Giovanni Panerai (1825–1897) opened up his first watch shop in Florence, Italy in 1860. Giovanni’s grandson Guido Panerai (1873–1934) expanded the watch shop “Orologeria Svizzera” and took over his wife’s family business, a mechanical workshop, thus founding a new company with the name G. Panerai e Figlio. This new company became an official supplier to the Regia Marina (the Royal Italian Navy), supplying all kinds of technical equipment and precision instruments. All Panerai watches, except for the GPF 2/56 were designed and manufactured by Rolex SA using pocket watch movements made by Swiss manufacturer Cortébert. The main driving forces behind the production of the first professional diving watches were Hans Wilsdorf of Rolex and Giuseppe Panerai.

The Florence-based workshop produced wrist-worn diving instruments and, between 1938 and 1970, delivered around 1,600 watches (c. 1000 3646s, 24 6152s, 36 6154s, 500 6152/1s, and 60 GPF 2/56s), most of them to the Italian Marina Militare. The GPF 2/56 (Egiziano Grosso) was produced for the Egyptian Navy in 1956. By 1970, the company ceased to provide watches to the Marina Militare, as they were neither cost-effective nor met the naval specifications. In 1993 it then moved to launch its products in the civilian market. Following its acquisition of Panerai, Richemont repositioned Panerai as a luxury watch brand and increased prices.

One of the rarest Panerai watches is a Second World War Military Diver watch. This historic watch was acquired by a British soldier named George H. Rowson in WW2 where he obtained it via a German frogman during a thwarted attempt by the Germans to destroy the Nijmegen Bridge in the Netherlands, in September 1944.