Keep Calm And Hammer On — The Story of a Horological Hero
Anyone who’s ever searched the name “Panerai” on the internet has probably read some posts by Alan Bloore. They probably initially learned about the watches, then later something about his personal story. And it’s impossible not to be tremendously moved by it.
Alan, known more commonly by his online sobriquet “Hammer”, had a perfect life. He left home before the age of 16, and became a professional athlete for six years. He then returned home and started a company; by the time he sold it 11 years later, he had 400 employees working for him in the largest business of its kind in the southern hemisphere. He was married to a beautiful blonde, had two great kids and was poised to enjoy the rest of his life, sailing. Then everything changed on 16 Nov 2006, when he suffered a catastrophic boating accident that left him paralyzed from the mid-chest down. One of the most poignant things in the article on Hammer’s accident that was posted on Alan Koh’s VintageHour.com reads: “I often think back to that moment in time and space when everything changed so completely and forever, and I wonder [if there was] any sign, or even a feeling, something just odd enough to make me say, ‘Be careful’, but, [you] know, there just wasn’t. It felt like it would be as any other Thursday; I was wrong about that — note to self: life is fragile!!”
He had gone out into the beautiful blue sea — the place that was so familiar to him, where he felt at home — when the accident occured.The resulting injury was a double implosion of his T4-5 vertebrae, a fracture to the C1 vertebrae, a fracture in his skull, a fracture in his hip and two broken ribs, which led to innumerable surgeries, infections and secondary complications. He recalls, “I was drifting slowly underwater, as at first I was in some kind of spinal shock and I couldn’t move any part of my body. I thought, ‘What’s going on here? Why can’t I move?’ As I was watching the light from the sun above the water fade into darkness, I began to think, ‘Crikey! I’m going to die!’”
While drifting helplessly in the ocean as he waited for the rescue aircraft, Bloore suffered two heart attacks. It would be 12 weeks before he could start his recuperation. During this time, Bloore thought constantly about what life would be like without the use of his legs, without the ability to control his bladder or his bowels, without any sexual function. He spent the next six months relearning how to live; his entire life — every action, every moment, everything — would be irreversibly changed.
He started spinal rehabilitation programs immediately, always believing that if he tried hard enough, if he worked hard enough, if he sweated and bled for it, he would be able to compel himself to walk again. He must have thought to himself that if his sacrifice of pain would be an adequate demonstration of devotion, then surely his wish would be granted. A year and a half after the injury, after he had destroyed both his shoulders while attempting to walk and had to have reconstructive surgery on both of them, it finally dawned on him with solemn finality that no matter how brave he was, no matter how courageously he fought, no matter how much pain he endured, he would not walk again.
He points to the CEO of Panerai, Angelo Bonati, and says, “It sounds ridiculous to say it, but if this man were not here, if he did not do what he did, I would not be alive today.
I remember there was a moment before the third surgery when they told me they had to go in deep into and around the spinal cord, [and] I was at risk of becoming blind… losing one arm and hand, or even both arms and hands. I’d either be a blind bloke in a wheelchair running into things, or a one-armed bandit who could only push his wheelchair in concentric circles. I thought to myself, ‘Not on my life, I am never going to let that happen.’ Then I remember one night, I was in so much pain, and the CRP — which is the marker in my blood for infection — hit an all-time record; at two o’clock in the morning, I closed my eyes and told myself, ‘Give up, mate.’ But instead of doing that, I turned on my laptop and clicked on [the independent website set up by Panerai enthusiasts] paneristi.com, and it put my mind in a different place. If Mr. Bonati had not created Panerai and the watches, there would be no Paneristi, and if there were no Paneristi, I would have given up that night. I think, when you are lying there in bed and not knowing if you are going to wake up the next day, you have to have a sense of faith. Beyond my little family, my children and my wife, if I didn’t have the friendships that I have made through Paneristi, I really don’t think I could have continued. That’s not trying to be spectacular; that’s just being honest. It’s how I escaped this,” Bloore gestures to his body before continuing, “and put my mind in a place that is just beautiful. And to sit next to Mr. Bonati is something I thought would never happen. I’m from Brisbane; for me, this is like meeting Galileo. I can’t think of a more perfect moment for me.”
