As a watch buyer, getting started with a new brand is a microcosm of the greater collecting experience. Whether buying a first watch or just a first watch from an unfamiliar brand, questions about the value, significance, and enduring appeal of a given model are paramount, and that goes double when encountering a special-interest marque such as Panerai.
Often, the question one asks when starting is, “if I could have just one of these, which one best captures the spirit, substance, and history of the brand?”
In the case of Panerai, a WatchBox specialty, it’s best to focus on the essential models that exude elements of the brand’s lasting appeal.
History. Every watch brand has a story, even Astro-turfed revival brands like Jaquet Droz. What sets Panerai apart from the pack is that its formative years overlap with History (note: that’s History with a big “H”). Between its role on the wrists of special forces – especially the WWII Italian Decima Flottiglia MAS frogmen – and its unique role as prototype for the modern tactical combat watch, Panerai’s history actually reverberates beyond the jeweler’s case.
When shopping for a Panerai that best embodies the elite cadre combat history of the company, a Radiomir is the logical choice. Originally coined as a brand name for the radium-based luminescent paint used on Panerai naval instruments, “Radiomir” has come to refer to a specific model line in the era of commercial Panerai watch sales.
The modern day Radiomir range, exemplified by this Radiomir PAM249 “California Dial,” pays tribute to the original production variant of Panerai’s combat dive watch. Built by Rolex and modified for military use by Panerai, the inspiration for the PAM249 was a model called the 3646. A short-lived production run between 1936 and 1938 means this model is nearly unobtainable, even on the auction circuit.
However, Panerai’s 2006 release of the PAM249 stands as a fitting tribute to the original and offers a nail-on-the-head synopsis of the brand’s essence. Although the company arose to prominence in the late 90s with its “Luminor” case and distinctive locking crown, the “Radiomir” is the design that defined Panerai’s combat record. When commandos deployed with Panerais on their wrists, they deployed with this case style.
When starting with Panerai, a collector would be hard pressed to do better than a Radiomir PAM249. The watch is the spitting image of its illustrious predecessor. From the 47mm cushion case to the acrylic crystal to the sewn-on leather strap, the PAM249 has the feel of a recreated WWII fighter on the ramp, waiting for its run-up.
Inside the case, Panerai utilizes an OP X caliber based on the Unitas 6497 ebauche. The manual winding movement has been lovingly finished to resemble the original Cortébert pocket watch movements used by Rolex. The gesture is a small but significant nod to heritage while maintaining the everyday ease of use expected of a modern watch. Notable refinements include a swan’s neck regulator with fixing screw for timing stability and a 56-hour power reserve. A sapphire case back permits an expansive view of the movement.
The dial, which trades the original radium for Super Luminova luminescent paint, is true to the “California” style that Rolex utilized on its first series production for Panerai. Although the name “California” was applied to this type of dial decades after the fact, the enduring appeal of the split Arabic/Roman numeral pattern lies in its inextricable link to Panerai’s Rolex association.
When combined with the bold character of Panerai’s high-contrast tones and massive scale, the Radiomir PAM249 “California” has as much presence today as its inspiration did in 1936. Historical purists might call the 1936-unit, limited edition PAM249 the quintessential Panerai. And they might do so unchallenged if not for one complication…
… Modern History: The Officine Panerai of today is a millennial phenomenon.
As a military contractor, Panerai offered no civilian models from 1936 to early 1993. The watches constructed for the Italian government and allied tactical units were distributed quietly, destroyed frequently, and little known outside military circles. As a result, most of the enthusiasts who built the modern Panerai phenomenon know the brand by the model that became Panerai’s face to the world: the Luminor.
Panerai’s franchise model, epitomized by this Luminor 1950 PAM127, was the watch that launched Panerai as a consumer brand. It was the shape that captivated Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, and a constellation of their fellow stars. “Luminor” was a synonym for “Panerai” on the buzzing message boards of the embryonic social Internet. Its shape has inspired contemporary pop art and tattoos alike.
The Luminor’s calling card was its “Device Protecting the Crown,” a locking lever that obviated the need for a screw-down crown of the type used on the original Rolex Oyster-cased Panerai dive watches. The DPC makes “accidental drowning” due to unscrewed crowns almost impossible, provides a barrier to glancing blows, and it limits the wear on crown seals. In civilian life, the DPC is a hallmark of modern Panerai, and many of the Paneristi – the devotees of the brand – consider the DPC to be an essential component of a Panerai watch.
While the first consumer Luminor variants were charismatic, they were also comparatively small. Military Panerai models built with this case ranged from the same 47mm size as the 3646 to a gargantuan 60mm version built for the Egyptian defense authorities. Panerai’s 40-44mm Luminors were hip and hot in the late 1990s, but it wasn’t until 2002 that the Luminor case returned to its roots.
The Luminor 1950 PAM127 “Fiddy” was a crossroads product that melded history and pop culture. No stranger to the Y2K-era big watch movement, Panerai upped the ante to 47mm with the 1950 case. Truth be told, the watch itself was an amalgamation of design evolutions developed by Panerai between the early 40s and late 50s, but as a distillation of everything that made post-1993 Panerai cool, the 1950 was a point-blank bulls eye.
While the PAM249 pays deference to hereditary tradition, the PAM127 is a celebration of modern traditions. The “1950” design embraces the Panerai strap-swapping craze that was emerging in full force by the early 2000s. While the Radiomir case of the 249 makes strap swaps rather involved, the 127 shipped with a spare strap and a jeweler’s tool to complete do-it-yourself jobs on a whim.
As a limited edition, the PAM127 was produced in a series of – wait for it – 1950 units. While the PAM249 is true to its two-hand forebear, the PAM127 includes a small seconds sub dial and is accompanied by the COSC chronometer certificate attesting to the Caliber OP XI’s superb performance. Like the PAM249, the 1950 features a sapphire case back through which to view the Panerai-massaged Unitas 6497/2. Also in common with the Radiomir is the swan’s neck regulator with fixing screw and the 56-hour power reserve.
In the end, the preceding watches are but two proposed points of entry into the world of Panerai. Both offer considerable appeal to collectors looking to open their Panerai account with a watch of historical relevance to its brand, interest to its collector community, and lasting value to its owner.
Whereas the Radiomir PAM249 “California” is akin to a faithful restoration of a vintage muscle car, the Luminor 1950 PAM127 feels like a Chip Foose resto-rod version of the same. Each machine is worthy in its own right, and each appeals to a certain kind of connoisseur. Heritage or hot-rod; it’s your choice.