A few weeks ago, a strange looking vintage Panerai surfaced on Chrono24 and left many Panerai enthusiasts wondering. To be fair, the watch did not actually surface, it “resurfaced” as the watch is not new to the market.
After studying all the pictures provided on various platforms, the sellers’s claim that this is a 1938 Prototype could not be substantiated. None of the parts originate from 1938. In addition, the movement is exotic to say the least and consists of parts from different time periods and is of questionable provenance.
My impression is the watch was assembled from loose parts found at Officine Panerai’s old premises in Florence and charged with the “1938 Prototype” story to achieve a higher selling price. Let’s have a closer look at the watch.
You can find the Chrono24 listing under the following link.
Panerai by Rolex Radiomir Prototype Military Italian Navy Commandos
The Chrono24 listing describes this watch as a unique exhibition piece from 1938. This is absolutely consistent with the description from 1995 when the watch made its first appearance on Antiquorum:
“Rolex, Officine Panerai Firenze, “Radiomir”, unique example made for a special Exhibition in 1938.”
According to the old Antiquorum listing, the watch fetched 6,900 Swiss Francs. That was a lot of money for 1995. The picture below is from the 1995 catalogue.
What’s most striking about this piece is definitely its peculiar dial. To some attentive Perezcope followers, the dial might look familiar.
That’s right, remember my last trip to Florence in May 2018? Maria Teresa Panerai, the widow of Giuseppe Panerai, had 3 of her NOS (New Old Stock) watches fetched from the bank deposit for me to see. One of the rare pieces had an almost identical dial. The only difference is the Radiomir vs. Luminor inscription.
Seeing Mrs. Panerai’s watches in the flesh was an incredible experience. Her watches are unused and in an amazing condition.
Coming back to the watch in question, besides its unique “dots” dial, this watch has another interesting and unusual feauture. The case has strange looking solid lugs but they don’t seem to be carved out the same block of steel as the case. Well, they aren’t. What we see is a modified Ref. 3646 case. Panerai removed the original wire lugs and welded new solid lugs onto it.
The “Dots” Dial
The dial of this watch is a typical Panerai aluminium sandwich dial in terms of construction. I have no doubt this is an original dial made by Panerai. What makes this particular example so special is the outer minute track in form of dots. The minute dots are cut-out, just like the numerals and markers.
One look at the way the dial is made is actually sufficient to debunk the 1938 claim immediately. In 1938, Panerai had not yet developed their signature aluminium sandwich dials. This happened only in 1941/42 when G. Panerai e Figlio had to find a solution to overcome the problems experienced with their first models, the so-called riveted plastic dials.
Read more: Vintage Panerai Dials
However, the way the lume is applied clearly suggests a production date somewhere in the 1950s or even very early 1960s.
It can be assumed that, as frogman’s equipement became more sophisticated, there was a need to time missions more accurately. Five minute steps were good enough for WW2 but in the post-war era, things changed rapidly. The present dial was possibly Panerai’s answer to a specific request by the Marina Militare but obviously, the concept was not continued.
There is an easy way to spot the difference between 1940s and 1950s dials. The comparison below shows on the 1940s dial, the lume is located much lower inside the disc, behind a thick layer of plastic. Can you see it?
The next comparison shows the dial of the present watch next to the 1950s dial from above. As you can see, the lume is applied on the very same level right underneath the cut-outs. There is no plastic layer between the lume and the upper disc. The dial in question is without a doubt from the post-war perdiod.
The “Single Pencil” hands of this watch are also quite interesting. This type of hands were introduced when Panerai started to work with Angelus 240 movements after 1956.
Identical hands can be found on the watch below, a rare piece that was part of the vintage lot passed on to Vendôme (Richemont) by the old Officine Panerai SpA when the brand was sold. In the old days, watches with dodecagonal (12-sided) bezel were considered to be early prototypes for presentation purposes.
Even though recent research conducted by Perezcope unequivocally proved these watches were assembled in the late 1950s/early 1960s, the modern Panerai keeps perpetuating the false narrative.
Read in detail: Vintage Panerai 3646 for presentation purposes
The Modified Ref. 3646 Case
The present watch features a modified Ref. 3646 middle case. G. Panerai e Figlio removed the wire lugs and welded solid lugs onto the case.
In the early days of Vintage Panerai collecting, watches of this genre were commonly referred to as “Transitional 3646”. The existence of these watches led many to believe they represented some kind of evolution between Ref. 3646 from WW2 and Ref. 6152 from 1952/53.
