Rolex, Panerai and The Nazis

Non Rolex brand Panerai 3646 Type D, made for Nazi swimmers

While researching the lack of Panerai modders (as opposed to Rolex modders), I stumbled across an article by the improbably named Jose Pereztroika at perezcope.com. Modified Panerai 3646 with Solid Lugs opened my eyes to an important chapter in the history of Panerai and Rolex. It starts with a confrontation between Italian watchmaker Giuseppe Panerai and Nazi Lieutenant Commander Heinz Schomburg . . .

All of a sudden, Giuseppe heard the loud noise of heavy trucks stopping in front of his house. Seconds later he spotted armed German soldiers storming into his courtyard and surrounding the building. Giuseppe’s worst nightmare had become reality! . . .

Four German soldiers immediately stormed into the building pushing the two employees aside, followed by Lieutenant Commander Heinz Schomburg. Giuseppe knew this man.

Schomburg was in charge of the Kampfschwimmers, the German combat swimmer unit that was receiving practical training from Decima MAS members who remained loyal to the Axis. Giuseppe recalled several unpleasant encounters with Schomburg.

Schomburg came for the first time to Florence to collect a batch of underwater watches that had been ordered and paid for by Decima MAS. Giuseppe later received information that the whole lot had been distributed among the German unit. The Decima MAS had not received a single watch.

Three weeks later, Schomburg showed up again and requested 300 watches and dozens of compasses.

Giuseppe Panerai - Nazi collaborator?

Giuseppe [above] couldn’t believe his ears but as the accountant he was, he told Schomburg the approximate sum this order would cost. Visibly annoyed, Schomburg unbuckled the holster of his Luger pistol to intimidate Giuseppe.

“There will be no payment, Panerai.”

Giuseppe was shocked. Schomburg also threatened Giuseppe if the deadline was not met, he would be considered a saboteur to the interests of the Third Reich and face severe consequences, including his family.

Before we take a closer look at this account of Panerai’s interaction with the Nazis it’s important to consider Mr. Pereztroika’s disclaimer: Incidents, characters and timelines have been created for dramatic purposes. Certain characters and events may be composites, or entirely fictitious. 

Panerai Radiomir (courtesy monocrhome-watches.com)

No wonder the article reads like a dime store novel. Equally unsurprising: Mr. Pereztroika paints Panerai as an unwilling participant in the Nazi supply chain, providing precision instruments for German combat swimmers and U-Boat officers.

Was Panerai forced to build watches and compasses for the Nazi war machine? Or was he a willing collaborator? One thing’s for sure: Rolex aided and abetted the creation of Nazi Panerais.

That’s an indisputable fact. The unbranded watches contain Rolex Cal. 618 movements. Fans of the Rolex brand may be dismayed to learn of Rolex CEO Hans Wilsdorf’s active role in this transaction. Which is why Pereztroika’s tale of Wilsdorf’s Nazi collaboration begins by playing the “get out of moral responsibility free” card.

Hans Wilsdorf overseeing Rolex brand workers (courtesy rolexmagazine.com)

Switzerland was in a very unfavorable situation at that time. Trade with the Allies was abruptely cut off after Axis forces occupied Vichy France in November 1942. The Swiss were now completely surrounded by territory controlled by the Axis Powers, which made them extremely dependent upon Nazi Germany. Switzerland has no natural resources and had to import almost everything.

Swiss watch brands had to accept watch orders from the German armed forces in order to survive. Rolex strictly refused doing business with Nazi Germany. Hans Wilsdorf, the founder and chairman of Rolex [above], was of German descent, but British at heart.

Rolex pow leter

Pereztroika writes that Rolex provided free replacement watches to British Prisoners of War who’d had their Rolex confiscated by the Nazis. There’s no evidence to support the claim. But it is true that Wilsdorf accepted soldiers’ I.O.U.’s in lieu of payment. Patriotism or pragmatism?

