The Ugly Duckling
For those of you have had the opportunity to read my brief review of the PAM 90 power reserve, you may have noticed that I have been an avid collector for several years, and over the last couple years have taken up amateur watch making as a hobby. Since I was a kid I was always fascinated by the craftsmanship- in miniature- found in mechanical wristwatches and it seems as though this fascination, combined with obsession, led to the hobby and to the subject of this article.
I have been dabbling with watch movements for the last few years, but it was only recently that I made the commitment to invest in a decent assortment of tools and a suitable workbench to facilitate my pursuit.
Growing up, one would never have guessed that watch making would ever be a very successful endeavor given my propensity for instant gratification. However, I've learned a lot of patience over the last couple years, and given that my eyesight is quickly deteriorating, it seemed that it was "now or never".
By day I manage the online advertising service for my company (sorry about the pop-up ads), so many might think it would seem strange that I would pursue such a hobby in my free time. In a career where you work so hard every day to build something that would become obsolete and discarded tomorrow, the timelessness of something hand-crafted, by contrast, maintains a great appeal for me.
Once I discovered Panerai, I instantly became enamored by the creative design, and choice of movements and materials; I also really appreciate the richness of the Panerai history, and the distinct appearance of their product line. Combine all of these characteristics with the exclusivity offered in an ever-changing product series in limited production, and a classic is born.
Although I have a few Panerais in my collection, my preference is for the historic collection, as it represents an honest tribute of the watchmaker's craft of yesteryear. For this reason, the PAM 01 was my first choice, and still remains my favorite. For these reasons, I made the easy decision to base my project and this article on the "recreation" of the PAM 01.
Greg at his home workbench.
My project goal was simple - Transform the PAM 01, into something that paid tribute to this timeless classic, and do so with a highlight on the beauty that lies within. Panerai, has excelled at offering a timeless classic, but a I sought to create something special that I would take personal satisfaction in every time it adorned my wrist. I decided that there couldn't be any better way to achieve this goal than to skeletonize the base Unitas movement and display it proudly without the protective shroud of the Luminor dial.
The First Challenge
The initial dilemma I faced was how to go about starting this project once I decided what the end product should be. I had already resigned myself to the fact that there would be no more an effective way to void my warranty, but since my experience in this area was extremely limited I decided to mitigate the risk of a complete disaster. Rather than grind away the existing Panerai movement in my PAM 01, I decided to purchase the base caliber Unitas 6497-1 and transform it from scratch. In addition to minimizing the risk of a complete loss, it was also rewarding to receive the base caliber just as it would be delivered to Panerai - completely undecorated, and, aesthetically unappealing. Out of the package the ETA Unitas 6497 struck me as one of the least-finished movements that I had seen, however the durability of its components are noteworthy. From the heavy plates and bridges to the hardened steel gears, it is obvious that this 16 ½ ligne movement was developed to last forever, so, although aesthetically unappealing the base caliber is definitely of beautiful design. (See Fig 1 and 2).
|Figures 1&2 - Fitted with generic pocket watch hands, the Unitas 6497 in its basic form. Notice the crude finishing from the factory.|
The Project Begins
After the initial shock of the challenge that faced me subsided, I enthusiastically set about dismantling this ugly duckling with the hopes of highlighting its beautiful design and its heritage.
Fortunately for me, the 16 ½ ligne movement is simple to disassemble, and the layout of its gear train is very familiar. The disassembly process was not only straight-forward, but in contrast to the smaller movements I am used to working with, was actually relaxing (See Fig. 3 and 4).
Fig. 3 - With the 6497 in a movement holder, I begin the disassembly process
|Fig 4. - Removing the Bridges.|
With all of the movement's components removed and sorted in dustproof containers, I was ready to begin (See Fig. 5)
|Fig 5. - Clockwise from Left - The Hour wheel and hands, The Balance Complete, The Gear Bridge, The Winding Gear, The Nose Gear, Bridge Screws, The Gear Train, The Winding Barrel, The Setting Bridge, The Clutch Wheel and Detent.)|
After complete disassembly, I reattach the bridges to the plate, and use an ink pen to mark those areas that I intend to leave intact (See fig. 6).
|Fig 6. - Using a "Sharpee", I mark the parts of the movement that will remain intact once the project is complete.|
With the plates and bridges clearly marked, I set about removing the excess metal with a flex-shaft tool and a tiny burr used for cutting and shaping metal. This method provides a very crude finish, but is a relatively "quick" method of removing the initial quantity of the base metal (See fig. 7).
|Fig. 7. - Although the flex tool is a handy way of removing excess material, it still is a slow process that requires a great deal of patience and care - One false move at this point could quickly render the entire project a failure.|
After crudely removing the excess material, I begin to develop the final shape using an assortment of extremely fine files of various shapes (Fig. 8)
|Fig. 8 - Developing the final shape with an assortment of extremely fine metal files. This phase of the process is by far the most time-consuming, and the most critical to the look of the end-result. Notice the "pile" of base metal "dust" on my bench mat that has begun to accumulate.|
Once I have achieved the final contours that I intended, it is necessary to smooth and polish the newly-cut edges so that they have a highly-finished appearance. To accomplish this I am using an extremely fine polishing point that is made of a rubber compound that is embedded with an abrasive material (fig. 9).
