Panerai’s Submersible Elux Lab-ID Dive Watch Generates Its Own Light Show

You have to pay $100,000 for a timepiece with a singularly hi-tech route to make 160 micro-LED lights come on without any battery to power them.
Panerai Submersible Elux LabID Dive Watch
Photograph: Panerai

Equipping a wristwatch with a button to make its display light up can hardly be described as groundbreaking nowadays. Early digital watches were doing that in the 1970s, while rudimentary light-on-demand dials, such as Timex’s celebrated Indiglo system, have been commonplace since the 1990s (and Apple, arguably, has reduced the concept simply to a button-free flick of the wrist).

So would you pay $96,300 (£92,400) for a hulking luxury dive watch that pulled a similar trick?

On the face of it, that’s what Panerai, the Swiss-Italian brand, is proposing with its new limited-edition watch, the 49-mm Submersible Elux Lab-ID, whose functional novelty is indeed a button to make its indications light up.

Only, there’s nothing rudimentary about the way it achieves its glow-up. Dripping with patents, it takes a singularly hi-tech route to making the lights come on—and stay on, in multiple indications, including those that move—without using a battery to power them. The brand is making 150 of the watches over the next three years, and it says it’s having to train watchmakers in assembling microscopic LEDs, circuitry, and components of a distinctly non-horological nature.

At Panerai, as with most high-end watch brands, the divide between mechanics and electronics is regarded as a sacred line to be treated with utmost caution. “There has never been any battery in any Panerai watch,” the brand’s CEO, Jean-Marc Pontroué, declares in a Zoom call to explain the watch. “Panerai,” he says, “is known for big, tough, mechanical, masculine instruments—and while it might have been easier to incorporate batteries, it goes against our ethos.” Batteries, according to Pontroué it seems, are for wusses.

On the other hand, Panerai, whose aesthetic descends from watches supplied to Italian military divers in the 1940s, sets plenty of store on the idea of strong luminosity. Bold, glow-in-the-dark indications were a key function of those historic models, and have remained central to the brand’s modern design language.

Photograph: Panerai

Additionally, the novel deployment of “lume” has become something of a power play in luxury watchmaking: It’s only a couple of weeks, for instance, since IWC announced a concept watch that is entirely aglow, while instances of lume as an aesthetic medium, rather than something functional, have abounded in recent years.

But where Panerai is going with the Supermersible Elux Lab-ID, we don’t need lume. Instead, a host of LEDs illuminate the watch’s functions, powered by electricity generated in the movement.

A push-button on the left side of the case switches the lights on; pressing it again turns them off. And that simple concept is something the brand’s special projects team, which operates under the moniker “Laboratoriao di Idee” (shortened to Lab-ID), has spent eight years bringing to fruition, says Pontroué.

“They have a brief which can basically be written on a stamp: It has to give the time, and it has to have patents,” he says, stating that patents themselves are the ultimate goal, as much as the product that emerges. “It’s the only project where we have no idea of the deadline. We know it can be very expensive, and the failure rate is very high. But it’s not merely about introducing something new for Panerai, it must also be groundbreaking for the industry.”

The first of four patents for the Submersible Elux Lab-ID (we’ll call it the Elux for short) relates to its activation button: A safety device protects it from both impact and water pressure. “Without this, the pressure of the water when you’re diving could push it down inadvertently, so a component underneath it protects that,” says Anthony Serpry, Panerai’s head of R&D, who heads up the Lab-ID skunkworks.

Serpry says his team has around 150 projects on the go, but only a few will see the light of day. One more of these is the watch’s blue-ish case material, which is also patented. A form of ceramized titanium that the brand has named Ti-Ceramitech, it comprises a titanium alloy that’s subjected to plasma electrolytic oxidation (applying a high pulse of current within an electrolytic bath), which generates a thick, scratch-proof layer of blue ceramic across the surface. “The patent is covering the material development and especially the titanium alloy composition, to reach the blue color,” says Serpry.

But the real business here, of course, is the light show. A handful of high-end watchmakers have previously experimented with mechanically powered light-on-demand, among them HYT, De Bethune, and the jeweler Van Cleef & Arpels, but with limited results—a dull glow for a few seconds.

Panerai’s tech, on the other hand, lights up scores of micro-LEDs throughout the watch’s display, with a stated capacity of 30 minutes’ glow time. In fact, the illumination should last as long as the wearer keeps moving: The Elux is a self-winding watch, and the oscillating weight that winds up its movement also winds the mechanism to make it glow.