Latest research conducted by Perezcope found clear evidence that these watches were made in the mid 1960s instead, with left-overs from the final WW2 batch.
Read more: Modified Panerai 3646 with solid lugs
In the mid 1960s, the Swiss watch industry had just banned radium and replaced the highly radioactive material with a considerably less harmfull substance named tritium. Giuseppe Panerai saw this as a great business opportunity and mixed his own tritium-based luminous compound and named it “Luminor”.
In this process, Panerai modified around 30 NOS 3646 in storage since WW2 and updated the watches with new Luminor dials and Angelus 240 movements (Matr. No. 1 – 30). These watches were then awarded to high ranking members of the Marina Militare to promote the new luminous compound Luminor and the Angelus 240 8-days movements. The following picture originates from the G. Panerai e Figlio photo archive.
The strategy worked and short after, Panerai was asked to supply dial replacements for hundreds of watches that had originally been delivered with Radiomir dials. That’s right, basically all watches in service were updated with new Luminor dials, most of them with Marina Militare engravings.
As you can in the photo below, which also originates from the original G. Panerai e Figlio photo archive, the so-called Luminor (Ref. 6152/1 with crown-protecting device) was originally delivered with Radiomir dials.
There is an interesting story surrounding this event, told by none other than ComSubIn Commander Franco Zavattaro. The dials were replaced by the Marina Militare itself and once removed, all dials and some of the old WW2 watches and instruments, were sealed with cement into an ammunition crate and sunk off the coast of La Spezia. Apparently, the men in charge wrote down the exact coordinates… I know excatly what you’re thinking now!
Anyway, according to Zavattaro, this event occured at some point in the late 1960s. That’s right, late 1960s! This gives you an idea of how wrong the modern Panerai company is with their claim that Luminor was introduced in 1949. To back this nonsensical claim, Richemont Panerai referes to an Italian “patent” from 1949. What they do not disclose, is that the document in question is not a patent but a trademark registration. Giuseppe Panerai came up with a great name in 1949 and had it registered, that’s it.
Below you can see the tradmark registration from Jan. 1949. Brevetto per marchio d’impresa = Trademark.
According to the document, the name Luminor was was reserved for all sorts of luminescent, fluorenscent and phosphorescent products in whatever form (solid, paste, powder, liquid).
Cases of severe radium poisoning in the dial industry were known since the 1920s. Five female factory workers of the US company Radium Dial Company sued their employer in 1928. These women became famous as the Radium Girls. As a result, the working conditions for the application of radium paint were improved.
However, in 1949, the world had not yet become fully aware of the risks posed by radium in watches. Only when Rolex was sued in the USA in the late 1950s due to Strontium 90 found in Rolex GMT bezels, the Swiss Watch Industry began to search for a less harmfull replacement. It is almost comical to believe, Panerai introduced tritium before the Swiss Watch Industry.
Coming back to the case in question, I have inspected all existing examples of this model and to me the present case appears to be original.
A comparison with the absolutely original example that was passed on to Vendôme (Richemont) by the old Officine Panerai SpA shows that the shape and angle of the welded lugs are consistent.
There are at least 3 fake examples made by the notorious Rinaldi family. One of them is Matr. No. 17. Rinaldi fakes can easily be identified as the lugs have a completely wrong shape. As you can see in the comparison below, the present watch does not fall into this category.
However, compared to 100% original examples, the case in question lacks refinement. The solid lugs are welded in a rather rough way for Panerai standards. This could be an indication that the case in question was an unfinished job or something that did not turn out well and was rejected.
There is another original example with similar attributes, Matr. No. 11. Can you see the black areas around the welded lugs?
The finish around the welded lugs is considerably different compared to the excellent example from the Archivio Storico Panerai (Richemont Panerai Museum).
The next picture shows another indisputably original example, Matr. No. 2. The lugs on Matr. No. 2 are welded and finished in the same, almost perfect way as on the Archivio Storico example.
To me the present case looks like an early trial that did not turn out as desired. Or it could be an unfinished example that was found in storage. I don’t think G. Panerai e Figlio would have released such an example.
The caseback style is typical for modified 3646 watches with solid lugs. The display caseback bears the usual OFFICINE PANERAI BREVETTATO engravings. The exotic movement will be discussed later.
There are two versions of exhibition casebacks for Ref. 3646. A flat version (left) which was probably obtained by machining the original caseback and a conical version which was specifically made for the use in combination with tall Angelus 240 movements.
As you can see in the side profile, the present watch is equipped with the flat version.
