The Officine Panerai Luminor Power Reserve In PVD
For anyone who's been asleep for the last couple of years, Officine Panerai watches would probably come as quite a surprise. Panerai fairly burst onto the scene in 1998. There had been a small release of Panerai in Italy earlier, basically to test the market, but when the main collection was launched it took many people by surprise.
The two main themes which recur throughout any discussion of these watches are Italian Commandos and Rolex. To quote James Dowling, from the catalogue for the sale of The Ravenborg Collection Of Rolex Watches at Christies in 1997,
Commissioned by the store Panerai in Florence, these watches were supplied to many branches of the Italian forces immediately before and during World War Two. The vast majority were fitted with movements by other firms, only the very best group, intended for the Italian Naval divers were fitted with Rolex movements and crowns.
So, there was plenty of history to plunder. The main marketing thrust played on the Rolex connection and the military history, wherever there was a picture of a Panerai, there was a picture of a miniature submersible or several butch men in diving gear. The key design elements were the sheer size of a Panerai, and the unique crown locking mechanism.
Since the initial collection there have been a few new models introduced, but none of them were a great departure. Recently however Officine Panerai have produced several limited edition high value models, such as a "Radiomir" alarm model in white gold, and they are now broadening the collection with a smaller (only 40mm) Marina and a diamond studded model for flamboyant divers. Personally I doubt the wisdom of diluting the Panerai brand identity, the watches are meant to be huge and aggressive, and in seeking to enter a wider market Panerai may lose their original customer base without gaining a new one. Still, I bought one.Buying It
When I first saw Officine Panerai wristwatches in International Wristwatch magazine I thought they were simply fantastic. What a great design! However my first encounter with them in the flesh was another matter completely. I saw them in Watches Of Switzerland on Bond Street in London, fairly soon after their launch. I was horrified. They were absolutely huge. I hadn't suspected anything about their size, I assumed they were a fairly standard man's watch. When I walked into the shop I was wearing an IWC Doppelchronograph, which is not the world's smallest watch, but the staff were highly amused when I took it off and held it up to the Panerai. The Panerai had to be the only watch in the world that dwarfed a Doppel.
It took a full year and several changes in design for me to come around to the Panerai way of thinking. I had originally been very interested in the prospect of a Luminor Marina left-handed model (being a southpaw myself), but up close, even if I ignored my misgivings about the size, the stars just weren't in alignment. It was a bit plain, and not quite finished to my liking.
It was only in March 1999 that my local Panerai Dealers, Hamilton & Inches, got in a new batch of Panerais and I started to become seriously interested again. The sales director showed me a couple of models, by this time I had become used to the idea of a very large watch, and I could feel my willpower ebbing away. Only weeks later he showed me a new model, with a new strap, and I was done for. An unexpected cash windfall from work sealed my fate and I made the leap into being a Panerai owner.Presentation
As far as presentation is concerned, Officine Panerai score 10/10. When watches costing twice the price of a Panerai come with a cheesy leather case, and a piece of paper saying "this watch is a chronometer" (are you listening Omega?) the Panerai approach is a breath of fresh air. Every Panerai comes in a very handsome wooden box; a must really, since they won't fit in any box I've seen. Two straps come as standard, with a screwdriver for switching between them. Comprehensive instructions and a catalogue are complemented by the original COSC certificate. Panerai's packaging is an example to all other manufacturers.
As mentioned earlier, the main thing about a Panerai is its size. Most of the mainstream models are 44mm across. There are perhaps one or two watches in the world which are larger, the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Offshore Chronograph comes to mind at 46mm, but other than that only specialised watches which really are meant for divers would give a Panerai a run for it's money.
The other feature which is immediately noticeable is the crown locking device, which flips up from the side of the watch. The crown itself is lightly spring-loaded, and so when the lever is released the crown pops up to allow the time to be adjusted. Even the manual wind Marina models are fitted with the crown lock. I have to say I would tire of the lock very rapidly if I had to fiddle with it every morning simply in order to wind my watch.
