Panerai PAM 183 Radiomir Black Seal ¶
When someone works with watches on a daily basis, they tend to develop a list of particular watches. The watches on the list are the essentials – the best, the necessities, the icons. They are the watches that every watch lover should own at some point in their lifetime. It’s the desert-island list for watch nuts.
My list includes a spot for the Panerai Historic Collection Radiomir – a watch that, in my opinion, is one of the finest designs of the 20th century. It represents all the qualities I look for in a watch – a rich brand and model history, an iconic design, harmonious proportions, and fine finishing. And of course it looks and feels fantastic on the wrist.
Panerais in general have become a phenomenon in the current watch market. The brand has been steadily building a fanatical following in the last 20 years, which has transformed the marque from a boutique Italian manufacturer of military instruments into a powerhouse Swiss watch brand. The popularity of Panerais has become such that base models and limited editions are scarce and can command significant premiums, to the point that the brand often unseats Rolex as the king of residual values.
When most people think Panerai, they general think of the Luminor. With its distinctive “device protecting the crown” (seriously, that’s what it is officially called) and chunky squared-off case, it has become the prototypical military style watch and the design most associated with Panerai along with the related 1950 case style. The Radiomir line, itself representing the genesis of the Panerai watch brand, is often overlooked in favour of its more popular stablemates. And I, for one, think this is unfortunate.
Based on a Rolex pocket watch and utilizing a Rolex movement and case, the Radiomir was introduced as a prototype diving watch in 1936. Panerai, a watch and instrument making operation based in Florence, was looking to develop a specialized watch for Royal Italian Navy divers. The watch had to be durable, watertight, and easily legible underwater. Rolex provided the rugged mechanism and their expertise in waterproofing, while Panerai developed a special radium luminescent paint that ensure high visibility in all conditions. Hence “Radiomir” – Panerai’s name for their radium mixture.
The basic elements of the design were established from the get go - a large (47mm) cushion shaped pocket watch case with oversized crown and wire-loop lugs to attach a strap. The production version introduced in 1938 used an innovative two-level “sandwich” dial that has now become a signature of the marque.
Panerai continued producing military instruments and modified their dive watches according to experience in the field. The original Radiomir was superseded in the 1940s with an updated case that had sturdier cast-in lugs. In 1949 a new and safer tritium-based mix dubbed “Luminor” replaced the Radiomir luminescent compound. In 1950 a unique crown protector that applied pressure to maintain water resistance was introduced, and the style of the current Luminor collection was established while the original wire-lug Radiomir faded into history.
Panerai remained a commercial supplier of instruments and equipment to the Navy for decades, only introducing a civilian lineup of watches in 1993. The initial collection featured re-editions of two historic models – the Luminor and the Mare Nostrum chronograph. It wouldn’t be until 1997 that the Radiomir would be reintroduced in the Panerai lineup as a limited edition of only 60 examples. The PAM 021 was a platinum recreation of the original 47mm design, with two casebacks included (one solid like the original and a modern sapphire back) and the same vintage Rolex calibre 618 that powered the original (refurbished to as-new condition, of course). Subsequent years saw the production of an annual series of limited edition Radiomirs until 2004 when a regular production model, the PAM 210 Historic Radiomir Base, was introduced.
The PAM 183 we have here is similar to the 210 but adds a second register and the “Black Seal” moniker - so called in honour of the black-clad Italian Navy divers who used Panerais in decades past. It is part of the Historic collection, which means no complications and a manual-wind movement. In the case of the 183 the movement is the tried-and-true ETA/Unitas 6497, modified by Panerai to resemble the classic Rolex 618. The result doesn’t look much like the workhorse 6497 it is based on - it is upgraded throughout, finely finished, has modified bridgework, a swan neck regulator, and is certified as a chronometer. The Base models are not officially chronometers, despite having the same movement, simply because they don’t have seconds hands and cannot be tested by the COSC as a result.
