This article starts with a big disclaimer: back in the 1920’s, the risks of radium and radioactivity were hardly known. Nuclear energy and radioactivity were relatively new, and no one, including Panerai, had any idea of the risk. Therefore Panerai can’t be blamed for what happened.
Now let’s dive into today’s story.
Even though Panerai is seen as a trustworthy and stable brand, the Italian brand has a dark secret. We are not talking about Kampfschwimmers (more on that later), but the story of radium girls.
Today, Superluminova is the standard luminous material used in watches. It holds its brightness for a long time, and is (as long as you don’t digest it) a harmless material. Superluminova is a stable and safe material that can be stored for a long time without any side effects.
However, Superluminova was only developed in 1993. Before, radioactive materials were sometimes used as luminous material. Rolex for example has used tritium in the 1980’s and 90’s. The tritium had very low concentrations of radioactivity, exposing the wearer to extremely low risk.
Let’s rewind back even more, and go to the 1920’s.
Panerai and other watch brands decided to use radium as a luminous material for their watches. Luminous materials in horology was new, and was seen as a true innovation. There was only one issue that no one knew about: radium is highly radioactive.
In the 1920’s, dials were still painted by hand. That meant that workers in the Panerai factory had to grab a pencil and a bucket of radium paint to make the dials. This was mainly done by women at that time. The letters on the dial were very small, so the women had to make sure the hairs on their pencils were always slightly moist to make sure the tip remained sharp. Sadly, this was done brushing the (radium filled) pencil against their lips every few minutes. Many also used the glowing paint as nail polish or make-up, applying the radioactive substance on their faces.
This also happened with many other brands of watchmakers and clockmakers in Europe and the US.
Thousands of painters worldwide ingested lethal amounts of radioactive substance without even knowing it. Over the years, almost all of them developed severe tumors, resulting in a slow and painful death. Once the dangers of radioactive paint were known, the substance was quickly banned and the search for a new, safer luminous substance began.