© 2013 Miro Roman

The Watch Snob Challenge: Panerai

The Review

I disdain watch reviews, of which there are far too many, written by smug bloggers showing off their dubious knowledge of horology and their far-too-hairy wrists. Nevertheless, I agreed to wear a Panerai model of the brand’s choosing and to jot my honest impressions of it. The Snob is always willing to give a watch brand a second chance, even if not all brands have the courage to expose themselves to one (I’m looking at you, Mr. Kobold). Upon receiving its invitation, I instructed Panerai to send me the watch that it is most proud of, the timepiece that best represents the brand as it is today. What I received was the Radiomir 3 Days Automatic or, as it is known to the numerology-obsessed Panerai faithful, the PAM00388. My only promise was to look at the watch with a critical, but fair, eye, and to write the unvarnished truth as only I can. I had the watch for a full 30 days, and though I can’t say that I wore it daily for the whole time, I did endeavor to wear it in regular rotation with my other timepieces to simulate ownership.

When the Radiomir arrived, I had just returned from a 10-day journey through Italy, up to Basel for the annual watch fair and, after an ill-considered side trip through Germany, back home. Through all these travels, I was wearing a slim dress watch with a second time zone display — the brand isn’t important — and I was ready for a change. The contrast could not have been more jarring when I slipped on the Radiomir. I can honestly say that I have never spent more than one minute of my life with a watch larger than 42 millimeters shackled to my wrist. Yet here was this 45-millimeter ingot strapped to me. I immediately sent a message to my trainer, Felipe, canceling the week’s kettlebell sessions; there would be no need.

Though it was obscenely large, I was surprised at how quickly I got used to wearing this watch. I had been entered into the unseemly world of the oversize watch lover, self-consciously noticing my timepiece in shop-window reflections and draping my tired arm on tables at dinners with friends, all of whom were dismayed at the seeming loss of my wits. It became a guilty pleasure, perhaps akin to that of the boy who discovers his father’s Playboy stash. Would I prefer a 40-millimeter case? That goes without saying. But I would also like it if Sheamus’ surly pickled uncle would quit drinking; nonetheless I enjoy his drinks cabinet full of single malts when we visit.

I had always dismissed Panerais outright due to their size. But, up close for a few weeks, I grew to appreciate the subtleties of my watch’s casework. The cushion case lives up to its description, appearing from all angles like a throw pillow, meeting at all four corners. The crown is of the onion variety, surprisingly delicate and tapered, perhaps even slightly too small for the case, and I wondered how those virile divers who first wore this style felt about this dainty detail. The acre of steel on the case is entirely rendered in high-gloss polish, catching light and calling attention to itself as only a Panerai can. What makes the watch acceptably comfortable and surprisingly versatile are the wire loop strap bars. The case is thus almost a perfect 45-millimeter square, with the angled loops protruding only slightly, and even then without the bulk of typical case horns. A finely stitched alligator strap, a full 26 millimeters wide, completes the decidedly formal look and almost made me second guess this whole frogman story, despite the crude buckle that is altogether too large for anything other than opening bottles of lager.

Then there is the dial, that so-called “sandwich” dial for which Panerai is famous. When something is your calling card, you’d better get it right, and Panerai does, with one shortcoming. First the good news: Even under a 10x loupe, the edges of the number stenciling are nothing short of perfect, and the matte black texture of the dial is a fine counterpoint to the high polish of the case. One thing I have enjoyed about Panerai is the use of these cartoonish looping numerals. Who else but the Italians could add this bit of flourish, even on what was originally a military watch? May their Swiss overlords never sober up this feature. I’m not altogether certain what the “Black Seal” subtitle refers to — some secret Masonic symbol or trained pinniped mascot? I could have done without it, though it didn’t altogether ruin the aesthetics.

Given my disconcertingly glowing review thus far, I would almost be prepared to say that, externally, the PAM00388 is nearly without fault. But then there is that date window. Was it left to an apprentice to finish while the dial makers were out to lunch? It is far too crude for what is otherwise an elegant visage, lacking any bevels and inappropriately sized for its position on the dial. Even the date numerals peer sheepishly from below, as if embarrassed to be seen there. Shame.
And so, I expect you’re awaiting a verdict on the movement, Panerai’s proud manufacture calibre P.9000. It is a serviceable movement, which is both the best and the worst thing that can be said about it. In the absence of any innovative new complications or methods, the merits of a movement really come down to its decoration, finishing and accuracy. In fact, a simpler watch can be a fine vehicle for showcasing craftsmanship, and a transparent caseback is thereby welcome and justified.

The PAM00388 has a sapphire caseback, and through it one expects to see an triumphant flourish of perlage, Cotes de Genève, anglage and blued screws. But the Radiomir might as well have been fitted with a solid caseback, because the movement has none of the above. If Panerai were going for a minimalist approach to keep with its instrument heritage, then a solid caseback would have been preferable to exposing the cutout rotor and brushed metal that passes for decoration. I’ve seen far better decoration on the ETA pocket watch movements the brand puts in its base models, so why not apply those skills here? If you want to know how the movement keeps time or winds and sets, there are no doubt countless blogs that breathlessly dwell on these minutiae. I’ll leave my assessment at “serviceable.”

While some may hope for a ringing endorsement of Panerai or, the more cynical and sadistic among you, an outright dismissal, I will disappoint you both. My final assessment of the Radiomir is simply this: If this watch is representative of the brand as a whole, I am left with a better impression than I originally had. That may sound like damning it with faint praise — so be it. While my criticism of Panerai’s reliance on a tenuous legacy still stands, I also accept the fact that it can draw inspiration from its past and is free to reinvent itself however it pleases. Will I ever own a Panerai? Doubtful. My tastes run to the more, shall we say, classic architectures of wristwatches. But will I continue to berate the brand as a mere one-trick pony catering only to incoherent steroidal actors? Certainly not. And that, dear readers, is where I shall leave it with Panerai.

Call it discernment, call it a critical eye, or, if you must, call it snobbery. But never let it be said that the Watch Snob is unfair. If it weren’t for standard bearers and gatekeepers such as myself and a pitiably small group of others, the world would be awash in overpriced timepieces that suffocate any magic that is left under a veneer of half-truths and a mountain of press releases. Show me an honest and authentic timepiece, and I shall reward it with praise. Show me a watch that is propped up by marketing gibberish rather than intrinsic value, and I will damn it with scathing criticism. Someone must do this unenviable work; it is my calling. This is why you read the Snob. This is why you need the Snob.


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