Panerai Radiomir Limited Edition PAM 249 California ¶
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We’ve been on a Panerai kick lately here at Matt Baily’s. In the past several months we’ve accumulated a significant selection of rare and interesting PAMs to suit any taste, and a few interesting pieces to appeal to those discerning Paneristi who want something hard to find. The PAM 249 is one such timepiece, a watch that has become an iconic model for the brand and one of “the” limited edition pieces that every serious Panerai collector should have in their stable.
The Radiomir 249 was released in 2006 as a limited edition of 1936 examples, a nod to the year of production of the prototype California-dial ref. 3646 that inspired it. While not the rarest Panerai limited you will come across, it is probably one of the most recognized and sought after. It’s also a very polarizing design – you’ll either love it or you’ll hate it. Regardless of aesthetics the 249 represents the heritage and evolution of the Radiomir line and was, along with the 232 it was released alongside, one of the first “accessible” stainless steel 47mm Radiomir models produced. Before the 249 and 232 the only 47mm Radiomir heritage model had been the 60-example, platinum cased, vintage Rolex movement powered PAM 021 released in 1997.
The 249 was designed to closely emulate the appearance of the original Radiomir prototype, without resorting to building an uncompromising and unobtainable re-edition like the 21. It features the signature Radiomir cushion case (which we’ve discussed previously here on the Baily Blog), upsized to a substantial 47mm diameter and capped off with a tall acrylic dome crystal. Movement is the heavily modified manual-wind ETA Unitas 6497 (dubbed the OP X by Panerai) you’ll find in the Historic and Base models, with an exhibition back. Strap is a 26mm-width calfskin with a sewn-in vintage style Pre-Vendome buckle. The watch comes with a numbered parchment scroll and a hardcover book profiling historical Panerai models, all presented in the company’s signature pearwood limited edition box.
Compare a 47mm Rad to a standard-production 45mm and you’d swear there is a lot more than 2mm separating the two – these are big watches. Remarkably, and much like other Rads, the 249 wears well, even on a small wrist. The faux-wire-loop lugs give the case a unique set of proportions. You don’t have the added visual heft of a set of solid lugs, so even though it’s got a big-ass case it doesn’t look out of place on an average wrist. This is what has always attracted me to Radiomir models. And the 249 was the first Panerai design that I really took a liking to.
What makes the 249 a 249 is the so-called California dial, with its unusual mix of Roman and Arabic numerals. This arrangement has become a signature of the marque, though it has been used by other brands in the past (Rolex had some pocket and wrist watches with Cali dials, also keep in mind that the original ref. 3646 was produced by Rolex for Panerai). While this style of dial has existed for decades, the term California only emerged in the 1980s, or so the story goes. Apparently a restoration business in that state was refurbishing a large number of Rolex bubblebacks with this unusual dial arrangement, and collectors began referring to them as “California” dials. Even today it is common practice among certain “restorers” to repaint dials in this manner to make older, less collectible models look more appealing to un-informed buyers. Same goes for Rachero/Railmaster-style redials on vintage Omegas that were never offered with such designs.
The dial of the 249 is subtle and looks far better in person that it does in photographs. Like the original 3646 the dial is devoid of markings - the original was supposedly free of branding to make it more difficult for Allied forces to trace who was producing this military instruments for the Italian and German dive teams, though this seems a bit far-fetched as popping off the back would have revealed the Rolex movement and markings inside the case. Whatever the origin, this is a clean and elegant dial that has some surprising depth. Looking at photos you get the impression that it is a simple printed dial, with the luminescent numerals painted over a flat surface. Not so – in fact all the numerals are carved out and filled in with thick luminescent paste. It’s not a sandwich dial in the traditional Panerai style. There is a certain crudeness to the finish that gives the dial its characteristic vintage appearance. The slightly off-white colour of the lume and the railroad track minute scale contributes to this aged appearance as well, without looking like a “dirty” dial. The hands are blued steel and offer a nice colour contrast to the black dial.
Being a historical re-edition, the 249 features a plastic domed crystal. Yes I can hear your griping and groaning from here. Personally I prefer acrylic crystals on my watches – something about the high-dome shape and lack of distortion really appeals to me. Sure, you can now have domed sapphire crystals (ala Bell & Ross Vintage), but they have different optical qualities that are immediately apparent if you are familiar with plastic crystals - if you ever have the opportunity, compare an Omega Speedmaster with hesalite to one with sapphire to see what I mean. Yes, it will scuff and scratch if you so much as breath on it, but you can easily buff out surface scratches with some polishing paste and a soft cloth. Call me crazy but I like the look of a slightly dinged up plexi, it suits the character of a vintage design such as the 249.
Inside you’ll find the tried-and-true Panerai OP X, which is the standard bearer movement for the Historic collection. The X is a heavily modified ETA Unitas 6497 that has been reworked to look like a Rolex/Cortebert 618, the movement found in the original Panerai models of the 1930s (and used in the PAM 21 re-edition). Nowadays everyone knows the provenance of the Historic movement and often uses it as a criticism against Panerai. You’ll find the same base movement, even with decoration, in a watch costing 1/5th-1/10th the price that Panerai is charging. Today the company is gradually moving away from ETA calibres towards in-house movements, most likely due to increasing pressure from Swatch group – Panerai is part of arch-rival group Richemont. Prices are rising accordingly.
It’s certainly hard to call the 249 or any other Panerai limited edition a solid value proposition. They simply aren’t. They are collector’s pieces, rare and desirable variations on a theme that are sought after for their style and provenance, not their technical qualities. That being said, one must keep in mind that the PAM 249 originally retailed for 5800$ USD. It sold out almost immediately, and traded hands for multiples of the original retail price. Values spiked before 2008 and have come back down to more reasonable levels, but you still will not find one for less than a 5 digit price in any condition.
The strap is unique to the 249 and a nice change from the typical stiff padded calfskin straps you’ll find on most Panerais. It’s soft, pliable leather without padding and a vintage-style sewn-in buckle that suits the intentions of the design. Colour is a light brown that will no doubt age well with some use. The only downside is that the sewn-in buckle can’t be transferred to a new strap unless you cut it out and have someone custom make a new strap around it. Not out of the question, but a bit annoying. No doubt Panerai charges an obscene amount of money to replace the strap/buckle combo with an original item (last time I checked, a plain stainless steel tang Panerai buckle had a MSRP north of 200$).
The 249 is one of the most iconic Panerai limited editions and one of the most impressive Radiomir models you will encounter. While the design isn’t for everyone and the style can be a bit polarizing (either you like the case style, California dial and plastic crystal or you hate it) there is no denying that it is one of the classic modern Panerai models. The strong values and high demand for the 249 reflect this. Our example is in like-new condition with the box and papers. For more information about this or any other Panerai watches please call us at 514 845 8878 or visit our contact page.