The Complete History Of
The Rolex Submariner & SEA-DWELLER
Rolex's Conquest Of The Ocean
Chapter 3: Panerai & The Italian Royal Navy
The First Professional Rolex Diving Watch
[Part 1 of 4]
Panerai has a fascinating and colorful history which is woven in with the history of Rolex as well as with the Royal Italian Navy, the German Kampfschwimmer's and the Egyptian Army. Rolex and Panerai are thought by many as being distant cousins, but as we will learn, they are much more like brothers:
In 1860 Giovanni Panerai (1825-1897) opened a watch shop in Florence, Italy which sold high-quality pocket watches.
In 1864 Guido Panerai & Figlio was established in Florence and specialized in mechanical engineering and designing and producing high quality equipment for the Italian Navy. This is the company that would one day become Officine Panerai.
In the early 20th Century the Orologeria Svizzera was established and grew beyond just being a watch retailer. The Orologeria Svizzera sold tools and accessories for precision engineering and also contained a repair shop for watches and clocks as well as the first watchmaking school in Florence, Italy.
In 1915 Guido Panerai developed and patented a process for creating luminous markings for equipment made for the Italian Navy, which he called Radiomir. It is likely Guido Panerai had no idea his Radiomir was extremely dangerous and highly toxic since it was based upon Radium which is one of the most radioactive chemical elements known to mankind.
Radiums atomic number is 88 on the periodic table of elements and its symbol is Ra. Radium is more than 1 Million times more radioactive than the same mass of uranium and it has a half-life of 1602 years.
Since radium played such and important role in illuminating the first wrist watches in the dark, we must explore its essence.
Watches that glow in the dark today use a process named Luminova which is a phosphorescent process, which means the material absorbs light energy, stores it, and emanates it until it runs out–kind of like a rechargeable flashlight, or perhaps and even better analogy would be glow-in-the-dark stars you adhere to the ceiling in a child's bedroom.
All forms or light are essentially forms of energy. If you examine a standard soft white incandescent light bulb, you will notice it produces light based upon heat output–same with a campfire or kerosene lantern.
Phosphorescence and fluorescence light sources such as glow-in-the-dark stars, TV or compact fluorescent light bulbs produce light by reacting to radiation energy.
These methods adhere to the same fundamental principle that an external energy source excites atoms, thus causing the release of visual light known as photons.
The original watches "lume" was powered by Radium which conversely radiated stored energy that did not depend on an external source of energy. Radium was used by Guido Panerai as the essential part of his "Radiomir" process which caused elements covered with the Radiomir to glow-in-the-dark.
Radiomir was originally used on instrument dials for ships and artillery targeting equipment which was thought–at the time–to be of great benefit since it did not require and electrical source of energy. In order to understand Radium and its effect on the watch industry we must examine radium in more detail.
The Discovery Of Radium
Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so we may fear less. –Marie Curie (1867-1934)
Radium was discovered by the famous nobel prize winning physicist and chemist, Marie Curie along with her husband Pierre Curie. Marie Curie not only discovered radioactivity, but also coined the term. Madame Curie as she was commonly referred to, was born in Poland in 1867, and she was an amazing scientist–so much so, she was the first scientist in history to win two different Nobel Prizes.
1n 1891 when Maria was 24 years old she moved to Paris to attend the University of Paris where she attained her higher degrees and performed her history changing scientific experiments. Marie was married to Pierre Curie who was a Nobel co-laureate of hers and her daughter, Irene Joliot-Curie and son-in-law Frederic Joliot-Curie were also Nobel prize winners. Imagine what dinner conversation must have been like in the Curie household!!!
Pierre & Marie Currie As A Young Couple In Paris
Marie Curie amazingly discovered two different element on the periodic table of elements which were polonium and and radium. She named polonium after her country of birth–Poland.
Marie was a scientific pioneer and she pioneered the field of radiation therapy which used radioactive isotopes to treat and kill cancer cells. Marie and her husband Piere (pictured above) discovered radium in 1898 in pitchblende which came from the North Bohemia region in the former Czech Republic. The Curie's were studying pitchblende and noticed once they removed the uranium from the pitchblende the remaining material was still highly radioactive.
Next, they separated out a radioactive mixture consisting primarily of barium which gave off a bright green flame color which had never been documented. The Curie's shared their amazing discovery with the world for the first time at the French Academy Of Sciences on December 26, 1898.
In 1910 Curie and Andre-Louis Debierne isolated radium as a pure metal through a process of electrolysis of pure radium chloride solution that used a mercury cathode and distilling in an atmosphere of hydrogen gas. Unfortunately, years later, Radium exposure was blamed for Madame Curies premature death.