Outside of the movement it is a classic Panerai – large 45mm case, highly luminous sandwich dial and stick hands, wide leather strap. The Radiomir is one of those watches that is big, but wears well considering the size. The soft contours are comfortable on the wrist, while the delicate wire lugs make it wear smaller than you would think. Back to back with a 44mm Luminor or 1950, the Radiomir feels smaller. In my opinion the Radiomir case is one of the most beautiful in the watch business. It’s a fluid form with soft curves and an organic shape. It’s remarkably elegant for what is ostensibly a military tool – I describe the Radiomir as an oversized dress watch, a versatile design that is appropriate in both formal and casual settings. The pocket-watch lineage is clear – water resistant Rolex cases of the 1930s featured the same distinctive cushion shape with squared-off edges that transitioned remarkably well into a wristwatch design. The original was, after all, a Rolex pocket watch with a strap attached.
On the original (and the PAM 021) the wire lugs were one-piece items soldered permanently to the case, which meant that you had to sew or rivet the strap over the lugs – on more recent Rads the lugs are split into two and secured by screws, making them easy to remove for strap changing. The 183 is delivered on the classic brown calfskin strap with Pre-Vendome style tang buckle that is familiar to Panerai fans the world over. It is a tough hide that wears well and develops a caramel patina in short order. If brown isn’t your thing then you are spoiled for choice when it comes to replacement straps, be they OEM or aftermarket.
The strap width is well matched to the size of the case as well, wide enough to keep the design from looking disproportionate. Bell & Ross Instruments are another example – early BR01s had a narrow strap that fit between the lugs and made the already big watch look even more top-heavy. That strap was quickly replaced with the distinctive oversized item they use today and the design looks much more harmonious as a result. For the opposite effect, look at the Bell & Ross WW1 and WW2 which use narrow straps to emphasize the size of the case.
The dial is classic Panerai – two-layer black sandwich dial with Arabic 12-3-6 and a sub-seconds register at 9. The hour and minute hands are matte black, while the seconds are white. The “Black Seal” moniker is emblazoned on the dial, which to me kind of spoils the otherwise clean dial and looks gauche. Personally I would prefer metallic finish hands (and no HEY LOOK THIS IS A BLACK SEAL text on the dial) but in typical Panerai fashion minor details distinguish the pedestrian 183 from its more expensive stablemates – if you want gold or silver hands, or a more traditional dial, you have to step up to some of the limited edition pieces or the more expensive Historic and Contemporary models.
And that’s the thing about Panerai that is puzzling if you aren’t familiar with the brand. With only three main lines and a handful of styles, Panerais are typically variations of the same themes over and over with minor differences in details, materials, and complications. Certain models can appear identical at a glance but bear different model numbers and fetch completely different pricing. Panerais are a lot like luxury cars. The stripper model price tag (a Base) brings people in the door, but if you want any options, however minor they might seem, you are going to pay. You want heated seats? Those only come with the Winter Expedition Technology Package, which is only available on the LE-VTS model. You want a seconds hand on your watch? And a date window? Ooh, that’s going to cost you.
In the end none of that matters because Paneristi are some of the most fanatical and detail-obsessed fan boys in the watch business. Funny enough this commitment seems to be associated with Italian brands in general. Ducati owners, myself included, are fanatical devotees of the brand who hold events, learn to fix their own rides, and help each other out – most other motorcycle owners couldn’t possibly care less about who rides what or how it works. People stop me in the street and ask me about my bike, which never happened with any of my Japanese or German bikes, however rare they might have been. Italian car owners are similarly afflicted. So when I see a Paneristi stop someone and start chatting them up about their watch as if it was the greatest thing in the world, I understand. This is despite the fact that Panerai is now based in Switzerland and wholly owned by Richemont - the brand still carries some of that stereotypical Italian “character” that inspires the kind of loyalty that most watch companies can only dream of. And in this case you can’t chalk it all up to marketing – Panerai’s following has developed and sustained itself organically.
The Historic Radiomir is one of my all-time favourite designs, an iconic wristwatch that is as beautiful as it is distinctive. Nothing else looks like a Radiomir, except for knockoffs, and few watches are as versatile. I personally think it is the most attractive watch that Panerai produces, though it is outsold by the Luminor collections by a large margin. It is an under appreciated member of the Panerai family that deserves more respect – it is, after all, the original Panerai wristwatch. Now that the PAM 210 Base has been discontinued (as of 2012), the 183 Black Seal is effectively the new Radiomir entry model and the least expensive version of the Radiomir available. Our example is new in box, never worn… Except by me, to take these photos. If you are interested in any of our Panerais, or are seeking a particular model, please visit our contact page or call us a 514 845 8878.