An acquaintance described Panerais as "either on the bus or off bus". You either like the look or you hate it. It may take some getting used to wearing a Panerai but I personally think it is a worthwhile investment to try one.
Frankly, a blind man could read the dial at one hundred paces. Enormous arabic numerals at 6, 9 and 12 fill the spaces between huge batons for the other hours. The luminova sheds enough light at night to illuminate your local disco. The hands are huge, and the large sweeping seconds could knock a man off his bicycle. The whole point of the Panerai's dial is that it is instantly legible, and the Luminor Power Reserve competes with all of IWC's famously legible pilot's watches. The only other obvious comparison, for me at least, is between the Panerai's second hand and that on a Rolex SeaDweller.
As a side note, I believe the only other model with the large seconds is the GMT.
Behind the large hands is the first thing which really sold me on this model. The hobnail dial is very attractive indeed. The face of any Panerai watch is obviously huge, and since most of them aren't very complicated the flat white or black dial found on other models can look very plain. In the absence of chronograph dials or whatever, the hobnail pattern breaks it all up nicely.
The crystal is "sapphire", and so will withstand anything you throw at it. The cyclops magnifier over the date is a strange Rolexesque addition, but it is mounted inside the glass, and so can't be scratched or knocked off as it would on your Sub.Case
For a watch of this size, the Panerai is fairly light. It isn't light per se, but you would expect it to be heavy enough to replace diving weights. Strangely this model's smaller cousin, the steel 40mm Marina on a bracelet, really is a lead weight, but it is the bracelet which makes all the difference.
The crown and crown locking mechanism protrude slightly from the edge of the case, but there are no sharp edges so I haven't experienced any discomfort from wearing the watch.
In place of the more usual springbars, straps are secured between the lugs using screws. A screwdriver is provided for changing straps, however I have heard the Panerai strap-changing ritual described as needing "three hands and two screwdrivers". Since there are screws at each lug, turning a screw on one side simply causes the screw on the other side to rotate, rather than tightening anything. I haven't personally tried changing a strap, however I witnessed my local dealer change one in under a minute with no visible problems, so perhaps the design has changed slightly.
Like the crown guard, the lugs are well polished and smooth so there's no chance of them gouging your wrist like some other watches I could mention. I believe that considerable thought has gone into making such a large watch comfortable to wear.
A Note On The Case Back
The case back is brushed steel, so it won't pick up all those nasty scratches that a polished case back will. Around its side are twelve edges which appear to be meant for a custom tool to screw it off; don't send your Panerai to anywhere but an Authorised service centre.Finish
Panerai cases come in three basic flavours; highly polished steel, PVD, or titanium. The titanium is nice, although perhaps slightly unnecessary, as mentioned earlier the watches aren't that heavy. I'm not a big fan of the highly polished models, they look like they would scratch very easily. This particular watch has a PVD case, that's steel, with a fine coating (Particle Vapour Deposit, I believe) of titanium. The resultant finish is what I would term gunmetal, a dull but not flat grey colour. The only other watch I have seen with a PVD case was a Dubey & Schaldenbrand Aerodyn. The finish on the Dubey was quite different to this Panerai, it was practically black, and to my eyes not nearly as attractive.Strap(s)
When Officine Panerais were originally launched I was never very keen on the beige leather strap which came with most models. The second thing which sold me on this Panerai was a very different strap. It is a dark, chocolate, crocodile leather model. This sits well with the dark PVD case. The signed buckle is also finished in PVD.
The strap does not taper, and so can be pulled very tight, say to fit a smaller wrist. My partner has experimented with this and it fits her just fine. In fact I came near to losing the watch ("ooh, that fits just nicely"!). It is interesting to note that on a woman the Panerai ceases to look like a huge watch, and starts being a piece of jewellery, like a bangle.