Another important thing to note is the height of the middle case. All original watches of this type were made with slim cases form the last Ref. 3646 batch delivered in mid 1944. The height of the case is 5,4 mm. Previous 3646 cases had a height of 6,3 mm.
Strap and buckle of this watch are obviously not original.
As mentioned earlier, the movement found in this watch is very unusual for this model. All indisputably original examples are equipped with Angelus 240 8-days movements and feature a small seconds hands at 9 o’clock.
The movement in this watch is a Cortebert 616 instead and you can tell by the mismatched Côtes de Genève in the area where balance cock, train gear and barrel bridge meet that the movement was assembled from parts. More on this later.
All Rolex-made vintage Panerai watches were equipped with Cortebert 618 calibers. Cal. 618 is a variant of the Cortebert 616, which is a more common movement and can be found in thousands of Cortebert railway pocket watches from the early 1930s up until the early 1960s. Both calibers share the very same baseplate. The only difference between them is the shape of the bridges.
Most Cortebert calibers were offered with at least two different bridge configurations. Some of the calibers could even take up to five different bridge configurations. This gave Cortebert clients the chance to choose a bridge configuration that would vary from that of their competition.
The next picture shows a Cortebert 616 next to a Cortebert 618 specifically made for Rolex.
Some people still believe Cortebert sold Rolex ebauches but this theory holds no water. Rolex did not have a factory back then, nor the required tooling to work on these movements. Cortebert on the other hand was perfectly equipped to produce movements in whatever configuration.
The modern Panerai company owned by Richemont wants their customers to believe that Rolex supplied just the movements to Panerai. Considering the movements were completely made by Cortebert, this claim makes zero sense. Why go to Rolex to buy calibers from a third party? Panerai could have ordered the movements directly from Cortebert. It would probably also have been considerably cheaper.
Coming back to the movement in question, the barrel bridge is clearly signed with Cal. 616. This is very unusual for a “Rolex” movement. As you can see in the picture below, Cortebert movements of this type (Cal. 622, Cal. 618 or Cal. 624) specifically made for Rolex never bore any caliber denomination.
As mentioned earlier, the Côtes de Genève don’t match in the area around the balance cock. This is an indication that the movement was assembled with parts form different time periods.
Cortebert modified the 616 in around 1956. The most notable modification was the pallet fork bridge (1) underneath the balance.
In the same breath, Cortebert moved the Côtes de Genève slightly (see circle). The next comparison leaves no doubt, barrel and train gear bridge are definitely from 1956 onwards.
Bridges with this particular Geneva Stripes patern were only used in combination with the new pallet fork bridge (1), from 1956 onwards – ergo – the movement is not original and was assembled from parts of different time periods.
From my experience it looks like the baseplate and the balance cock could belong together. These parts were probably made between 1945 and 1956. Since the baseplate does not bear a Cort stamp, the production date is probably closer to 1945.
Another thing to consider are the Rolex engravings on the train gear bridge: “17 Rubis Swiss, Geneve, Rolex”.
I have collected data from hundreds of Rolex pocket watches over the course of time but in the wild I never came across a Cortebert 616 used by Rolex, let alone a Cortebert 616 with “17 Rubis Swiss, Geneve, Rolex” engravings. Interestingly, there is another vintage Panerai watch with an almost identical movements which possibly originates from the same source as the present watch.
The only Cortebert caliber ever used by Rolex with this particular style of bridges is Cal. 624. Interestingly, the engravings are very similar.
There is another series of movements with “17 Rubis Swiss, Geneve, Rolex” engravings. In 1997/98, the modern Panerai owned by Richemont released the PAM 21, the very first Panerai special edition, equipped with Cortebert 618 movements found in stock.
The story goes, when Officine Panerai and their remaining watch stock was taken over by Vendôme (Richemont) in March 1997, the lot also included more than 60 NOS (New Old Stock) Cortebert 618 made for Rolex. According to information I was able to gather, the movements surfaced in the Villino Panerai (old Panerai headquarters) shortly before the deal with Vendôme (Richemont) was sealed. Just in time to help achieving a higher selling price. What a coincidence!
PAM 21 movements are strange to say the least. Within the 51 watches made, there are two different types of movements and all of them bear a Cal. 618 denomination. Also, none of the calibers has the typical Breguet overcoil hairspring that was always used in Cortebert 618 movements specifically made for Rolex.
Read in detail: Rolex 618 PAM 21
The exploration of this movement would not be complete without the mentioning of a peculiar vintage Panerai watch that has a movement with an identical train gear bridge.