Hammer and Bonati have had a 14-year friendship over the internet and through various other correspondences. But this is the first time they’ve met in person, during the Paneristi gathering in Singapore. “He has been a really important person for Panerai, in that he has always tried to moderate the communication between the brand and its enthusiasts in a way that is truly fair,” says Bonati of Hammer. “Beyond that, I think everyone who knows his story is deeply inspired by his courage.”
Hammer is one of the elder statesmen of Paneristi, a sort of spontaneously generated online meeting place that arose soon after the Richemont group’s introduction of Panerai into the global marketplace. While other websites are forums for horological genuflection and intellectual opining, there is a certain frat-house element to Paneristi that makes it unique. First, there is the sense of genuine brotherhood. Hammer, for example, actually has the word “Paneristi” tattooed on his wrist — something that’s hard to imagine a Patek fan, or even a vintage-Rolex enthusiast, doing. Second, there is the air of good-natured rowdiness. Your average Paneristi is a big guy. These are not guys who skip the carbs; in fact, it seems that one of the primary sources of entertainment for the Paneristis is their get-togethers (“GTGs”) that revolve around orgies of food and drink, and which are crowned by the requisite table shot where their watches are piled high like the spoils of vanquished enemies. The other Paneristi constant is the “chillaxing with my beer” photograph, in which a Paneristi will hang his watch on his cold beverage, kick up his invariably bare feet, and photograph this mise-en-scène with the unbridled enthusiasm of a Flemish still-life master. The photograph could be from Indonesia or Indiana, but one of the genuinely nice things about Paneristi is the internationalism of the community, with guys in Singapore — one of the largest chapters — tight with the guys in the United States. In this context, Paneristi completely transcends cultural differences. It might not be a far stretch to say that if you were to give out enough Panerai watches, enough steaks and enough beers, through Paneristi, you might just be able to bring about world peace. Finally, Paneristis can be from any walk of life — they can be bus drivers, architects, hedge-fund guys or cage fighters. It is one of the most thoroughly egalitarian forums on the internet.
But there’s also the somewhat volatile side to Paneristi, where the common man feels he has the right to critique the brand or even the man behind it. “Sometimes they insult me,” says Bonati. “They insult me too,” adds Hammer. Take, for example, the creation of the latest Paneristi limited-edition watch, the PAM00532, made in tribute to the enthusiastic community on paneristi.com, and which several members were quick to critique as being a marketing ruse. Both Hammer and Bonati, however, are positive about the almost hysterical levels of passion that the brand stirs up in people. “Sometimes, I feel very strongly about a subject, but I don’t want to get too involved in the discussion,” says Bonati, “because it should be free and it should be spontaneous. This is the beauty of Paneristi. The passion is due to the unique soul in Panerai.”
Since Paneristi’s inception by watch collector Guy Verbist, several key forum members have, one after another — through their enthusiasm, their desire to educate and their unbridled passion to become the guardians of this site — taken the reins of the site over the years. One of them is Volker Wiegmann, and another is one of the site’s current owners, Paddy Conway; but perhaps the most beloved of these is Hammer, who often posts in what would become his signature stream-of-consciousness Aussie-speak, invoking now-ubiquitously-used mottos like “Mates is Great”. If the other moderators represent the site’s intellectual equity, then Hammer is heart of Paneristi. For almost a decade and a half, he has always been there to reassure, to enlighten, to guide and to spread affection and passion. His memory is incredible. I tell him that I’ve only posted once, ever, on Paneristi. (Back in 2004, I’d interviewed Angelo Bonati for the first time and he told me he was going to create in-house movements and transform the brand into a true manufacture.) To this, Hammer says, “I remember!” He has always been a tireless bridge between the brand and the Panerai collector community.
“I met eight of my best friends in life because I bought a Panerai watch one day,” he says to Angelo Bonati. “All of my friends and everything that is meaningful for me has come from this watch. I feel humbled and honored to meet you. I think you are a visionary. I think you are a genius and a legend. You transformed a military secret into a brand that has brought passion and excitement to the hearts and minds of people the world over. I think you and only you could have grown the historic DNA of this brand into the most magnificent watch brand in the world.” He stops for a moment, looks at all of us in the room, and says, “I’m sorry if my opinion is a little bit biased.”
