Dino Zei (1931-2015) was one of the great figures of world watchmaking.
A former Italian Navy officer and CEO of “G. Panerai & Figlio” from 1972, in the 1990s he reinvented the concept of men’s watches with models such as the Luminor, Egiziano, Radomir and Mare Nostrum, some of the most iconic timepieces of our era.
Dino Zei signed the Nautilo, Notturnale, Aeronauta, Argonatua and Glauco models, as well as the beautiful San Marco, the true pinnacle of the collection and perhaps one of the most beautiful “technical” watches ever made, created thanks to the Renaissance genius of Antonio Ambuchi, a learned and imaginative watchmaker.
In the words of Antonio Dini (from the book): “The year was 1860, twelve months before the unification of Italy and five years before Florence became the seat of government.”
Giovanni Panerai (1825-1897) opened a small shop in the Tuscan capital, where he made mechanical devices, including timepieces.
The shop, first on Ponte alle Grazie and then opposite the Baptistery in Piazza San Giovanni (where it still is today), was one of the first watchmaker’s shops in Florence and a historical Rolex dealer. It was named “Orologeria Svizzera”.
The founder, Giovanni, left the business to one of his sons (Leon Francesco) and, in particular, to his grandson Guido (1873-1934), who in the late nineteenth century transformed the company into an efficient precision engineering enterprise, with the Italian Royal Navy as its main customer.
From 1936, a few hundred watches were supplied for the “Frogman Commandos of the 1st Submarine Group Command of the Italian Royal Navy”.
The watches made by Panerai had to be simple.
They were based on cases specially produced by Rolex, which had already made some watches with the “oyster” waterproof sealing system and a 47mm square case, and retained some seminal concepts for the development of the case of his diving watches in the post-war period.
The watches by Panerai (which changed its business name several times until it became G. Panerai e Figlio) had to be simple because they had to be practical.
They had huge dials for ease of visibility under water and were designed to be worn on a wetsuit, with luminous indicators, thanks to the use of a slightly radioactive substance (Radiomir, a mixture of zinc sulphide and radium bromide patented by Panerai in 1916, and later Luminor), an innovative “sandwich” dial, making the watch even more practical, and a crown protected by an arched bridge with pressure closure, which was also patented.
In addition to the Italian Navy, immediately after World War II, Panerai also produced a small quantity of watches for the Egyptian Navy.
Supplies ran out during World War II.
Over the following years, the company became one of the top technology suppliers for the Italian Navy and made some systems that are still in use today.
These include an optical landing system for helicopters, used on Italian and US naval ships as well in numerous types of civil installallation. The 1990s, following the crisis in the military sector due to the fall of the Berlin Wall, Panerai explored new avenues to diversify its activities.
The company was led from the 1970s by an unusual manager: Dino Zei, an engineer and Naval colonel, who had strong support from the company’s owners and the Navy as a guarantee of the continuation of activities after the death of the last male heir of the Panerai family.
Zei saw the possibility of relaunching G. Panerai e Figlio by marketing the sports watch brand with the large dial at a time when fine watchmaking was recovering from the shock of quartz watches and in search of new models and paradigms for its products.
There was no longer a demand for “ultra-slim” and tiny watches that proved the miniaturisation skills of the Swiss watchmakers, as these had been surpassed by the nanometric dimensions of the integrated circuits in quartz watches.
Instead, the “ultra big” arrived, with dials of 42, 45 and even 47 mm diagonally.
The newly born Officine Panerai immediately became one of the leading exponents of this prevalently, if not exclusively, male object.
“There are three main elements that make up a luxury mechanical watch,” said Dino Zei, “namely, the movement, the precision machining of the case and the design, and we immediately saw that we could not compete with the Swiss regarding the first of these.
However, we could create unique and superior watches, both in terms of materials and case production methods and of the design of the object.”
“And so it was: Panerai’s innovation efforts were aimed at gaining success with what was available and managing to excel.
Innovation, however, was not enough. Panerai was in debt and lacked the money to finance the development and growth of the watches. Thus, the newly born business unit was sold to the Swiss group Vendôme, now part of Richemont, owner of dozens of other luxury watch brands, which would make it an absolute phenomenon over the next twenty years. Officine Panerai watches become one of the most desired brands in the world, launched with the fame of the Italian commandos (and the model of a “maiale”, the slow-running torpedoes, or “SLCs”, manned by Navy divers, which became a standard gadget in the packaging of the first watches).
At the time of the rebirth of Panerai watches, Zei was working with Calamai Alessandro and Antonio Ambuchi, an extraordinarily versatile designer and craftsman who was responsible for dozens of intriguing timepieces and a true Enrico Salgari of Florentine watchmaking.
Ambuchi and others acted as a “bridge” between Zei and a former Ferragamo manager, Federico Massacesi, who decided to start his own business in 1997 and founded a company to produce watches for himself and for third parties with the artisans of the Panerai production chain.
To emphasise that the watches were made with a focus on content rather than brand, and to evoke the idea that they were made by the “anonymous artisans” behind the great brand that was now in Swiss hands, Massacesi decided to call the company “Anonimo”.
