the prominent lugs, the raised bezel, and most importantly, the crown guard – a registered trademark of Panerai. Opening the crown guard gives you access to the crown, with which you can manually wind the movement inside as well as set the time and date.
This is in fact a brand new movement, the OPXXXIV, which is known as the caliber BM12-1975A when used by Baume & Mercier in its Clifton Baumatic. It’s hard to know at this very early stage how this movement will perform in the long run, but early reports of the Baumatic have been quite positive. It should be noted, however, that when Panerai uses this new caliber, which has been developed at the group level by Richemont, they opt for a conventional Nivarox hairspring rather than using, as Baume & Mercier does, one made from silicon. The Panerai version also has three days of power reserve, in contrast to the Baumatic’s five. There are two stainless steel options available: the sunray finished dark grey you see here and a white-dialed variation. There is also a rose gold version with a see-through back, which allows one to see how Panerai has taken a movement designed at the group level and finished it to look like a Panerai caliber.
The grey dialed version has a traditional sandwich type of dial – a welcome attribute that doesn’t come with certain entry-level Panerais such as the Luminor Base Logo. One thing you’ll notice if you turn this watch over is that its closed caseback has the look of being screwed in, but it’s not. This watch, like the two larger Luminor Due size watches, has a water resistance of just 30 meters. This less-than-diveworthy depth rating continues to be a point of criticism that some watch enthusiasts and reviewers have had with the Luminor Due.
I first encountered this 38mm Luminor Due during our Panerai appointment at SIHH. When it was placed in front of the assembled HODINKEE team members, the feeling toward this watch was immediately quite positive. It’s no secret that our house aesthetic as it pertains to watches tends to hew toward smaller sizes with an emphasis on vintage designs, and by gosh, if this new Luminor didn’t check both boxes in an emphatic way.
Still, I have to admit that I had my reservations about this watch at first sight. In theory, I liked the smaller form factor in a Panerai, but I also thought that large watches were always what Panerai was all about. A 47mm Patek Philippe or Rolex might look absurd, but not a Panerai. Large, cushion-shaped watches are a defining characteristic of Panerai, after all. So making a diminutive Luminor was an example of a watchmaker stepping outside of its field of expertise. It felt odd.
But in the course of handling the watch in that meeting and trying it on, I felt myself slowly warming up to it. And by the time I’d received this review example and put it on my wrist, the 38mm size was starting to feel right to me. (It’s certainly much more in line with the other watches I tend to reach for than the typical 44mm Panerai.) And by the time I was ready to take this 38mm x 11.2mm watch off and send it back to Panerai, I was convinced that in terms of pure wearability, this is now my favorite Panerai size. If you tend to go for vintage watches that come in at 40mm or below and aren’t expected to be terribly water resistant, this is a great watch to consider.
The construction of this watch feels every bit as robust as the more serious tool watches that Panerai is making nowadays, but customers should expect that much given the price tag of $6,000, a figure that is nothing to sneeze at. One issue that I found myself having with the Luminor Due 38 is that while it looks and feels the part, it falls short of being a proper tool watch. There are plenty of sub-40mm timepieces out there with 100 or 200 meters of water resistance. Why is Luminor Due, with its suggestive crown guard, a feature that tells everyone who sees it that this watch means business, rated to 30 meters?
However, viewed not as a tool watch per se, but as a dressy watch with a sport watch looks, this one is a winner. While not a chronometer – the base movement can apparently be regulated within the parameters of a chronometer, as Baume & Mercier does with the Baumatic – I found this Panerai running only about a second fast per day after syncing it to the atomic clock on the HODINKEE app on my iPhone X. That is excellent performance, and Panerai should be proud of it.
Now that we’ve covered what this watch is and what it isn’t, it’s perhaps useful to come back and talk once more about who this watch is for. Unequivocally, this watch is not for divers. But then, of all the modern watches that Panerai makes, only the Submersible, in its various permutations, meets the basic standards of a modern day dive watch. This watch is also not for swimmers and those looking for a watch that can survive a dip at the beach or the pool. When you survey the landscape of watches rated to 30 meters, what you are most likely to encounter are dress watches, various chronographs, and other models outfitted with complications that require pushers and pin adjusted functions. What this watch in fact is seems to be the realization of Panerai as the fashion icon that it first became, almost by accident, with the initial help of Sly Stallone. People have been dressing Panerais up and down in various contexts for decades now. And one of those contexts has been under a shirtsleeve with a jacket and tie. This is probably the first Panerai that I would confidently wear that way, and I would feel equally comfortable taking it to the beach, even if I wouldn’t dare swim with it.
While I think it’s a smart move that Panerai has chosen not to pigeon-hole its Luminor Due 38 as ladies’ piece, one can’t help but expect that this will also be an olive branch to female watch buyers who have thought about Panerai but found its offerings too big. It looked nice on my 7-inch wrist, but when I handed it to my fiancée at dinner and invited her to try it on, it looked fantastic on her considerably slimmer wrist.
After a week spent with the Panerai Luminor Due 38, I’ve come to the conclusion that while I enjoyed wearing it, and while I think it is among the best-proportioned Panerais out there, it’s not the first Panerai that I would purchase at this time. For me, that would be the Luminor Base Logo, which comes with an in-house movement and a swim-worthy 100 meters of water resistance. But if your wrist is smaller than than 7 inches around, and if you’re buying a Panerai primarily for style, then the Panerai Luminor Due 38 would be a very solid choice.