|Fig. 9 - In order to give the edges a highly-finished appearance, I use a rubber point, attached to my flex tool, that is rotating at 25,000 RPM. This process removes any remaining burs, and leaves a lustrous finish in the edges of the base-metal plates and bridges. It is this attention to detail that will result in an aesthetically pleasing final product.|
Now that I have achieved the final shape that I had intended, and have polished the freshly-cut edges of the bridges, I elect to remove the factory rhodium finish in a painstakingly uncommon way. Rather than remove the plating through a traditional method, I did not want to risk altering the texture of the surfaces, as I plan to add my own texture later. To remove the heavy rhodium plate that was applied at the factory, I utilize a chamois buff attached to a slowly-turning flex tool (using a red rouge polishing compound that will literally "burn" off the plating rather than removing it forcefully - See Fig. 10).
|Fig. 10 - Polishing the plates with red rouge can kick up quite a cloud of dust - I'm using the paper towel to protect my workspace from any residue from the compound. I will repeat all of the processes above for each movement piece that I modify.|
|Fig. 11 - This is an example of what each component will look like after I have completed all the cutting and polishing processes - Notice that gear bridge in this example is well-shaped, but still has a very rough finish. I will leave the finishing process until much later steps.|
As I mentioned earlier, the Unitas is an extremely solid movement, in every respect this is a positive characteristic except one - trying to cut through some of the support pillars in the bridges can be a little too tough for burrs or files - In some cases I had to resort to a high-speed cutoff wheel to make rough cuts (See fig. 12).
|Fig 12. - The thickness of the metal in those areas where the bridge is attached to the main plate is somewhat thick to be shaping with a conventional burr. In this case, I have inserted the bridge into my bench vise, and I am using a high-speed cutting wheel to make rough cuts in the metal. I have to use extreme caution not to "over-cut" when using this process.|
|Fig. 13. - Two of the bridges that I have finished shaping. The next step is to finish their surfaces. It seems a shame that these components will never be visible behind the solid case-back of the PAM 01 - At least I know they're there.|
|Fig. 14 - Now that I've finished shaping the bridges, I go to work on the main plate, and the mainspring barrel, with a round file- Notice that the pile of brass shavings is getting larger- I repeat the same process as I did for the bridges, and create a brushed finish on the surface. After a thorough cleaning in my ultrasonic, I will be ready for final assembly of my completed movement.|
Now that I have completed the process of skeletonizing the movement, I apply a final finish to the surface of the plates using a 320-grit emery cloth in a single direction. At this point all I had to do was to clean all parts in my ultrasonic cleaner, lubricate with Mobeus, and reassemble. (Figures 15 and 16 represent the final product).
|Fig. 15 - The back of the movement and its bridges. Notice that I have left the balance cock unaltered - I was concerned that if I were to foul the hairspring that the project would be a total loss (I had too many hours invested at this point to take the chance). Notice that the screws have been polished to a high luster, and that I've added a nice brushed finish to the winding gears. This side of the movement will never be seen, unfortunately, but I am still pleased with the results. Perhaps my next project will involve cutting the case-back for a sapphire crystal so the rear of the Unitas movement can be enjoyed as well.|
|Fig 16. - The front of my modified movement fitted with the traditional pocket watch hands that I broached to fit. Notice the textured grain that runs from the twelve o'clock to the six o'clock position. The escape wheel and the pallets are clearly visible, as well is the mainspring which can be viewed through the openings that I cut into the barrel. All that is left is to fit the movement into the case of the PAM01 - This is where my warranty expires.|
|Fig. 17 - Although it appeared that there were only two screws securing the patented crown protector to the Panerai case, it turns out that Panerai uses a sealant that is very difficult to overcome. Notice the white residue on the side of the case.|
|Fig. 18 - With the PAM -01's case back removes, I get my first look at the Panerai-finished Unitas movement. With it's painted screws, PANERAI engraving and quality rhodium plate, the Panerai-finished movement is very attractive - Seems a shame that it is obscured by a solid case back.|
|Fig. 19 - My first impression of what my movement will look like in contrast to the original Panerai dial.|
|Fig. 20 - First look at my new movement in the robust Panerai case - Unfortunately this is the last time that this side of the movement will ever be seen.|
|Fig. 21 - The finished project - I know that the appearance may take some time for some people to get used to, but to me it represents my sincere effort. I couldn't avoid a strong emotional response when I saw the final result; I couldn't be happier with my return on investment. Also notice the deployant clasp on the rubber strap (I'll save this subject for the next article)|
|Fig. 22 - The old and the new proudly displayed side-by-side. A limited edition 1/1 is born!|
This hobby certainly isn't for everyone, and at times I question weather or not it's right for me. I've learned a lot about the skill and patience involved and I have come to a whole new appreciation of the craftsmanship and attention detail that is required. I am aware of the fact that my new watch would likely be the object of ridicule by master watchmakers from the most important manufactures in Switzerland, but I am extremely proud of my honest representation of my skills. I have certainly not achieved perfection, but I am extremely proud of the gesture I have made. I have found a way to pay homage to a craft and to craftsmen, and will always take pleasure in the fact that I set realistic expectations which I managed to exceed.
I truly hope that all Panerai enthusiasts will appreciate the fact that I could have undertaken this project with any other brand, but chose to invest my effort in Panerai for all that it represents and how much it has inspired me. I see Panerai as remaining a classic for years to come, given all they represent, and I see my project as a way to acknowledge this standing a make my own contribution.