A few years later, Dino Zei was once more drawn into the orbit of watchmaking, also because of a book dedicated to Panerai, which he wrote in order to face history and set the record straight: Panerai was much more than a producer of watches for the Navy during the war.
In fact, the watches were an important business due to the fact that the company produced much more.
A good rapport developed between the two men, Zei and Massacesi, and the development manager, Antonio Ambuchi, designed various models under the “Anonimo – Dino Zei” brand name.
Thus, a brand that was making an excellent name for itself as a high-quality niche producer (watches costing between five and ten thousand euros) managed to become even more exclusive.
Alongside the iconic Anonimo watches (Millemetri, Militare, Polluce, Marlin and Professionale – GMT, above all), the watches designed by Dino Zei – Nautilo, Aeronauta, Argonauta, Glauco, Notturnale and the beautiful San Marco, the true pinnacle of Anonimo production – also carved out a role for themselves.
The company produced small batches of a few hundred numbered pieces, experimenting with different materials (it was the first to use bronze from ship propellers for its cases and cutting-edge machining technology).
It collaborated with the National Divers’ Cooperative (CNS) and conducted research, development and tests with surface-supplied divers, whose work involved diving in extreme environments, where pressure, salt water, hydrocarbons and solvents require innovative solutions.
At best, about 3,500 units were produced per year, with Eta, Sellita, Soprod and Dubois-Depraz movements.
Anonimo produced about 96 models in limited series, both directly and through the Dino Zei models, plus various special series, making a total of 25-28 thousand timepieces produced over a 15-years period
The company, however, still did not do well. It changed hands and was purchased by Firenze Orologi, which sought to breathe new life into the headquarters, built above the Ambuchi family’s artisan workshop in Lastra a Signa.
Success exploded when the Internet began to feature celebrities who wore Anonimo watches, discovering that Tom Cruise, the rock band Kiss, the lead singer of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and model Heidi Klum all wore a “Nimos”, as Dino Zei watches are referred to by Americans.
These Hollywood stars, singers and celebrities wear them not as sponsors but for passion.
Dino Zei, a gentleman of over 80 years of age, proceeded slowly along his course in life.
He lived on Viale dei Colli di Firenze, not far from Porta Romana, in poor health and left a widower by the sudden loss of his beloved wife, Vera.
Intelligent, lively and attentive, he had a great intuitive capacity.
His name is etched in the memory of thousands of enthusiasts.
I met him in his home in Florence at around lunchtime on 12 April 2012.
I was brought there by Antonio Ambuchi and we had a long interview that I transcribed but never used, as I only needed it as a background for a couple of pieces about the company that I wrote that year.
However, the impression left by that encounter has remained vivid: the feeling of meeting a man of rare talent, cut from different cloth that is no longer found, at least not in our country.”
In the post-war years, the Ambuchi family in Lastra a Signa produced watch cases for third parties, supplying primary clients, such as BINDA in Milan. In the 1990s, Antonio Ambuchi, successor to the family tradition, also introduced case assembly, assembling them with the components that complete the watches.
He worked together with an important artisan from Florence, Fabiano Alessi, who was able to perform the delicate casing-up operation.
The CORO company was born, which relied on the years of experience of the Ambuchi family, together with the mechanical skills of Alessandro Calamai, who took care of the manufacture with the extremely high-precision mechanical workshop of Valerio and Gianluca Gervasi, and of assembly and testing with his brother, surveyor Leonardo Calamai.
CORO worked for brands such as LOCMAN and JULIUS LEGEND, of the late Sandro Secci (which then passed to ULYSSE NARDIN), until it was awarded the contract to make PANERAI watches in 1996.
When the PANERAI brand passed to the Vendôme Group (already owned by Cartier), CORO, having passed the Swiss quality tests, completed the supply of PANERAI watches to the VLG house.
After this setting-up phase, CORO was reorganised to the benefit of the ANONIMO company and brand in Florence. In addition to its own collection, ANONIMO implemented a model designed for PINEIDER, which, through a company owned by Alessandro Calamai and Paolo Cassinelli, who thought up the initiative, was given as a gift to the heads of state participating in the 2001 G8 summit in Genoa. This unique, personalised timepiece bore the prestigious brand name Stradivari 1715, granted by the Museo Degli Archi in Cremona, where the Stradivari 1715 violin, known also as “Il Cremonese”, is preserved.
This perfect instrument has been played by violinists such as Salvatore Accardo and Sergej Krilov during other events organised by Calamai and Cassinelli, beneath the triptych by Masaccio in the Pieve of Cascia, in honour of the Carabinieri killed in Nassiriya and during the traditional RAI Christmas concert in 2002.
The focus of the Florentine mechanical factories, which are now controlled by Dado Seabull Nautica, is to give continuity to the DINO ZEI brand. Benefitting from 60 years of watchmaking experience inherited from those who, in various roles, have shared the fortune of the brands and initiatives mentioned above, they are recreating not just a factory but a tailoring shop for watches, still artisanal in terms of its numbers and certain production steps.
A new way of understanding of watches is born.
They are no longer seen merely as high-precision mechanical products, but as the result of the skills of particular people, who, together with the philosophy of Dino Zei (quality, precision and planning), bear witness to a story that is a summary of experience, taste and technique, as with all things Made in Italy