Panerai 3646 Type D with Rolex brand parts (courtesy perezcope.com)

Either way, there’s no getting around the fact that Wilsdorf supplied de-branded Rolex parts to Panerai knowing they were going into unbranded Panerai watches for Nazi frogmen.

Here’s how Mr. Pereztroika explains the obvious contradiction between Wilsdorf’s supposed refusal to do business with the Nazis, and doing business with the Nazis.

Wildsorf’s 63 year old wife May Wilsdorf-Crotty was terminally ill when Panerai’s new order came in. Wilsdorf spent most of his time by her bedside. During this difficult period, the company was run by his most trusted employees. Since Panerai was a reputable client, the order was processed without questions.

Nazi Kampfschwimmer Rolex Panerai

Wilsdorf was betrayed by his employees? Swiss bureaucratic efficiency let the Panerai order slip through unnoticed? What about neither? What are the odds Rolex’s owner knew about the watches’ final destination from the git-go, regardless of his wife’s condition?

In any case, this rendition of the story makes it clear that Herr Wilsdorf found out about the Panerai order in time to stop it. And didn’t.

Hans Wilsdorf’s wife, May Wilsdorf-Crotty died on April 26, 1944. Hans Wilsdorf was devastated and required several weeks to somewhat recover from his loss. When he focused on his work again, he became aware of Giuseppe Panerai’s last order. Hans Wilsdorf knew the situation in Italy and was very concerned his watches may have ended up in German hands. He needed certainty.

Caseback comparison (courtesy perezcope.com)

He contacted Giuseppe and voiced his concern. When Giuseppe confirmed that the watches were destined for the Nazis, Hans was furious. He feared for his company’s reputation and decided to stop the supply immediately. However, Giuseppe managed to make him understand what was at stake.

Wilsdorf understood Panerai’s plight, it was a matter of life and death. In order to protect the Panerais and their employees from being harmed by the Nazis, Wilsdorf agreed to keep up the supply. At the same time he took appropriate measures to conceal the provenance of the watches. Just like Giuseppe, Wilsdorf didn’t want to have anything to do with the Nazis.

German Kampfschwimmer wearing a Panerai 3646 Type D

According to this story, Wilsdorf supplied parts for Nazi watches to protect Panerai, his family and his employees. Out of the goodness of his heart, Wilsdorf overcame his fear of being labelled a Nazi collaborator – despite the disastrous consequences that would have had on his life’s work.

Nazi kampfschwimmer wearing Rolex Panerais

If so, Wilsdorf had to set aside the certainty that his dive watches helped Nazi frogmen (as above) sabotage allied forces. Pereztroika would have you believe Wilsdorf’s decision to supply parts for Nazi watches was brave and noble. Believe it or not, the story doesn’t end there.

Gruppo Gamm wearing Panerai, Commander Eugenio Wolk second from the right (courtesy perezcope.com)

Eugenio Wolk [second from right, rear], the commander of the Italian Gruppo Gamma combat swimmer unit in Valdagno . . . contacted Giuseppe and asked him to order 35 watches more for new Italians recruits, and hide them from the Germans.

Giuseppe disliked the direction the Decima MAS had taken after the Armistice. The unit was now mostly an infantry division fighting against partisans under German command. However, as a true patriot, he complied with Wolk’s wish.

Panerai supplied the Italians fighting under the Nazis “as a true patriot”? It’s this kind of dubious moral justification – often supplied retroactively – that enabled the Nazi war machine to annihilate tens of millions of innocent people and enslave millions more.

Nazi Rolex Panerai comparison (courtesy perezcope.com)

Panerai comparison (courtesy perezcope.com)

Did the Nazis pay Panerai for these watches? Did Panerai pay Rolex for the parts? In another article, Mr. Pereztroika reports that Panerai’s widow said no money changed hands – from the Nazis to Panerai. Yes, well, Panerai’s and Rolex’s Nazi past is a touchy subject. Props to the journalist for asking the right questions.

