Panerai Radiomir PAM00685 & PAM00687
In 1936, dive gauge manufacturer Officine Panerai and watchmaker Rolex joined forces to build a watch at the request of the Italian Royal Navy. Intended for use during covert, night-time dives, Panerai's expertise gave what was essentially a complete watch from Rolex that extra level of functionality: a glowing dial. With numerals that shone clear and legible at a consistent and unfaltering rate, the Panerai Radiomir was unstoppable. There was just one tiny problem with it, however—that glowing dial was deadly.
Watch our video review of the Panerai Radiomir 3 Days Acciaio Brevettato PAM00685 and PAM00687
With Nobel Prize-winner Marie Curie's discovery of the material radium in 1898 came a widespread fascination with the stuff. At this point, its deadly properties weren't known let alone understood, and by the 1920s several companies—Panerai included—had developed commercial uses for the substance. This wasn't limited to watches: the 'health'—in inverted commas—benefits of Radium resulted in a radium-lined water container called the 'Revigator', which claimed to cure arthritis amongst other things; radium-based foodstuffs like bread and chocolate; and a radium-laced toothpaste given the seal of approval by a Doctor Alfred Curie—no relation to Marie Curie whatsoever. Clinics and spas were dedicated to the supposedly curative properties of radium. The trademark radium glow was even used in cosmetics and children's toys.
The Radiomir PAM00685 is a reissue of the 1938 'Brevettato' Radiomir, originally painted with radium...
Now, radium itself doesn't glow, but its radiation can excite the electrons in a phosphorescent material like zinc sulphide, which then emits energy as light. This was the basis of Panerai's glowing Radiomir paint, which it patented in 1916. Note the Italian for 'patented', Brevettato, as seen on this Radiomir 685 1938 re-edition. Across the Atlantic in America, meanwhile, and a slew of radium-based paint brands were springing up. Radium was the most expensive material by weight in the world at the time, and the demand was huge. Factories employed thousands of ladies to apply this glowing paint to many different products, including watch dials. When the girls left the factories at night, they themselves glowed. At the time, it was considered a perk.
...while the PAM00687 demonstrates the discolouration the radium causes over time
Unfortunately, this lethal phenomenon wasn't fully understood until Marie Curie committed her life—both figuratively and literally—to researching it. Curie in fact coined the term 'radiation' herself, from the Latin radius, meaning 'ray'. What she eventually determined was that radioactive materials like radium emit beams of electromagnetic radiation from the decay of atomic nuclei. These rays are ionizing, which gives them the ability to strip electrons from atoms. The most powerful of these rays were known as gamma rays—the type the radium emitted.
The Panerai Radiomir 687 is a modern replication of the destructive effect of gamma radiation. What would have started out looking like the 685 when it was new has discoloured thanks to the endless bombardment of radiation from the radium-based paint. Radium has a half-life—the amount of time it takes for radioactivity to fall to half its original value—of 1,600 years; a single watch remains lethal for generations.
Both the 685 and 687 are powered by the in-house, hand-wound calibre P.3000 with its 72-hour power reserve
Imagine what that kind of destructive energy could do to a human, and in far larger doses. The 'Radium Girls', as the dial-painters were known, quickly started showing gruesome symptoms. First, their teeth would begin to rot from where they pointed the tips of their brushes in their mouths. The teeth could then be pulled out without resistance. Their gums then ulcerated and their jawbones crumbled. Their skin thinned, tearing easily. Eventually, their insides would haemorrhage, and they would die.
It wasn't until the late 1930s that the surviving girls won their case against the companies that had inflicted the paint upon them. When investigators exhumed the body of a factory girl who had died five years earlier—whose cause of death had been recorded as syphilis—and found her still glowing, there was no questioning what had happened.
The radium on the original dials is still radioactive today, and will continue to be so for another millennium and a half
In 1949, Panerai updated its paint formula with a different radioactive material: tritium. The low energy beta-particles radiated by tritium and its 12.5-year half-life negated the horrendous side-effects of the previous Radiomir paint, and its use was continued for decades. In hindsight, the use of radium makes for a harrowing story, but it's important to remember that, at the time, its deadly properties were quite simply unknown. It makes you think—what will the 'Radiomir' of the 21st century be?
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