Introduced on the 70th anniversary of the first Panerai prototype for the Italian Royal Navy, the Panerai Radiomir 1936 PAM 249 from 2006 pays homage to the one watch that started it all. Join us as we delve into the history of the Panerai Radiomir model and get a closer look at this special tribute watch.
The Origins of the Panerai Radiomir Watch
In 1916, Panerai filed a patent for a self-luminous material called “Radiomir” for use on its timekeeping instruments. It was a radium-based paste that could be painted onto surfaces, such as watch dials. Then, according to Panerai, the company developed ten prototype dive watches for the combat divers of the Royal Italian Navy in 1936–a watch that would eventually be known as the Panerai Radiomir.
The prototypes featured large 47 mm cushion-shaped cases with wire lugs so that the military divers could wear them on water-resistant straps. The fluted and flared winding crowns on the left side of the cases were oversized to make them easier to manipulate with gloves on. The dials were designed to be highly legible, using oversized hour markers painted in the proprietary Radiomir luminous material. Finally, inside the case was a hand-wound mechanical movement. These cases and movements were in fact sourced from Rolex then modified by Panerai modified to meet the demanding military specifications of the Italian Navy. It’s remarkable to see how these fundamental design traits have endured over time and continue to be part of modern-day Panerai’s design language.
Understanding the California Dial
There seems to some controversy surrounding the origins of the so-called California dial. Panerai suggests that the 1936 dive watch prototypes delivered to the Italian frogmen command were fitted with dials that included an intriguing hour marker mix of Roman numerals, Arabic numerals, and shapes. However, it was Rolex that filed a patent for this specific dial design in 1941–four years after the debut year of the Panerai Radiomir prototypes. Rolex called this dial “Error-Proof Radium Dial” to emphasize that its design allows for easy reading. Apparently, the “California Dial” nickname was only coined sometime in the 1980s. One theory goes that the name came about because California-based dealers were selling large amounts of vintage Rolex watches with this specific dial style.
Some early Panerai watches did indeed come fitted with California dials during WWII but whether or not the very first 1936 prototypes did is still up for debate.
Panerai Radiomir 1936 PAM 249
Controversies aside, in 2006, Panerai released the limited-edition Panerai Radiomir 1936 PAM 249 series in honor of the company’s prototypes. Only 1,936 pieces of these tribute watches were made and they faithfully mirror the design of the original models but furnished with a handful of modern updates.
Similar to the vintage versions, the Panerai Radiomir 1936 PAM00249 sports a massive 47 mm cushion-shaped case with the characteristic wire lugs and oversized winding crown. Rather than modern sapphire, the dial is protected via Plexiglass crystal to fit that retro vibe. The dial itself features that famed Califonia dial style, with Roman numerals at the top, Arabic numerals at the bottom, rectangles at 3, 6, and 9, and an upside down triangle at 12. At the center sits a pair of blued hands for the hours and minutes.
Of course, since we now know that radium is highly dangerous, the luminous material used on the PAM00249 is non-radioactive Luminova but finished in a way to appear vintage. Note also the unmarked dial with no mention of the brand name. This was standard for military watches during wartime so Panerai opted for this approach for this commemorative piece.
While the dial side has a Plexiglass crystal, the caseback is equipped with a sapphire crystal caseback for a view of the movement inside. The movement is the hand-wound Caliber OP X with the “Cotes de Geneva” decoration on the bridges. The mechanical movement operates at 21,600 beats per hour and offers a power reserve of 56 hours.
The leather strap of the Panerai Radiomir 1936 PAM 249 also includes a vintage touch in the form of the retro trapezoid-shaped tang buckle. It’s worth mentioning that the wire lugs can be easily removed from the case thanks to a patented system. This allows the wearer to switch out straps easily for a variety of different looks.
For fans of vintage Panerai watches, the Radiomir 1936 PAM 249 offers the best of both worlds by merging the look of the original prototype from over 80 years ago with practical modern touches suited to today’s lifestyle.