The “History of Diver Watches” series explains, in detail, the evolution of how watches became waterproof. It covers the many famous brands and characters involved somewhere in overcoming the many technologically engineering feats to produce what you take for granted nowadays.
Guido Panerai outsite his store in Florence
We concluded the last chapter by introducing Officine Panerai – a strong name in the modern day world of luxury watches with a huge following. But how many of you actually even know that Panerai has its origins in specialist diving equipment and not watchmaking? And for those who actually have one – do you know why it’s design – which is very distinctive and the reason why it has so many fans around the world – came to be?
The Regia Marina (The Italian Navy) commissioned Officine Panerai to produce a watch that they could use to coordinate their attacks during warfare. Specifically, it would be used on undersea missions executed by specialist trained frogmen to sabotage (such as place bombs on submarines) and acquire military intelligence.
Diver Sabotage was very important in the World Wars
When it came to this purpose, there were some critical requirements that needed to be satisfied. First of all, if you are going to coordinate attacks – then you need to make sure that it tells the time accurately and reliably. Secondly, it’s all very well being accurate, but if you can’t even read the time then the device is useless. And thirdly – if you can do both those things but it isn’t waterproof then clearly again – it’s useless. So there you are – three pretty essential features that even you and me can understand.
Officine Panerai started life making specialised devices
Perhaps the easiest to solve – was making a device that told the time reliably. Officine Panerai had been in the industry of making specialised diving equipment – it wasn’t a watchmaker and it wasn’t until much later that it took watchmaking seriously. Therefore it had to rely on outsourcing a watch movement.
Panerai with Rolex movement
There previously had been a Swiss watch company that had achieved great results a few years earlier and had great experience in producing wristwatches that were shockproof, rustproof and waterproof. Therefore Guido Panerai enlisted their help in asking them for a watch movement. The watch company that we are referring to, is of course – Rolex.
For the second issue of waterproofing, most of you will be be particular familiar with Panerai’s trademark special “bridge” crown guard system. Rolex had patented their breakthrough waterproofing system with the screw down thread crown.
Panerai’s crown design is instantly recognisable
Panerai’s system was different and in fact improved water resistance as it allowed a constant strong bond between the seals of the crown but also allowed the crown to be safely wound from a secured position. Once locked into place it was very resolute. This design was so successful that Guido Panerai patented the design in 1956.
Before we get to the final task of legibility, we need to introduce a different story – but still one of great interest.
The element: Radium
The story revolves around the element named Radium. Radium was first discovered by Pierre and Marie Curie in 1898. Twenty years later, in 1915, Guido Panerai patented radium for use on the hands and dials of his watches. Specifically, he combined radium bromide, phosphorus zinc sulphide and mesothelium in glass tubes. The subsequent material was of course wonderfully luminescent due to the Radium.
Unfortunately, it happened to be also tragically radioactive – a phenomenon poorly understood at the time – even by Marie Curie, who in 1934, died from aplastic anaemia – a result of being exposed to too much radium.
Radium was became a popular household item
The application of this material onto the watches was performed by hand, by women in the employ of Guido Panerai. For those who have painted before, you’ll know that the best way to make precise markings of paint on a canvas, is to use a pointed brush.
Applying the radioactive to the watch marker and dials was no different. To make the required brush point for precise application, the women would sharpen their brushes with their mouths.
This meant that “The Radium Girls” as they would come to be known as much later, ingested and were exposed to huge doses of radium. Indeed, some even go a little bit further and suggest that they were so fascinated with this new material that many applied it to their nails and teeth. Inevitably, they all died from serious illnesses related to radioactivity many years or decades later. The story is a tragic one and deserve it’s own standalone article in respect to “The Radium Girls”. It’s use was officially banned in the ‘50s, however it remained in use by watch repairmen and in the watches made for military use.
In watchmaking however, Radium was seen as somewhat of a revolution. Finally, it was possible to have a luminescent material on the dial that shone constantly AND did not need charging – both drawbacks from other luminescent materials at the time.
From that story, it should therefore be quite obvious that Guido Panerai “solved” the problem of underwater legibility by using the radium. Applied to a dark background, the luminescent material contrasted greatly and was very legible. Furthermore Guido Panerai decided to use an enlarged case which allowed for a bigger dial with much clearer numbers.
Panerai has finally made it’s first diver’s watch – the most effective diver’s watch at the time and a design which we know very much associate with Panerai. It’s a design that even to this day polarises – some love it and some hate it. However, it’s features have changed very little compared with the modern day Panerai’s which is always consistent with watches of great design.
The more astute of you will also now realise the significance of arguably their most famous watch collection and the name of that diver watch – Radiomir.