One of the extraordinary things generated by Panerai is a sense of inclusion. When you own a Panerai watch and you log onto Paneristi, you suddenly feel as if you’ve got a right to be heard — it’s as if you’ve been given a seat at the dinner table of a very large Italian family and told to pass the caponata. You can speak up as much as you want, but if you say something dumb, one of your older brothers, maybe Hammer, is going to lovingly rap you on the head. “Sometimes I will say ‘we’ when I refer to the Panerai brand,” Hammer says, “because when you buy a Panerai, you become a part of the Panerai family.” He turns to Angelo Bonati and recalls, “I have this incredible pain because I have a tumor crushing my spinal cord. The doctors have tried drugs, everything, for five years; the only thing that takes the pain away is Panerai. The only thing that can take the pain away is when I look at a picture of a Panerai [watch], and my mind escapes; or when I log on to Paneristi, when I see the pictures and I read the stories. It’s where I connect.”
If Panerai had saved Hammer, then Hammer has contributed back vastly to the brand that he so adores, becoming one of its best ambassadors and one of the online watch community’s inspirational leaders. “I wrote many years ago that Panerai is so much more than just a watch [brand]. I travel around the world and people come up to me to say, ‘You’re the guy from the Panerai website, you’re the one who’s always being funny.’ They ask whether we can have a picture [together], and I always wonder why they would want to have a picture with me. I’m sure there is a good-looking woman with whom they would prefer to have a picture.”
When I ask him when was the first time he saw a Panerai watch, Hammer enthusiastically recalls, “I remember looking through an Italian book and I saw my first Panerai — it was the Radiomir 6154 — and I thought to myself, ‘That’s the most beautiful watch that I’ve ever seen.’ And I spent the next nine years trying to buy that watch. My friend Francesco Ferretti had the most perfect example of this watch. I tried to buy it; then in 2007, I asked again and he said, ‘You can have it.’ I wanted it so bad and he agreed to let me pay it off in 30 days. I had to sell 10 watches to make that happen, [but] with Panerais, they sold like hot cakes and so fast [that] it made my head spin.”
But the very first “serious” Panerai that Hammer bought was also the first watch Angelo Bonati produced, and it is, to this day, one of his most legendary. The story goes that upon taking over the brand, Bonati and his team rummaged around their basement and found 60 new old-stock vintage Rolex movements. He then put these movements inside a stunning platinum-cased Radiomir (PAM00021). Fittingly, it was one of these watches that found its way onto Hammer’s wrist.
Hammer explains, “Finally, I found someone selling a PAM00021, which cost [me] USD15,000 and a Rolex Sea-Dweller ref. 1665. So, I traded [the Rolex] and paid the money, and I was so excited. I brought it to wear on my boat. It was the most beautiful thing. When I received it, I noticed it was a bit marked up, so I went out into the shed where I keep my polishing equipment and polished all the fittings on my boat. I looked at the watch and I stuck it under the eight-inch spinning wheel, the felt caught the lug and [the watch] flew out of my hands into the air — and toward a brick wall. I thought, ‘Oh, this is going to end badly.’ I have one sail for my boat — a giant spinnaker — and the watch landed directly onto the middle of the sail.”
As an aside, Hammer’s PAM00021 is worth the better part of a quarter-million US dollars today. He states with an amusing lack of diplomacy, “I truly think that one amazing thing about Panerai [watches] is that you can use [one] every day for five years or more, then go sell it and it’s worth the same or more. In 14 years, I’ve never ever sold a single one of my Panerai [watches] for less than what I’d paid [for it]! There are so many watch brands that when you buy [one of their watches], it’s like a four-lane highway on the way in, and if you ever want to sell it, it’s like a dirty, bumpy road on the way out.”
As we talk to him, both Angelo Bonati and I notice that the watch on his wrist is a tribute to Bonati’s ceaseless labor to enhance the technical value of Panerai. Hammer explains, “The watch that I wear is a gold Panerai PAM00319. I love it because it was the first in-house-movement split-seconds chronograph that the brand made in a gold Luminor case. I am saving every day to one day buy my first Panerai tourbillon. I think it is fantastic that such technical watches represent the future of the brand.”