The watch was advertised as “1938 Prototype, made for for presentation purposes”. I debunked the false myth surrounding these watches in Feb. 2017, shortly after the official presentation of the PAM 685/687. It turned out, this type of watch was assembled in the 1960s with left-overs from WW2.
So-called “California” or Error-Proof dials, which were designed and patented by Rolex and produced by Stern Frères for Rolex, were only introduced in 1944. The case of this watch, with its distinctive flat crown tube “collar” and the short wire lugs, belongs without a shadow of a doubt to the very last batch of watches delivered by Rolex in mid 1944.
Panerai started only in the 1950s to use the word combination OFFICINE PANERAI on their products. As a matter of fact, the dodecagonal (12-sided) “bezel” of this watch is actually a caseback that was mounted in lieu of the regular bezel. Casebacks of this type were introduced in the 1960s.
The modern Panerai company manipulated a historical picture to make people believe the term OFFICINE PANERAI was already in use in the 1920s. I exposed this on Instagram and after a veritable shitstorm, Panerai was forced to delete the picture.
As mentioned before, the movement of this “1938 Prototype” has a movement with Cortebert 616 bridges, just like the movement this article is about. The engravings on the train gear bridge are identical. “17 Rubis Swiss, Geneve, Rolex”.
Have a look at the Côtes de Genève in the area where train gear, barrel and balance bridge meet. Here we have a similar mismatch.
The colour of the movement retaining ring is also interesting. It clearly identifies this part as from 1944. Earlier watches had an untreated brass ring with a distinctive, almost brownish colour.
Another thing to consider is the different finish between balance cock and the rest of the bridges. You can see the difference better in the following picture from a 2003 auction catalogue.
There can be no doubt this movement is made-up, it is so obvious. The “1938 Prototype” was first sold in 1996 by an Italian dealer. It was this very dealer who invented the “Prototype for presentation purposes” story. To back his claim, the dealer equipped this watch with a caseback from the very first Ref. 3646 batch. Almost everybody fell for it. Clever, isn’t it?
Read more: Prototype 1938
Read more: Vintage Panerai 3646 for presentation purposes
Before we conclude, let’s recap the modified 3646 with dots dial:
– “Dots” dial from the late1950s
– Angelus style hands from the 1960s
– Roughly modified slim Rolex 3646 cushion case from 1944
– Brass-coloured movement ring from 1940 – 1942
– Made-up Cortebert 616 with questionable bridges from 1956 onwards
– Display caseback from the 1960s
Anyone still believes this piece is from 1938?
Great vintage Panerai watches are the sum of their (matching) parts. And comes the watch with a great story, even better. A great story will exponentiate the sum many times over. Unfortunately the parts on the present watch won’t add up to any satisfying sum, nor does its made-up story. The very same applies to the other “1938 Prototype” as well.
What are the odds? We have two watches claimed to be 1938 Prototypes and both watches have almost identical made-up movements. Both watches were sold around the same time and not a single of their components is from 1938.
This is what Panerai – unfortunately – is all about. Made-up stories, invented by dealers in the past, embraced and perpetuated ever since by the modern Panerai company owned by Richemont. The sad thing thing is, Panerai could be so much more. The true history of Panerai is so much better than all these nonsensical fairy tales.
In Sept. 2017, while I was working on the article about modified 3646 watches with solid lugs, I reached out to the Italian dealer who sold the 1938 Prototype with “California” dial in 1996. I asked whether he knew anything about the modified 3646 with dots dial. The dealer denied any involvement and pointed to Rinaldi instead.
I know Rinaldi fakes all too well and the present watch does not bear Rinaldi’s signature. This watch is way more sophisticated than anything Rinaldi has ever made, and more importantly, the watch consists mostly of original parts.
I suspect that both “1938 Prototypes” were assembled by the very same person with parts found at the old Officine Panerai premises in Florence.
Thank you for your interest.
The Panerai Time Machine
Modified 3646 watches with solid lugs are an interesting milestone in Panerai’s history. The infographic below shows all vintage Panerai watches in their historical context. Please click the graphic to download the highres version.
This timeline is available as a high quality print in two sizes:
- 120 x 68 cm (47 x 26 inch): EUR 85.00 (plus shipping)
- 150 x 85 cm (59 x 33 inch): EUR 120.00 (plus shipping)
Printed with HD Inkjet on heavy synthetic paper and laminated.
Limited edition: 50 pieces, numbered and signed by Maria Teresa Panerai in Giuseppe Panerai’s very own laboratory at the historical site of the Villino Panerai (Panerai Villa) in Florence: Sold out
More information: The history of Panerai watches at a glance