About Dive Watches
If there is one category of watches that has maintained its popularity over the years, it is the dive watch. While dive watches were first conceived as tool watches for divers to take with them underwater, today’s consumers are more interested in their sporty designs rather than as a piece of underwater gear. Given the widespread appeal of dive watches, it comes as no surprise that most luxury watch brands offer at least one collection dedicated to divers.
What is A Dive Watch?
To be considered a true modern dive watch, timepieces have to adhere to the International Organization for Standardization 6425. Some notable requirements of ISO 6425 include that a diving watch must be water-resistant to a minimum of 100 meters, it must be equipped with a unidirectional rotating timing bezel, it must be legible underwater, and it must be able to withstand a certain level of shocks. These stipulations pave the way for how current divers are designed—both aesthetically and technically.
Although the minimum water-resistance requirement of a dive watch is 100 meters, many high-end divers offer even deeper depth ratings. Some watchmakers even manufacture professional saturation dive watches, characterized by high water resistance ratings and Helium Escape Valves (HEV). After diving to extreme depths, saturation divers are required to spend lengthy amounts of time in decompression chambers before coming back up to the surface to prevent sickness or even fatality. These chambers are pressurized environments with a mix of gasses including helium. Helium can seep into watches and if it is not discharged from the watch case, then the built-up gasses can cause the crystal to pop off a watch during ascent due to the pressure. Therefore, the HEV permits helium to escape from the watch to prevent pressure damage.
The bezel on a dive watch allows divers to track how long they have been underwater for. While bezels on some early dive models would rotate in both directions, today, they only rotate in one direction. This is to ensure that divers do not mistakenly underestimate how long they have been underwater for if the bezel gets accidentally knocked. Dive bezels are always marked to 60 minutes. To use a dive bezel as a timing mechanism, the bezel has to be rotated so that the zero marker lines up with the minute hand. Then it’s just a matter of reading what number the hand points to on the bezel to determine how many minutes have elapsed since timing began.
How legible a watch is underwater is especially important on a dive watch. As a result, dive watches always have plenty of luminescence—particularly on the hands, hour markers, and on the bezel.
History of Dive Watches
The history of dive watches encompasses many different players that added improvements and enhancements to existing timepieces to bring us where we are today. At the turn of the 20th Century, men still relied on pocket watches as their timekeeping instruments (wristwatches were reserved for women). As you can imagine, pocket watches were not built for an active lifestyle outdoors but rather a papered piece of machinery to be kept safely in the pocket or a watch box. However, during the first half of the 1900s, Western society began to change dramatically with great advances in sciences, engineering, and mechanics—driven significantly by both World Wars. Furthermore, during the First World War, military men took to wearing pocket watches on their wrists (also known as trench watches) as it was much more practical during combat. Eventually, the trend for men’s wristwatches began picking up slowly in civilian society post-WWI.
In 1926, Rolex unveiled the Oyster case, which offered wearers unprecedented watch waterproofness. Rolex designed the Oyster case so that the bezel, winding crown, and caseback all screwed into the case to keep it hermetically sealed. To test the watch, Rolex equipped Mercedes Gleitze with an Oyster watch while she attempted to swim across the English Channel. The Oyster watch remained perfectly intact after ten hours of being submerged in the cold waters and Rolex published a full-page ad on the cover of an English newspaper to announce the feat.
While the Rolex Oyster was waterproof, it was not tested to withstand water pressure—a crucial requirement for diving. In 1932, Omega developed and patented the Marine watch, specifically built to withstand diving depths. In 1936, the Omega Marine plunged 73 meters deep into Lake Geneva and by 1937 the watch was officially certified to withstand water pressure up to 135 meters.