As a watch journalist, I am often baffled by the number of people who don’t write enough about the Panerai tourbillon. Simply speaking, it is one of the most innovative evolutions to Breguet’s initial concept. Instead of a traditional cage, the tourbillon is fixed to a sort of miniature rotisserie spit, which rotates along the vertical axis. Even when you lay your watch flat on a table, the balance wheel never remains in a fixed position. Says Hammer, “I don’t have enough money yet, but I am getting close. I bought the PAM00319 because it was the most technical watch, the closest thing I could get to a tourbillon at the time, and one that really represents Panerai becoming a true manufacture with this great in-house watchmaking ability. People say that split-seconds chronographs are fragile. But I was training for the Olympic road race in Rio, which hopefully I will get to do, and I worked it out in my head that this watch has done 21,000km on my wrist at speeds of up to 60m/s — and it has never missed a beat. I have a machine for testing accuracy at home, and it is plus/minus one second in numerous positions. I have beaten it and beaten it, and it has never dropped a beat. This has been my window to the future; the past is beautiful, the present is fantastic, but it’s Panerai’s future that gets me excited.”
Hammer is uniquely positioned to appreciate Panerai’s technical merit as a hobbyist watchmaker. He explains, “I build vintage dive watches that I give away for charity, mostly to the Sporting Wheelies and Disabled Association, which I connect with every day. It’s my second home, a special place that helps special people with disabilities.” He also restores many of his own vintage Panerais himself. He explains, “Just recently, I completed a restoration of a special ref. 3646 with a vintage Rolex 618 caliber, which I bought in 2006. I’ve been building [up] my tools and skills; the learning curves with a 70-year-old treasure can be heartbreaking, but[the] real fear [was] that I might do damage to the WWII-era [watch]! God must have been kind to me that time as I ended up with a nice outcome — a watch that works after I finished restoring it. Actually, I couldn’t believe it, as she had only been serviced once in 1954.”
His firsthand experience with vintage Panerais has made him uniquely equipped to aid in the creation of several reference books written by Volker Wiegmann and Ralf Ehlers. In his research, Hammer found himself inspired by the very real history of the Panerai brand as having produced the first dive watch used by the Italian commando frogmen. He states, “I remember reading the diary of a combat swimmer who had made an entry just before midnight. He was leaving at five in the morning. He wrote, ‘My comrades and I, here we sing our song of victory, because tomorrow we may not return.’ This was the last entry he made. It is inspiring because, politics and religion aside, God decides where you will be born and to what country you will belong; you then consider this your home, your world — you will defend and give all for your God or country regardless what either is called!”
And hopefully, these words will give Hammer additional measure to his seemingly limitless supply of courage, because yet another challenge looms on the horizon for him. He explains, “There has been some bad news about my health in the last 12 months. I am hoping it won’t get worse than it is now, but I am starting to lose the use of both of my hands. That’s why I wanted to come to Singapore [for the Paneristi GTG], because I might not be able to come again if things get worse and I lose the ability to use my hands. I have a tumor in the spinal cord, and it is ascending. In the seven years since my accident, it has gotten much higher — it is now at my armpits.”
If he is daunted by what the future holds, he seems to face it with a sense of profound stoicism. He explains, “On my wrist where I wear my watch, I have the word ‘Paneristi’ tattooed. The only time I take my watch off is when I go for surgery. And every time the anesthesiologist is about to put me under, I look at this tattoo to remind me of all the things I love. It makes me feel strong. The last time I was in the hospital, I noticed that I have enough space around my wrist to add the word ‘forever’ and I thought, ‘You dumbass, why didn’t you do that? Looks unfinished! But now I know why: things happen for a reason, [and] I really believe that we have no choice as to what comes to us in this life, but we do get to choose what we do, going forward. This is what defines each of us as individual human spirits! That’s the real measure of success in life. I will get the gap on my wrist filled as soon as possible, so it will read ‘Paneristi Forever’ and go 360° [around my wrist] — perfect!” I hope Hammer knows that Angelo Bonati, every single Paneristi on the planet and I look forward to shaking hands with him and checking out his new tattoo in all its glory.