As an amateur student of twentieth century history, I’ve got to give Panerai a lot of credit. Even though the Italians were on the Axis side of the fighting, Panerai still acknowledges these roots of their own history as a supplier of hearty tool watches to special forces and military operations in Italy. While Panerai is a much different company now relative to who they were back in the late 1930s, the heritage and story are still important as well as relevant in a twenty-first century world as an example of historical objectivity.
Case in point is the early 2000s Panerai PAM76 Blackseal Limited Edition which shows off the Italian brand’s ability to flourish their (often tough-guy) watches with handcrafted artisan touches. Of course, the key showpiece on the Blackseal LE is the flip up case cover which is ripe with detail and indulgence. The cover, like the rest of the watch is hand polished titanium and makes a solid click when closed onto the case. When closed, the wearer can gaze back in time via the hand engraved image of Italian Navy special forces members sitting astride a submersible while cutting anti-sub netting, which the British Navy (somewhat unsuccessfully) used to protect their ships from being mined from below. The shading and detail of the engraving is impressive while keeping with the matte monochrome finish of the rest of the watch. This could be your one ‘artsy’ watch that still flies under the radar.
As far as under the radar 44mm watches go, the PAM76 is helped by its all-titanium construction. In spite of the 18mm thickness lent to it by the bespoke case cover, the Blackseal wears surprisingly svelte. Panerai’s now-signature cushion case and straight lugs give the watch that instant recognizability and substance when viewed from afar. Watch people looking from an acceptable social distance will be intrigued by the Panerai shape while not being able to immediately see a Panerai dial. On a leather strap, the PAM76 feels confident and luxurious.
There is, indeed, a dial (of course) and the work required to get to it provides plenty of satisfaction. Say a silent goodbye to the seafarers (under water they can’t hear you anyway) and flip up the titanium case cover to reveal the time and date and you’ll discover this isn’t your garden variety Panerai dial. While not a complicated watch, there are plenty of complex details contained in the Blackseal. There is a pleasant texture to the hand-applied markers and indexes which are amply lumed in tune with the diving nature of the watch. I particularly enjoy how the seconds sub-register is matte grey to tie-in with the rest of the titanium watch finishing. Additional texture is provided by a magnified date window and somehow, the special forces guys have made their way down under in the form of the submersible image and Blackseal logo just above six-o-clock.
Powering this submersible is the Panerai OP III automatic movement (a take on the Valjoux 7750-P1), which is locked away under the secure-looking case back. The case back is engraved with the typical Panerai logos plus the limitation number of the watch out of a total of three hundred pieces. I was slightly taken back by the water resistance rating of only 50m given the secure feeling nature of the Blackseal, not to mention its nod to submersible warfare. I suppose the artisan nature of this limited edition precludes any kind of real-world use in the water anyway, however it would be nice to see it boast at least 150m.
The Panerai PAM76 Blackseal LE would be an amazing watch to own. Not just for the avid Panerai enthusiast but for anyone who recognizes the important mark that World War II made upon the world from a technical and engineering standpoint. It also highlights the transition that mechanical watches have made from essential and practical, to objects of art and tradition. I doubt the average watch buyer eighty years ago would’ve wanted to put up with opening the case cover each occasion where he wanted to know the time. In 2021 however, this is entirely opposite, with each opening perceived as a tiny special occasion. Don’t forget to wish the Italian special forces guys good luck once in awhile too.