How Panerai Made Dial-Lume History (Again)

How Panerai Made Dial-Lume History (Again)

The Submersible Elux LAB-ID is the World's First Watch with All-Mechanical Illumination

Panerai is widely known throughout the watch-enthusiast community for its military-chic designs and signature innovations like its sandwich dials and lever-locked crown protectors. But Panerai is also one of industry’s most important pioneers in the illumination of watch dials. In fact, the Florentine brand’s two flagship models — the Radiomir and the Luminor — are both actually named for the luminous substances that Panerai developed to make their dials readable in the murky underwater depths. Like many other elements that define its timepieces today, radium-based Radiomir and tritium-based Luminor were engineered for the Italian Navy divers who were the first Panerai watch wearers. 

With such a pedigree in the field of dial luminosity, it should not have been much of a surprise that Panerai would continue to innovate in this area in the 21st Century. And yet, probably no one who covers or follows the watch industry was expecting the concept timepiece that Panerai unveiled a few weeks ago —  a piece that I actually had the chance to see at Watches & Wonders Geneva when it was still officially under wraps, and have been itching to write about ever since. Panerai refers to its new Submersible Elux LAB-ID as “a striking innovation in mechanical luminescence,” and that is not mere hyperbole: the watch takes a technology patented in 1966 and applies it for the first time to a watch dial. The result is the first watch dial that can be illuminated on demand without any type of electronics or batteries.

The Submersible Elux LAB-ID continues Panerai's tradition of making small series of technically ambitious concept watches, dubbed LAB-ID, for the Laboratorio de Idée in which they were developed, which began in 2017. Prior to this year’s release, there had been three such models, all of which have featured some type of clever take on dial illumination in addition to other world-first technical elements. The original LAB-ID Luminor Carbotech (PAM700) introduced a light-absorbing, carbon nanotube-covered dial; the Luminor PAM01700 in 2020 ushered in the optimized Super-LumiNova X1; and the Submersible eLAB-ID in 2022 featured that luminous substance plus a case made almost entirely from recycled titanium. 

Panerai patented the Elux technology on June 15, 1966, fifty-eight years to the day before this watch was revealed to the world at large. Its name is an abbreviation of the Italian term “elettroluminescenza” (electro-luminescence), and the original version of it was composed of a series of panels in various sizes, shapes, and materials with uniformly luminous surfaces — completely free of radioactive materials — whose glow was maintained by an electric field. The panels were shock- and vibration-resistant and energy efficient, powered by portable batteries and a fixed AC supply. As with so many other inventions since founder Guido Panerai introduced the first Radiomir wristwatch in the late 1930s, “Elux Panerai” was originally used in military applications. The luminescent panels were installed in crucial areas in which the Italian Navy required easy reading of instrument displays, like command centers, internal signaling boards on ships, and even the signage and indicators on the decks of ships to guide nighttime helicopter landings. 

Applying this patented technology to a watch dial decades later was an eight-year project for Panerai’s Laboratorio di Idee, the research-and-development center within its watchmaking manufacture in Neuchâtel, Switzerland. The timepiece that emerged from this technical journey carries four patents and a new movement that can generate on-demand lighting powered entirely by mechanical energy — with no batteries or any other type of active electronics. The movement, Caliber P.9010/EL, packs no fewer than six energy-storing barrels, four of them devoted solely to charging the illumination. Engaging the pusher on the lower left side of the case activates the tiny 8mm x 23mm microgenerator, with custom-made coils, magnets, and stator (a type of stationary rotor), which converts mechanical energy into electricity. The mechanical energy that drives the process comes via the motion of the movement’s high-speed rotor, which runs at 80 revolutions per second and generates an electronic signal at the ultra-high frequency of 240 Hz. 

