September 23, 2019
by Ariel Adams
Making a classic design modern, while preserving its core identity, is a serious creative challenge, and one that is regularly attempted in the automotive world, as well as in the wristwatch world. These two industries (as well as a number of other “tools” ranging from cameras to bicycles) are tasked with having to create something that is fresh and novel, while at the same time ensuring that existing fans and the general public can readily recognize the new creation as being an obvious family member to the original. Italian/Swiss watchmaker Panerai is perhaps at the epicenter of this fascinating design struggle as it attempts to push itself into the future while never letting go of a past that continues to define the brand. That said, let’s take a look at the 2019 Panerai Submersible Mike Horn Edition PAM00984 watch that is Panerai’s latest attempt to add some new design language to the often linear brand.
It was SIHH 2019 where the aBlogtoWatch team first learned about these refreshed Panerai Submersible watches that seemed to come in a confusing range of options. What was not confusing to us is that still fresh Panerai CEO Jean-Marc Pontrue was doing his very best to add new life into one of Richemont’s most important wrist watchmakers. Our enthusiasm toward these fresh Panerai watches — the first of which are connected to Panerai brand ambassador and “extreme explorer” Mike Horn — was muted at first. It wasn’t that we didn’t like them but we approach new designs with a grain of salt. After wearing the Panerai PAM984 (PAM00984), I can say that the new design (while not perfect) is growing on me, and I can easily say I want to see more moves in this direction from Panerai.
Let’s get to the heart of what is actually really new in the Panerai Submersible Mike Horn. While these new elements might not be a big deal at some brands, for Panerai they are because the brand is notoriously subsumed in the notion that they aren’t able to invent new design language. Those familiar with most Panerai watches will see the new bezel, dial, and handset as being fresh. Not just fresh, but actually modern. I think that is what Panerai was attempting to do with this new generation Panerai Submersible. It recognized that the Submersible line was probably the most logical to add a more modern variant around (they have been experimenting in this direction for a few years), and then they wanted to see how they could make a contemporary design for the Submersible that still very much looks like it belongs in the Panerai Submersible family. In this respect, Panerai has certainly succeeded.
There will be some people who claim that Panerai could have gone further if they really wanted to connect their core look and feel with “today.” That is certainly true, but even with just a new bezel, dial, and hands, brand devotees are unclear what to make of the Submersible Mike Horn out of the gate. In all fairness, new watch designs (like new car designs) are rarely embraced with immediacy. What I can say is that, while design elements will no doubt be tweaked, the design language in the Panerai Submersible Mike Horn is of a high quality and, in my opinion, will make newcomers to the Panerai brand just as happy as Panerai collector traditionalists.
Before going into detail about the watch itself, I want to talk about the price – which strikes many of us as high at north of $20,000. I asked maybe 10 wristwatch lovers (who didn’t already know), what they thought the price of the PAM984 was. None of them were able to guess the price within about 35% of the retail cost… and this is for the non-limited edition model. Panerai also is making a limited edition of 19 pieces of the PAM00985 Submersible Mike Horn Edition watch that is exactly double the price at $41,000 USD (though that model comes with a pretty spectacular trip, if I recall correctly). When looked at in that light perhaps the price of this non limited edition Mike Horn watch seems like a bargain?
I’m not going to try to explain the price because I simply don’t know enough about how it is calculated. I know that Panerai and other brands have had to deal with the fact that sustainable materials have premium prices associated with them (such as the Eco-Titanium case material and the recycled plastic-based strap). There is also the pretty nice looking recycled plastic presentation box which I remember Panerai showing us at SIHH. These are all nice things, but they probably don’t account for why this watch needs to cost that much. To be fair, Panerai has priced a few of the Submersible watches with more novel materials in this price range — so it isn’t as though the PAM984 is priced in some special way. What I think is happening at Panerai is actually more big-picture: In order to combat the fact that fewer wristwatches are going to be made moving forward, brands need to focus on getting more profit per each watch sale.
Consumers actually can’t have it both ways. They cannot (as I argue) enjoy exclusivity in a luxury product and also want those products to enjoy pricing that depends on an economy of scale. I’m not defending any particular price practices, but I am making an educated guess about the bigger picture. Panerai is among the brands (there are many) that found themselves in a position where they may have been producing more watches than there are end-consumer wrists for. My guess is that Panerai is making a wise move in reducing overall production while, at the same time, trying to maintain business objectives. If I am correct, the future of Panerai (and some other brands, if they follow this pattern) will increase rather than decreased their average price points in the near future. That isn’t to say that brands will not still have exciting entry-level options, but as consumer demand for actual exclusivity (and fewer gray market discounts) increases, brands need to respect the market and make sure that retail prices are relatively consistent.
My goal isn’t to defend what many consumers see as high prices, but rather to explain (in my opinion) what is happening behind the scenes when it appears that a timepiece is more expensive than the sum of its parts. Luxury pricing is rarely about the sum of parts, and I think consumers would rather have price consistency and more authentic exclusivity than a rock-bottom price. We will see how my predictions unfold over the next few years. Returning to the Panerai Submersible Mike Horn… it is a lovely timepiece if you can afford it.
Panerai points to the recycled Eco-Titanium case as being a major part of the watch’s high cost. According to them he process required to recycle and reforge titanium is expensive. This is inline with many other “sustainable” materials in that they are still comparatively more expensive to “virgin” materials. In any event, Eco-Titanium is still titanium, and that makes up the finely machined grade 5 titanium Submersible case that here is 47mm wide (without the crown), and water resistant to 300 meters given that this is a diver’s style Submersible collection watch. Panerai is among the few brands where a clearly large watch still looks good on the wrist, and for all its size the Submersible PAM984 is predictable comfortable and also light in weight given the titanium case material. The case is about 15mm thick with a roughly 56mm lug-to-lug distance. Over the dial is an AR-coated domed sapphire crystal that is actually a bit less domed than other Panerai watches I’ve worn. The less doming helps reduce glare which in turn improves dial legibility.
Speaking of the sapphire crystal, for this modern take on the Submersible, Panerai decided to move the dial text to the sapphire crystal. As such, Panerai uses a metallization technique to apply the Panerai logo and other dial text to the reverse of the sapphire crystal. The result is text which appears to float over the dial and has a neat metallic look to it. In fairness, Panerai did not originate this technique but they use it rather well. Some people might first feel irritated by the crystal text because it can at times look like a dial obstruction over the hands, but overall I think it helps add character to the Submersible Mike Horn timepiece design.
The matte-black sandwich-style dial with its green-colored Super-LumiNova is legible and attractive. The design of the hands, as well as the subsidiary seconds dial, is really where you see the modern elements. In fact, it is the new handset that is really where much of the focus is, given that these are the newest-feeling part of the watch from a Panerai brand DNA perspective. The hands are semi-skeletonized but in a way that doesn’t bother me. I am normally against skeletonized hands on the majority of watches because I think what they add in potential aesthetics is taken away in the decrease in dial legibility that results. In this instance, the hands do not remove from legibility in any appreciable way, and they add needed character. The hands rely on a sort of lume-painted outline, which is a nice touch. The dial also includes a date window at 3 o’clock — and I wonder how the dial would look if the date numerals were also in matching green-hued luminant.