Review: Panerai Radiomir 1940 PAM00502
Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin, Audemars Piguet—these three eminent companies are known to be some of the best watchmakers in the world. And deservedly so, contributing for centuries to the tapestry of watchmaking, building a rich, illustrious history of mechanical ingenuity and invention. You’ll notice Panerai is not on that list—here’s why.
It stands to reason that we should define what we mean by “watchmaker”. It’s fairly simply defined, of course, as a person or an organisation that makes watches. Seems straightforward enough—that is, until you venture a little deeper into the world of pedantry, because to define the making of a watch, you must first establish how much of the watch that includes.
It’s a very serious subject that’s been given a lot of thought over the years, not just in terms of manufacturer contribution, but also with country contribution as well. A Swiss made watch must, by law, contain a movement of which the majority of its parts have been made in Switzerland. This isn’t defined by weight but by cost, so a manufacturer can’t simply get all the hard stuff made somewhere else. To cap it off, the movement has to be assembled and cased in Switzerland, too.
But here we’re specifically talking about how much a company contributes to the manufacture of its own watches. In the cases of Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin and Audemars Piguet, they mostly—but not exclusively—design, develop and make everything within their own walls. The design and development are an important distinction to make, because it elevates these brands to a higher level again, over watchmakers that license a movement design to make in-house. I’m looking at you, TAG Heuer.
But anyway, this isn’t destined to be any kind of witch hunt, more an exercise of distinction. Patek Philippe et al spent a lot of time not just developing their own watches and movements, but also designing new technologies and mechanics that have since become mainstays of the traditional mechanical movement—and that’s what makes them true watchmakers in the purest sense.
So, if we understand the companies that do fall into the category of being a true watchmaker, then how about the ones that don’t? Well, if a company sourced cases and movements from external suppliers, even if they are built to spec, then we’d be likely to badge this organisation as merely a “watch company” rather than a true watchmaker. Rolex is such a company, as is TAG Heuer—or at least, they used to be.
And so’s Panerai. Panerai wasn’t even a watch company. It was a small Florentine supplier of underwater diving instruments. Depth gauges, compasses, torches, you name it—but not watches. What the company was really big on was luminous paint, a substance that attracted the attention of none other than the Italian Navy. Problem was, the Navy not only wanted the depth gauges, compasses and torches—it also wanted a watch.
Now, remember—Panerai was not a watchmaker. The business originally started by selling and repairing watches, but once it found its niche making diving instruments, building a watch that could handle the same unforgiving underwater environment was out of the question. So, they had Rolex build it. Ironic, really, considering that Rolex was getting someone else to build it themselves. That’s military contractors for you, I guess.
It wasn’t until 2005 that Panerai actually made a movement itself. That seems like not too long ago, and given the company’s century-and-a-half of operation, it isn’t—but then Rolex only did the same in 2004. Here’s those pedantic distinctions again, because 2004 is when Rolex finally bought the company that had been making its movements since the beginning.
Practically speaking, there was no difference in the way Rolex operated pre- and post-sale, because Aegler, the company Rolex purchased, had been exclusively manufacturing Rolex movements for decades. The movements were branded Rolex, the watches were branded Rolex—even the factory was branded Rolex. Founder Hans Wilsdorf knew the importance of appearances early on, editing imagery of the Aegler factory to have a “Rolex” sign on it in early marketing materials. It was this kind of thinking that got him the Panerai gig in the first place.
So why, if Panerai wasn’t even a watchmaker, did it start making its own movements in 2005? The evolution of business. Just how Giovanni Panerai’s jewellery shop became a diving equipment specialist in the 19th century, and a watch supplier in the 20th, in the 21st it has to become a true watchmaker. Rightly or wrongly—and that’s a whole other discussion—a bought-in mechanical movement may well not be enough of a sell anymore. The exclusivity of a being a watchmaker is what people want.
The Panerai Radiomir 1940 Chrono Monopulsante 8 Days GMT Oro Rosso PAM00502 is not only one of the longest names in watchmaking history, but also Panerai’s attempt at ushering in its evolution towards becoming a true watchmaker. Don’t let the glitzy gold case and hands, and sunburst browny-gold dial distract you—we’re here to assess the capabilities of the brand as a manufacturer of fine horology. The watchmakers at Panerai must have read our minds, because the calibre P.2004/10 has everything here but the kitchen sink: a GMT hand, 24-hour indicator, eight-day power reserve from three barrels with linear indicator, and a monopusher column-wheel chronograph as well.
Everything here is a little different to what you’d expect, really ramming home the point that this is not an off-the-shelf movement. Unlike most watches, the GMT hand negotiates the dial in 12-hour sweeps, not 24, with the 24-hour sub-dial added for clarification. Power reserve indicators are most often rotated about their centres, not along straight lines with a rack and pinion setup like we have here. Added to that, longer power reserves often come from one or two larger barrels, not three, giving the Panerai a torque curve advantage that should keep it more accurate as it gets close to empty.
And the chronograph: a single pusher is less advanced than traditional twin pushers, but it’s less-frequently accomplished and therefore a more prestigious complication. Even the running seconds get the full watchmaker treatment, resetting to zero when the crown is pulled. That’s a tricky thing to achieve and one most people probably won’t even notice. You could call it try-hard, and I suppose it is. It takes a long, long time to move forward in watchmaking; might as well make every step count.
But this effort isn’t limited to just the mechanics; watchmakers like Patek Philippe earn their reputation not just for incredible engineering, but for artistry as well. A way a movement is finished says just as much—if not more—than the movement itself. And there’s everything you’d expect in the calibre P.2004/10, skeletonization, graining of all different types, polishing and bevelling. It retains an industrial note, especially given the overall thickness of around 16mm—but does it stop in your tracks? I think it does.
The 502 is certainly accomplished, but has it set Panerai off on the right path to being considered a true watchmaker? Or should the question be: does Panerai even need to be considered a true watchmaker? With its roots in history as a significant contributor to the stories we enjoy hearing about today, probably not. It hasn’t hurt Rolex. Does Panerai need to keep moving forward in order to stay relevant to the desires of the customer? Assuredly so. Rolex has shown with the Sky-Dweller that the two paths don’t cross with quite the ease you might hope or expect, but it is possible. Panerai was never a true watchmaker before, and nor did it need to be, but if that’s what you, or I or anyone wants, then the 502 certainly demonstrates that the company is more than capable.
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