Carbon fibre – in all its composite guises – has become the material of the moment and has been used across the board, from Bvlgari’s chiming marvel to faux carbon dials on TAG Heuer’s Aquaracer… Whether or not an Haute Horlogerie model like the Octo Finissimo Minute Repeater Carbon looks good in its high-tech black suit is debatable, but one thing is certain, carbon cases work especially well for a brand like Panerai. A top military secret until 1993, Officine Panerai crafted high-tech instruments for the Italian Navy’s its covert underwater operations before it surfaced and worked its magic on dry land. Panerai was the first brand to use Carbotech – a composite material based on carbon fibre – and unveiled its 47mm Luminor Submersible 1950 ref. PAM00616 model in a striking, black mottled case. Although this was back in 2015, we recently had the watch in our hands and thought a reappraisal was in order.
Laboratorio di Idee: the Alchemy of Materials
From the brand that claims to be a “laboratory of ideas” (or in a more latin way: Laboratorio di Idee), it is not surprising that Panerai enjoys tinkering with high-tech materials from other industries. After all, since 1900 Officine Panerai consolidated its reputation producing high-tech, water-resistant depth gauges, sights, torpedo launchers, torches, wrist compasses, and eventually watches for the Italian Navy and patented its powerful luminous pastes (Radiomir and Luminor) to give these tools their cutting edge. Given its highly technical, top-secret nature, Officine Panerai was a natural leader in the materials science department.
Once the brand surfaced in the civilian sphere in the early 1990s, the formula of functional military performance coupled with pure Italian design won over legions of admirers and spawned a fan base of Paneristi. With an empire sustained on two pillars – Luminor and Radiomir – the brand uses the latest materials on the scene to refresh its collections. The Luminor Submersible 1950 has already appeared in ceramic, titanium, bronze, and even a Bulk Metallic Glass (BMG) case. However, the true showcase for Panerai’s plunge into cutting-edge technical materials is the LAB-ID PAM00700 with a carbon case and a lube-free movement thanks to the latest generation, low friction composites inside.
The progenitor of the Luminor 1950
In 1936, engineers of the Royal Italian Navy supplied their frogmen commandos with ten prototypes of the first 47mm Radiomir, the first professional military underwater watch capable of lighting up the darkest, murkiest depths. Named after the luminous radium-based paint that Panerai had patented earlier, the Radiomir illuminated the perilous underwater missions of Italy’s commandos. Improved in the late 1940s by an even more luminous paste based on tritium, the Luminor model boasted the unique crown-protecting lever that made the watch even more water-resistant and provided Panerai with one of its key identity traits. The luminosity was so powerful that on night missions, frogmen had to cover the dial with mud or seaweed to avoid blowing their cover.
One model in particular, the 1956 L’Egiziano designed for Egypt’s Navy, is worth mentioning in the context of the Luminor Submersible 1950 family for several reasons. With its whopping 60mm steel case, prominent crown bridge and lever, the watch featured a large rotating bezel with four studs bearing reference numbers to check the duration of the dive. The crown protector and lever and the four studs on the bezel have been inherited by the Luminor Submersible 1950 family. L’Egiziano also featured a subsidiary dial at 9 o’clock for the small seconds to ensure the watch was working, another distinctive feature that has gives the Luminor Submersible its personality.
Camo wetsuit for stealth commandos
Many brands have jumped on the materials bandwagon jettisoning the traditional steel, gold and platinum case formula for more unusual materials to bring a more contemporary, high-tech flavour to their pieces; ceramic, titanium, sapphire crystal, graphene and carbon fibres are very much the plat du jour.
The charm of Carbotech is that no two cases can ever be the same. It is lighter than ceramic or titanium, not subject to corrosion and hypoallergenic. A composite carbon fibre, Carbotech displays an uneven matte black appearance with the characteristic Damascene-steel or marbled effect. The case, the bezel and the bridge are all made from Carbotech which is produced with thin sheets of carbon fibres compressed at high pressure with a high-end polymer (PEEK), which binds the composite material making it stronger and more durable.
Although Carbotech or carbon fibre cases are not everybody’s cup of tea, in this case the material works perfectly adding a cool, camouflage dimension to the watch in keeping with its historical military function. Given its rather massive dimensions (47mm diameter x 16.8mm thick) and protruding crown bridge, the black colour scheme goes a long way in tempering its bulk and the use of Carbotech and a titanium insert and caseback keep the weight in check. Weighing in at just over 135 grammes with the rubber strap, it’s not a featherweight watch but certainly, a lot lighter on the wrist than its dimensions would suggest.
The other thing about carbon cases is their appealing visual irregularities (read unique) and tactile experience. On the wrist, the watch is, as you would expect, large but wears comfortably thanks to the comfortable rubber strap. Like its predecessor L’Egiziano, the notched Carbotech bezel rotates in just one direction (counterclockwise, as a decent dive watch should) and features a graduated scale to time immersions with a luminous dot at 12 o’clock and markings from zero to 15 and the studs marking every five minutes.
Unequivocally Panerai, the matte black dial displays two oversized Arabic numerals at 12 and 6 o’clock and a generous coating of ‘aged’ lume in a beige tone. The dots marking the hours, the two numerals, the tips of the hands and the four batons on the small seconds feature the beige lume that glows green in the dark. A touch of ‘Panerai blue’ adds vibrancy to the dial and denotes the small seconds counter on the left at 9 o’clock.
Unlike L’Egiziano, with its ‘8 Giorni Brevettato’ markings on the right side, the Luminor displays a date window with the numerals (thankfully!) in the same colour as the aged lume. One problem we did encounter with reading the dial – no doubt exacerbated by our failing eyesight – was the occasional difficulty in distinguishing the lume of the hour markers from the lume on the tips of the black hands that get absorbed into the black dial.
In-House Calibre P.9000
Developed and manufactured in its entirety by Officine Panerai in Neuchâtel, automatic calibre P 9.000 is fitted with two spring barrels, fed in turn by an oscillating weight that rotates in both directions, for a beefy power reserve of 3 days (72 hours). Offering time, date and small seconds, the balance wheel oscillates at 4 Hz (28,800vph). Covered by a screwed-in and blackened titanium caseback, two Italian frogmen commandos are depicted riding a Siluro Corsa Lenta (SLC) a slow speed torpedo used during Italy’s underwater naval missions in WWII.
Is this what the Panerai’s professional military dive watches might have looked like if carbon fibre had been available back then? I have a strong inkling that Officine Panerai’s alchemists would have warmed to this material thanks to its camouflage/stealth appeal, lightness and resilience. For today’s divers, be they Navy Seals or tub loungers, this watch is ready for water action and packed to the gills with history. There is no escaping the fact that it is large, but most people who like dive watches usually enjoy the ballast.
The Panerai Luminor Submersible 1950 Carbotech PAM00616 comes on a very comfortable black rubber strap with the OP logo in Panerai blue – to match the colour accents on the dial. The watch retails for EUR 16,600 or USD 17,100. More details on www.panerai.com.