It does this by packing in extra barrels, which are the cylinders that contain a watch’s mainspring, its store of energy. Most mechanical watches have one of these—the Elux has six. Two power the timekeeping; the other four generate electrical energy via a minuscule—but powerful—dynamo device.

Pressing the left-hand pusher releases a brake on these barrels, allowing the springs to unwind in series. A tiny gear train dramatically accelerates the rotational speed, culminating in a rotor whipping around at 80 revolutions per second. It’s attached to a microgenerator, measuring just 8 mm x 2.3 mm, with six coils, plus magnets and a stator, which converts the mechanical energy into a 240-Hz signal.

Making electricity is one thing, but the real challenge, according to Serpry, is in what you do with it. In total, there are 160 micro-LEDs in the watch. Many of these lie beneath the indications on the dial—the large, glowing hour markers each sit above groups of five to 10 LEDs, which are diffused via a translucent surface.

Photograph: Panerai

Less straightforward is delivering consistent electrical charge to the rotating bezel and the hands—the parts that move. “It’s hard to believe,” says Serpry, “but 30 to 40 percent of the complexity of the entire project is just in the hands.” He says that each hand alone contains around 30 micro-components, made by 10 different specialist manufacturers. The Elux, in fact, is the first Panerai watch in which the elements outside the movement contain more parts than the movement itself.

Initially, the team tried placing LEDs on the dial and using reflectors to direct the light to the hands, but this used too much energy. Instead, five micro-LEDs (“the smallest we could find on the market”) are placed inside the hands—meaning power needs to be transferred into the hands as they move. For that, a cannon pinion (a component that governs the motion of the hands) made of ion polymer, and bearing conductive golden tracks created by gold deposition, is encircled by microscopic springs: These maintain a circuit while minimizing friction.

The rotating bezel presented a different challenge. As a hardcore dive watch, the Elux has a bezel that can be turned in one direction to indicate a dive’s duration; it also has 500-meter water resistance. Lighting up the bezel’s central marker dot, therefore, meant getting electricity into what’s effectively a separate component outside the watch case, and doing so without compromising water resistance. The connector the team devised, featuring nested tubes and seals, uses technology normally found in submarines, according to Serpry.

Inside the bezel is a static ring housing 60 micro-LEDs. To conserve energy, only the LEDs directly below the rotating bezel’s dot are illuminated at any given time; swivel the bezel, and different sets of LEDs light up. That’s achieved using magnetic switches: Small magnets embedded in the bezel correspond to the position of the dot, and when a magnet passes over a switch, it activates the corresponding LEDs. Both the hands and the bezel technology have patents too.

So does this have any application beyond a show-off light display? “It’s something that we are considering at the moment,” says Serpry, “because once you have this electricity, you can play with it and do many different things. We’re testing other features, but luminosity was the obvious target.”

The word “Elux,” an abbreviation of “elettroluminescenza” (electroluminescence) is fitting but not new: It was first used by Panerai in the 1960s, when it was a small Florentine family business supplying high-viz instrumentation and equipment, as well as watches, for naval and military purposes. Elux, it turns out, was a technology it came up with for creating robust panels that could glow in different colors when connected to a power source.

Panerai, which is today owned by Richemont Group (home of Cartier and IWC, among others), has sometimes been accused of playing fast and loose with its history—not least in 2020, when it over-egged the backstory of its glowing Luminor compound (now the name of one of its cornerstone watch lines) by claiming to have been using tritium in 1949, at a time when the substance was unavailable and almost impossible to produce.

Photograph: Panerai

With Elux, it appears to be on firmer ground. Historic patents and documentation seen by WIRED bear this out, and they suggest a technology that, for its time, was indeed groundbreaking. Elux used novel, multilayer structures to integrate then-emerging electroluminescent technology into thin, flexible, battery-powered devices, with use cases including military instrumentation, internal signage in ships, and luminous guidance for helicopter landing decks. According to the brand, over 10,000 Elux units were produced.

While this bears no relation to anything found in the new watch, besides providing a fitting name, there’s an irony in the fact that it does stand, in fact, as a forerunner for the most famous glow-on-demand watches: Timex’s Indiglo system works on the same principles. For Panerai, then, perhaps a battery would not be so off-message after all.