In 2010, Panerai released a watch that would be, first, a huge critical success, then shortly afterwards pose a threat to the brand’s hard-won reputation for quality, and finally, be a testament to its dedication to maintaining the highest standards in the Swiss watch industry. PAM 339 was a Radiomir watch featuring Panerai’s in-house movement with eight-day power reserve. But it was the case of this watch that was a brilliant demonstration of Panerai’s commitment to materials innovation. The brand was one of the first to create blackened PVD-coated steel luxury watches. But the problem was that these coatings, despite looking tough as nails, were anything but. Said Bonati, as far back as 2004, when I first interviewed him, “Titanium was a response to the PVD watches; with this material, we could have something stealthy but more resistant. I will not release any more PVD watches unless we can assure a higher quality for the coating. In the meantime, we prefer to focus on materials innovation.”
True to his words, in the interim, Bonati had launched watches in tantalum, and then ceramic. But both had been used before — tantalum by Audemars Piguet and ceramic by IWC. The composite material used for the PAM 339’s case represented all-new technology. It started with an aluminum case. But aluminum, while very light and strong, does not have good surface hardness. Panerai’s solution was to grow a ceramic deposit directly onto the aluminum base material, which would endow the case with incredible hardness, second only to diamond on the Vickers scale.
To commemorate this achievement, Bonati had agreed to feature the coveted words “Marina Militare” on the dial of the PAM 339. But shortly after the watches were released, owners started experiencing white spots and color changes on the cases. That’s when Panerai realized it had a problem. Immediately recalling the watches, they realized the problem was a bonding issue with the ceramic deposit. By altering the composition of the base material, they were able to solve this problem permanently. As a testament to their slavish dedication to quality, they changed every single PAM 339 case. Since then, they’ve only used the composite material on one more watch: the PAM 375 with a 1950 case. The experience of wearing one of these watches is unique in that despite the heroic proportions of the timepiece, it feels almost weightless. At the same time, it is amongst the strongest, hardest-wearing watches out there, and because of the unique process, its ceramic skin is rendered a stunning shade of dark brown. The PAM 339 remains a highly collectible modern Panerai that is an amazing symbol of the brand’s commitment to innovation as well as reliability.