Brickbats to Panerai for resurrecting the Nazi timepieces and misleading buyers about their history (e.g., calling the 2006 watch the “California dial”). Thumbs down for HoDinkee. Beneath an article praising the 2017 watch’s “vintage good looks,” editor Jack Foster publicly forbid any discussion on the Panerai – Nazi connection.

Nazi Rolex Panerai

There’s a big difference between buying a modern Panerai and buying Panerai’s Nazi watches, or their modern day “tributes.” Still, it’s no wonder Panerai brought back the “anonymous dial” Nazi Rolex Panerais. The originals are now worth six figures in the vintage watch market.

People trading in the real deal Kampfschwimmer watches should donate them to a museum, or at least make a contribution to an appropriate charity. Destroy them? No. Paneristi need to know the truth about the brand’s dark history, as unpalatable as it is. Same for Rolex enthusiasts. As George Santayana warned us, those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

8 thoughts on “Rolex, Panerai and The Nazis”

    1. Here’s the censorship from Hodinkee’s Jack Forster. not doubt inspired by the website’s closerthanthis indeed commercial relationship with the Richemont Group:

      Hello gents – if you don’t mind we’re going to table this one, not because it’s not a fair point (it is) but because, as you can imagine, it doesn’t stop with making the point; invariably (and I’ve been moderating discussions around this point for fifteen years) it goes downhill, and no real conclusions can be drawn other than that everyone has to consult their own conscience. In continental Europe during World War II there were any number of manufacturers whose products lent material aid to Fascism and it’s a _very_ long list; these connections rightly still bother some people enough that they don’t buy from the companies in question. In this case it seems obvious Panerai doesn’t intend the watch as an endorsement of the worst aspects of mid-century European politics; it’s also obvious that it will strike some people as too much a reminder, at least to some degree, and with reason. Thanks all for reading and please feel free to email me directly if you have any concerns on this topic – we try to keep things about the watches as much as possible but of course, watches wouldn’t be interesting if they didn’t touch the bigger world in a lot of ways. We appreciate your understanding.

  1. I think the article is a little harsh. I am NOT defending Nazism one iota, but I think it is a historical mistake to not fully take into account, or even worse assume the intent, motives, pressures, and conditions of the time.

    1. Thanks for the feedback.

      The article presents two views of Rolex and Panerai’s collaboration with the Nazis: the official line (it couldn’t be helped) and the unofficial (they had a choice). There’s no way of knowing whether or not the two companies were willing or unwilling partners. But neither participant can claim ignorance.

      My father was a Holocaust survivor. The Nazis murdered most of my extended family, including both grandparents. So my bias may come through strongly. But I certainly don’t think Panerai should have remade the Nazi-era watches. That was strictly optional and totally offensive – unless they used the money to make amends.

  2. How would one make amends with people that are harboring second and third generation grudges over events that are often fictitious?

    Paying these people off has been done over and over, and it only makes them greedier and more vindictive. No amount will please them.

    1. Then make a contribution to some other charity. The key is to generate some good karma from a bad decision, no matter who was originally responsible or what their motives.

  3. Great article! I find it very frustrating to see some of the Swiss watch brands, and revived German brands, take a revisionist view on their own history.

    IWC for example currently have a range of “Spitfire” watches, and while they did provide some watches to the British military, they were also one of the largest suppliers to the Luftwaffe.

    Most of these arrangements continued late into the war, when Nazi war crimes were common knowledge. Were some of the sales made under protest or duress? I’m sure there was an element of that; but clearly Rolex was able to say no with no repercussions others than financial.

    Of the “dirty dozen” brands that supplied the British most were also able to keep their noses clean and their businesses afloat.

    If you made and a knife knowing the buyer had the intention to use it to murder someone you would be guilty of being an accomplice to the crime. The watches were used as tools to commit war crimes.

    For me, they just need to acknowledge their past, do something positive to atone, and move on. As you’ve identified, they’ve skipped the first two steps and just moved on.

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