It’s a good time to be a Panerai fan. I wrote last year about how impressed I was by the Luminor Due – not just on its merits as a watch, but for what it said about the company’s attitude towards attracting new customers – and elsewhere we’ve seen Panerai’s first custom commission (from the Royal Navy Clearance Divers) and a sell-out green dial produced for Harrods.
SIHH 2017 poured jet fuel on the flames, as Panerai brought out a number of thought-provoking and wallet-tempting new watches. We will tell you more about the BMG-Tech “liquid metal” Luminor Submersible, and the pint-sized 42mm Luminor, as well as the brand’s canny gazumping of America’s Cup sponsorship in due course. The headline piece, however, is this: the Panerai Lab-ID Luminor 1950 Carbotech 3 Days.
Yes, that’s a mouthful. We’ll call it the Lab-ID, for now. It comes from Panerai’s Laboratorio di Idee and boasts a handful of technological advancements aimed at making the everyday watch significantly more efficient and long-lasting.
Very long lasting, in fact: Panerai says it will guarantee the Lab-ID’s movement for 50 years, thanks largely to a movement it claims needs no lubrication. I’m going to get right out ahead of any eyebrow-raising – we obviously can’t know at this point how true that’s going to be, but Panerai is nothing if not confident in its claims.
This longevity is achieved by using carbon composites in the movement. Calibre P.3001/C is a hand-wound, three day movement, using only four jewels and “completely without additional lubrication”. I shall quote further from the press release, where Panerai says “the plates, bridges, barrels, escapement and anti-shock device use self-lubricating and dry lubricating materials”.
It goes on to explain that the bridges and plate are made from a tantalum-based ceramic (most ceramics in casemaking are zirconium dioxide; some, like Rado, use silicon dioxide). The high level of carbon in the ceramic minimises friction, Panerai says.
Similar methods are employed elsewhere. The escapement is made from silicon, and given a thin layer of DLC coating to eliminate the need to lubricate it. (The movement uses a 13.2mm balance, beating at 3Hz). Carbon mainspring barrels, also DLC-coated in parts, does the same job, and apparently DLC-coating the Incabloc shock-resistance modules removes the need for lubricants there as well.
It sounds so simple, on face value - but in fairness Panerai is not the first to these shores. Cartier's ID Two used ADLC-coated wheels in its gear train and glass-ceramic composites in the escapement. What is significant is the lengths we've come in that short time - Cartier did not offer the ID watches for sale, intending them only as an intellectual exercise. Now Panerai is using a lot of the same ideas in a watch you could actually own (something Cartier has yet to do).
The case is made from forged carbon (Panerai calls it Carbotech); layers of carbon fibre pressed together with PEEK (PolyEthylEtherKetone). That’s what gives it the lovely grained finish, and makes it light and wearable for a 49mm watch (couldn’t they have gone up to 50mm, just to match the other vital stats? Panerai is making just 50 pieces, and pricing each of them at €50,000).
The dial, presumably feeling left out, has also been given the carbon treatment; specifically, using carbon nanotubes to ensure an incredibly rich, deep black. It’s similar to the principle embodied by Vantablack (currently being used exclusively by Manufacture Contemporain du Temps, or MCT) – the nanotubes are stacked perpendicular to the dial, ie. you are looking down the tubes when you look at the dial. Light enters the nanotubes and is virtually incapable of being reflected out again. The high percentage of light absorption gives it its depth and darkness.
It also gives the watch proper “concept-cred”. It looks like it belongs in a lab; the beautiful blue sandwich filling of luminova combining to great effect with the super-black dial, and the consciously minimal dial design (even by Panerai’s standards). What “dial text” there is, is in fact superimposed on the underside of the sapphire – as you can see in this heavily-exposed shot, where the “Lab-ID” actually casts a shadow on the dial.
On the wrist, it feels smooth and light, thanks to the Carbotech construction. It's a bit big, of course, but the blue is enrapturing and the overall experience very convincing for a so-called concept - quite macho, as all Panerai watches are, but not aggressively so. There’s great contrast between that thick-grained case, which never really looks black, instead picking up light in a much warmer way than you often get from carbon watches, and the comic-book simplicity of the dial.
But what it’s like to wear isn’t really the point. Although it is for sale, the Lab-ID is a test-bed platform for new ideas, and as such forms part of a fascinating narrative from the last few years. Much scorn is poured by traditionalists on so-called “new materials” (most of which now barely deserve to be called new, except watchmaking does have centuries of using old materials to fall back on); the main criticisms of those incorporating silicon escapements and the like centre around a familiar refrain: “Who’s going to service that in fifty years’ time?” (as well as odd concerns over the availability of spare parts – do watchmakers really think mankind is going to lose the ability to stamp out new bits of silicon?).
The wheels of progress do appear to be turning in this direction, however – from the silicon escapements now common in watches from Ulysse Nardin, Patek Philippe and others, to the raft of other concept watches in recent years that seek to cover similar ground to the Lab-ID. From Cartier’s Concept ID One and ID Two watches, to Parmigiani’s Senfine, Breitling’s Chronoworks and even Greubel Forsey’s still-mysterious Project Nano, this is the way the wind is blowing - towards movements which make full use of modern science while remaining true to the age-old basic template of a mechanical watch.
The point that the Lab-ID makes, more forcefully than the others in the above list, is that the answer to the servicing question is to remove the need entirely. It’s obviously optimistic, but if the materials inside P.3001/C do their job properly, the watch industry will have found the answer to one of its most pressing pragmatic concerns; the vast volume of after-sales care that threatens to overwhelm its watchmakers. From an entirely selfish point of view, a 50-year guarantee eliminates a lot of five-year service intervals.
In this case more than most, only time will tell. But there’s no doubt Panerai has just taken its place at the vanguard of practical innovation.