Officine Panerai’s Lightweight Alternatives to Steel
written by A.Morgan - 24th Oct 2011
With steel being one of the most used metals on the planet, what makes Panerai think we need watches made of anything else? We don our deerstalkers and investigate…
The alloy of iron and carbon that we call steel is one of the most common building materials found in the modern world today, production reaching 1.4 billion tonnes in 2010. It is also the most recycled material in the world, so it stands to reason that the majority of the watch cases we see today are made of the stuff in its various arrangements.
Steel isn’t a particularly high-tech material; by that I mean you don’t need to wear a lab coat and carry a clipboard to make it, and as such it has been made in one form or another for the last four thousand years. Some iron, some coke (the black kind, not the white kind) and lots of fire are the basic ingredients for steel, so it stands to reason that making it has been possible for such a long time. It’s strong, it’s abundant, it’s easy to produce – what more could anyone possibly want from a material?
The properties of steel are all fine and dandy until it comes to getting them off the ground, and that was the problem faced by the burgeoning airlines during the 1950’s when they realised that making planes out of wood was getting a bit old-fashioned. It was at this time that lightweight metal alloys such as aluminium and titanium were becoming affordable to manufacture, and so began a new era of modern, high-tech materials.
In the opposite way that low-tech steel required little more than a controlled explosion to make, titanium required a vastly complex procedure known as the Kroll process to extract it from its ore. This involves people in lab coats and clipboards feeding titanium oxide into a brew of red-hot chlorine gas and carbon (carbochlorination) which is then distilled and reduced using molten magnesium and argon gas. Not easy, or cheap, but very light; half as light as steel in fact.
But this is nothing compared to ceramic composites. The reserve of prototype aeronautics, spacecraft and high level motorsport, ceramic composites are supremely strong, lightweight, heat resistant, and ridiculously complicated and expensive to manufacture. A ceramic composite, putting it simply, is a blend of metal and non-metal atoms, and comes in many different formats. The synthetic sapphire and rubies often used in watch manufacture are both ceramic composites; aluminium oxides to be specific.
Officine Panerai aren’t exactly known for their conformity to accepted standards, and the two pieces we have here conform with that model of non-conformity. Their shapes are familiar, one the Luminor and one the Radiomir, but their materials are not; the PAM00116 is made of titanium and the PAM00339 a ceramic composite.
So what’s the point? What can these materials offer that will make a watch case so much better? Starting with the titanium Luminor, the instant impression is that it is extremely light, so much so that it feels wrong, as though half the nerve impulses that tell my brain how heavy something is have gotten lost along the way. Some people say they don’t like watches made of lighter materials because of this very sensation; it does feel rather odd.
The other immediately noticeable property is the dark grey colour, and its warm, almost soapy feeling surface. The colour suits the brown dial here very nicely, and being a base model it is completely uncluttered and very neutral. The case has a brushed finish rather than the polished one exhibited on the steel models, which is down to the surface oxidation that titanium gets over time. Titanium is very resistant to corrosion because of this; it quickly develops a thin layer of ‘rust’ that changes the hue of the material and protects it, but prevents mirror-finished surfaces staying mirror-finished for long.
The result is a smart, subtle watch that blends a little better onto the wrist than its shiny steel counterpart, not just in looks but in feel too. For a larger 44mm diameter watch, as soon as it’s strapped on, it’s like it doesn’t even exist. It warms quickly, and the lightweight nature means the lingering momentum that is characteristic of wearing a large, chunky watch like this is gone. It feels completely natural, and it is – unlike steel, which can react with human skin and bring out a rash, titanium does not induce allergic reactions. It’s why it’s used in surgical applications, so it’s perfect for people who can’t wear steel.
If by this point you’ve decided that titanium is actually a little hum-drum as a material, it would make it a good time to talk about the Radiomir PAM00339. Panerai actually offer two types of ceramics for their cases, one as a solid chunk of zirconium oxide (as seen in the PAM00292) and the other an electrochemically-coated aluminium composite as found here in the 339. The aluminium ceramisation process offers the lightness and hardness of zirconium oxide but with more durability, as anyone who has ever dropped a zirconium oxide case onto a hard surface and sheen it shatter into many pieces can testify.
It’s a bizarre material really, particularly in the brown hue it comes in here. It is light; lighter even than the titanium, and it feels and sounds (when tapped with a nail) like it is made of plastic – there’s almost an element of blind faith in believing that it isn’t made of plastic. The lack of mass is particularly impressive because Panerai have seen fit to squeeze their eight-day P.2002/7 calibre into it, inflating the case to a vast 47mm in diameter. The dark colours on both the case and dial do visually shrink the watch back down again so it is comfortably wearable, helped by the incredibly soft ‘aged’ suede strap that comes with it.
Both these watches offer a completely different feel to each other and also to the standard steel models, and that’s to be expected. Whether that feel is something you loath or covet is entirely personal, but it’s great to have the choice. So what is the point? Well, what is the point of developing racing cars that can corner at 5G, or rockets that can fly to the moon? It’s because we can. It’s much the same thing for this unlikely pair, showcasing both where we’ve been (the historic case shapes) and where we’re going (the space-age materials), all in a conveniently wearable package that, also, very helpfully, tells the time. What more reason do you need?