The other strap supplied is a kind of plastic and velcro affair, presumably meant for diving, as if anybody would be mad enough to go diving wearing a $2500 watch instead of a $100 G Shock. Frankly, the diving strap is better in concept than in execution. I find it awkward and uncomfortable. What passes for a buckle, a large chunk of plastic with velcro on it, is much too large and stiff, and assumes that large areas of your wrist are flat. Not a very practical design at all. This particular Panerai diving strap is all black, although I have seen other models in black and yellow. Fine if you want to look like you you have an enormous wasp on your wrist I suppose.
I understand there are some third-party manufacturers for Panerai straps. If anybody has an address, URL or whatever I'll add them to the article.
As mentioned earlier, the new 40mm models come either
on a bracelet, which is much better than it looks in photographs, or on a strap
with a deployant clasp. The bracelets are very fine, but I don't have sufficient
experience of the clasp to feel ready to pass judgment on it.
The movement is an ETA/Soprod Calibre 9040, coming from an ETA 2892 ebauche. It vibrates at 28,800 vph and has Incabloc shock protection. I've never seen inside a Panerai so I can't tell you much about the finishing, however this picture from the catalogue would suggest that movements are quite nicely finished, with some engine turning on the plates and an engraved rotor.Accuracy
Frankly, I haven't a clue. I'm not really into monitoring the accuracy of watches; that way lies madness. If it's good enough for the COSC, it's good enough for me.
I was initially worried that the PVD finish would not last, and might scratch or chip easily. After wearing the watch for quite a while, the finish has perhaps mellowed a little, but it shows no real signs of wear. Its ultimate test came when one of the salesmen in Kenjo, NY, dropped the watch onto a glass counter. I think this would have done some serious damage to the case, or at least to the finish, of a lesser watch, but the Panerai just shrugged off the assault with no visible signs of trauma.
I have met one chap whose Panerai Marina (manual wind, with an ETA pocket watch movement) ceased to function. He blamed this on having wound it without disengaging the crown - locking mechanism. A salesman at Cellini, in the Waldorf Astoria NY, did exactly this to my Panerai, again with no visible problems resulting. You may have gathered that this watch and salesmen do not mix.Decrypting the case back
Officine Panerai give us a fair amount of detail about a watch on the case back, although what it all means is open to a bit of guesswork. With apologies for the Odetsesque arrows, in a, I believe that OP6526 is the model number of the watch. BB982225 is the number of the individual watch. In c the watch is number 478 of 1000 for the year, and B in part c is a year designator for 1999. If anybody knows better than this please let me know.
It hasn't escaped my notice that the only people I've ever met wearing a Panerai were watch dealers. I'm not totally sure what this means. My local dealer (wearing a Ti Submersible at the time) suggested that the Panerai is a "cult watch", restricted to the really rabid enthusiast, and dealers and frequently enthusiasts who deal to fund their habit.
In terms of comments from acquaintances, many of my watches garner some pretty scathing comments; "It looks like a spangle" (Zenith square El Primero chronograph, with a salmon face, a Spangle is an orange flavoured boiled sweet); "What on earth is that supposed to be?" (Chronoswiss Delphis). The Panerai has only ever received one comment, "That's a muckle watch". I think that pretty much sums it up.
I like the Panerai a lot. It's quite a different watch, it feels reassuringly chunky without being ostentatious. A lot of thought has obviously gone into the design, and as long as you can cope with the size, I don't think its looks will become tiring. If you factor in the excellent packaging, I think getting a COSC certified watch like this for around $2500 is a bargain.
As a final word, in the world of watches there's nothing new under the sun, and the modern Panerai range obviously plays heavily on past designs. Having said that if they weren't at the very head of the movement they were certainly in the vanguard of those who demonstrated that Big Is Good, and just as Lange's big date spawned a host of imitators at this year's Basel, so I believe we'll be seeing more and more manufacturers producing at least one very large watch in order to get their slice of the market. As a taste of things to come you could examine Oris' 44.5mm Big Ass, sorry, Big Crown Original.