Radium is an alkaline earth metal that is silvery white metallic looking and when it was first used for creating self-luminous paint for watches, aircraft switches, clocks and instrument dials it was not known that it was highly radioactive and deadly.
In 1915 when Guido Panerai applied for his patent application for Radiomir, he obviously had no idea how deadly and toxic Radium was.
Nobody knows for certain how many watch dial painters who used their lips to shape camel haired paintbrushes died from radiation poisoning. At the minimum it is in the hundreds, but more than likely in the thousands–internationally.
Essentially the radium would get stored in their bones where it would get converted to calcium and replace bone marrow and kill them. Radium was used as late as the 1950s, although tritium typically replaced it. Tritium is also potentially dangerous if ingested, but it replaced radium. Today, luminova has replaced both. Luminova is not radioactive and thus it is safe.
The Radium Girls
There is a famous piece of American history typically referred to as "The Radium Girls" who are pictured below. The Radium Girls were a group of female factory workers who experienced radiation poisoning from painting watch dials with glow-in-the-dark radium-based-paint in Orange, New Jersey in the U.S.A. in 1917.
The Radium Girls were told the paint was harmless. They however ingested deadly amounts of radium when they would lick their camel hair paintbrushes to sharpen the tip.
The radium girls thought the glow-in-the-dark radium paint was fun, so they would paint their fingernails with the radium paint and even use it as makeup or put it on their teeth. Then they started dropping like flies. Five of the radium girls sued their employer in a court case which established the right of individual workers who contract occupational diseases to sue their employer.
Female employees at the U.S. Radium Corporation in 1922 painting radium onto watch dials
From 1917 to 1926, the U.S. Radium Corporation was engaged in the process of extracting radium from carnoite ore to produce luminous paints which were marketed under the "Undark" brand name.
U.S. Radium was a defense contractor and major supplier of radioluminescent watches to the U.S. Military. U.S. Radium Corporation's plant in Orange, New Jersey employed over a hundred women to paint radium glow-in-the-dark paint on watch dials and other various instrument panels.
The going pay rate for painting 250 dials per day was around a penny and a half per dial. Management knew the paint was very dangerous but they did nothing to protect the employees. After tremendous difficulty the Radium Girls won the lawsuit which set a significant precedent in American labor law.
It is profound to note radium was used as an ingredient in some foods for taste and as a preservative. It was even used as an additive in toothpaste, hair creams, and was even put in some foods as a curative agent.
The first Panerai watches made by Rolex for Panerai had the Panerai Radiomir designation on the dial and these radioactive watches were produced up until 1954.
How Radium Paint Glows
When zinc sulfide is mixed into paint with radium, the zinc sulfide emits light when it is struck by the radioactive particles from the radium. Over time the zinc sulfide "wears out" and ceases to glow. This typically leads unsuspecting wearers to think the paint is no longer radioactive, while it is still almost just as radioactive as the day it was made!!!
Ironically, it is still unsafe to wear these old Panerai watches because they still emit an unsafe level of radioactivity as we see in the two photos below that were taken by Philippe, of a geiger counter measuring the current level of radioactivity being emitted by the radium. Since the half life of Radium is 1602 years, it will be many, many years before these watches are safe to wear.
The fact that these watches are still highly radioactive does not diminish their historical and financial value. Quite the contrary. These old watches typically are valued at over $100,000 U.S. Dollars.
Let's take a closer look at Panerai. Before making wristwatches, Officine Panerai specialized in making instrumentation controls and tools for the Italian Navy. Pictured below we see a photo of an Original Panerai compass and depth gauge. It is important to note these devices as well as every original Panerai watch ever made were only available to the Italian Panerai company and were NOT sold to the general public.
In this next photo we see an original Panerai flashlight and wrist-worn depth gauge along with a Panerai professional diving watch from 1946. Soon we will be taking a much closer look at the evolution of the Panerai professional diving watches, which Rolex began producing in 1935, but it is important to note the half-moon-crescent crown gaurd pictured below, which is a patented design trademark of Panerai did not arrive until 1946.
Before we more closely examine the evolution of the professional Panerai dive watches, I want to give you a visual frame-of-reference for the size scale of the original Panerai watches. All the Panerai professional dive watches Rolex ever made for Officine Panerai were 47mm. The photo below shows a 47mm Panerai next to a Rolex Military Submariner [Reference 5517] which is 40mm.
Ironically back in the 1960s when the Rolex "Milsub" was made it was considered to be a huge watch and the Panerai from decades earlier was considered to be crazy huge. Today the standard Rolex Submariner is beginning to look dainty and the larger Panerai is becoming the standard. It is also interesting to note the Rolex Milsub 5517 (pictured below) was also not available to the general public, but only made for the British military.