This energy is then channeled to the luminous areas of the dial — on the hands, the bezel, the hour markers, and the linear indicator above 6 o’clock that displays the power reserve of the lighting function (identified by the “Power Light” text directly beneath it). In all, there are 160 micro-LEDs (light-emitting diodes) on the dial and bezel. Impressively, Panerai’s engineers have developed a design in which electricity is conducted to exterior parts of the watch case, like the dot within the orientation triangle on the bezel, without any compromise in the water resistance of the watch, which is an uncommonly robust 500 meters. The magnetic drive within the mechanical barrels is engineered to produce “smart” lighting,” illuminating only the LEDs below the dot (15 out of a total of 60 throughout the bezel). The duration of the mechanically generated light, up to 30 minutes, is also superior, especially considering the limited amount of energy available. Worth noting, in case it is not apparent, is that the remaining two barrels in the movement supply the robust three-day power reserve — expected these days of Panerai in-house calibers — for the watch’s main timekeeping functions, even if the light-energy-storing barrels are depleted.

As you might expect with all of this unprecedented functionality, not to mention the water resistance and the presence of a movement with six barrels, the Submersible Elux LAB-ID is a decidedly large timepiece, a hulking 49mm in diameter and nearly 22mm thick. The case is made from an alloy that Panerai calls Ti-Ceramitech, a patent-pending ceramized titanium material with an unusual and very distinctive blue hue that Panerai says is inspired by the ocean. Created in a “Plasma Electrolytic Oxidation” process that transforms the titanium’s surface into a dense ceramic layer, Ti-Ceramitech is significantly harder than steel while also being 44 percent lighter; at the same time it boasts a fracture toughness 10 times higher than traditional ceramics and withstands high levels of thermal stress and pressure. In the tradition of the Submersible (and its predecessor, the Luminor), the case has the patented crown-protecting bridge device; on this watch, the usual “REG. ™” markings on this device are replaced with “SUB LAB,” designating it as a special edition within the larger Submersible family.

I’ve already pointed out the illuminating Power Light Reserve indicator on the dial, in a linear configuration that Panerai has used in the past to display longer power reserves on some of its watches, i.e. eight or ten days. In most other respects, the dial, and its unidirectional, counterclockwise rotating bezel with relief dive scale, are in the classic Submersible style. The running seconds are on a subdial at 9 o’clock and the micro-LED-enhanced hands and indexes feature Super-LumiNova accents in carefully chosen colors to enhance their nighttime luminosity. The hour hand and hour markers emit a green glow thanks to an application of SuperLumiNova X2, while the minute hands and the dive-scale dots on the bezel glow a bright blue with their coating of Super-LumiNova X1. The former is a new grade of lume that stays at a 10 percent higher level of intensity than the latter after 180 minutes in the dark.  


Also enhanced with a luminous detail is the screwed, solid caseback, also made of Ti-Ceramitech and engraved with a bright-green “ELUX” logo above the “Limited Edition” text. The caseback covers the automatic movement, which is made up of 363 total components, including 55 jewels, a Glucydur balance wheel, and an Incabloc anti-shock device. While Panerai considers the Submersible Elux LAB-ID a “concept watch,” it is designed to be worn, on either the blue rubber strap (matching the tones of the case) on which it’s mounted, with the familiar trapezoidal pin puckle in titanium, or the included, additional bimaterial strap. It’s also commercially available, albeit on a very exclusive basis: Panerai says it’s only making 150 pieces, releasing only 50 annually over three years, and pricing them just under the six-figure ceiling, at $96,300.

Is the Submersible Elux LAB-ID the future of mechanical watch illumination, a development that other watchmakers will ultimately emulate, like the luminous-painted indexes and sandwich-style structure of early Radiomir dials? Or is it something that will remain an exclusive Panerai hallmark, like the previously mentioned locking crown-protection device? The aggressive patent applications would seem to indicate the latter is more likely, but it is never wise to underestimate the collective savvy of the watch industry when it is determined to stay ahead of the curve technologically. (The now-ubiquitous unidirectional rotating dive-scale bezel was once patented also.) In the short term, I could see the Elux technology making its way into other, non-limited Panerai watches, much as other groundbreaking Laboratorio di Idee projects like Carbotech and EcoTitanium have migrated into the larger product portfolio. A better question might be, after several consecutive years of material and mechanical innovation, what does Panerai do for an encore?

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