As we mentioned, legibility underwater is just as important for a dive watch as water resistance. Florentine-based Officine Panerai was an official supplier of nautical instruments for the Royal Italian Navy. In 1916, Panerai patented a luminous radium-based substance it called “Radiomir” so that that their nautical instruments would glow brightly in dark waters. A few years before World War II, Panerai presented a batch of prototype dive watches in 1936 for the Italian Navy’s combat divers. These mil-spec dive watches went into production in 1938 with waterproof cases and manual-wound movements supplied by Rolex and dials furnished with the Panerai patented luminescence. The design of the watch model, characterized by a large cushion-shaped case, an oversized winding crown, wire lugs, and a stark dial with highly luminescent details, is the basis for what is now known as the Panerai Radiomir watch model. Due to the dangerous nature of radium, Panerai went on to invent another luminous material based on safer tritium, called “Luminor.” The Luminor label also went on to become the name of Panerai’s other main watch model.
Post-WWII saw a boom in recreational and commercial diving thanks in large part to the invention of the Aqua-Lung self-contained underwater breathing apparatus (SCUBA). While Panerai made watches explicitly for military divers, by today’s standards, these could not be classified as dive watches as they are missing a timing bezel. At the Basel Fair in 1953, two new purpose-built dive watches, complete with timing bezels, were presented to the public: the affordable Zodiac Sea Wolf and pricier Blancpain Fifty Fathoms.
The design of the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms was actually led by Captain Bob Maloubier for a fleet of frogmen under his command that was part of the French Ministry of Defense. Captain Maloubier sought out help from several watch manufacturers to produce his dive watch design and it was ultimately Blancpain (under the leadership of Jean-Jacques Fiechter, who was an avid diver) who answered the call. So in 1953, the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms made its debut with a large 42mm case housing a black dial with self-luminous details and topped with a rotating bezel also furnished with luminescence. The watch takes its name from its water depth rating of fifty fathoms, which is equivalent to 91.45 meters. Many point to the introduction of the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms as the birth of the modern dive watch (although the Zodiac Sea Wolf was released at the same time).
That same year, Rolex also developed a purpose-built dive watch with a rotating bezel and the now-iconic Rolex Submariner made its official public debut at the 1954 Basel Fair. With a 100-meter water resistance rating, the Rolex Submariner—equipped with a steel 38mm Oyster case, a steel bracelet, a black dial with lume, and a black rotating bezel—beat the Fifty Fathoms by a few meters.
A few years later, Omega joined the modern dive watch battle and unleashed the Seamaster 300 in 1957, which was water-resistant to a depth of 200 meters and equipped with a reverse countdown bezel. Breitling jumped on board too with two Superocean dive watches—one time and date edition and one chronograph version—also launched in 1957.
We cannot have a genuine run-down of the history of dive watches without highlighting Seiko’s significant contributions to the field. The Japanese watchmaker launched the first Seiko 150M Diver’s in 1965, the Seiko Diver’s 300M in 1967, and the Seiko Professional Diver’s 600M in 1975. Seiko continues to dominate the field of affordable dive watches today.
From the mid-20th Century onwards, watchmakers continued to evolve their dive watch models. Many even added extreme dive watches to the mix with deeper water resistance ratings that go well beyond what a human can survive.
Popular Luxury Dive Watch Models
Today, a select group of brands leads the charge in the luxury dive watch space. As pioneers in the diving watch market, Blancpain, Rolex, Omega, Breitling, and Panerai all continue to emphasize their dive watch collections. Blancpain focuses on the Fifty Fathoms collection and Panerai’s modern dive watch collection is dubbed the Submersible.
The most popular dive watch today by far is the Rolex Submariner (now water-resistant to 300 meters); however, the Swiss watchmaker has expanded its diver lineup with the Sea-Dweller (1,220 meters) and the Deepsea (3,900 meters).
Omega also offers a range of diving watches from the Seamaster Diver 300M to the Seamaster Planet Ocean 600M to the Seamaster Ploprof 1200M. Finally, Breitling makes the vintage-inspired Superocean Heritage (200 meters), the modern Superocean (1,000 meters), and the professional Avenger II Seawolf (3,000 meters).
Some other notable luxury dive models include the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Offshore Diver, the IWC Aquatimer, the Jaeger-LeCoultre Master Compressor, the Cartier Calibre Diver, and the TAG Heuer Aquaracer.
Although dive computers have long surpassed mechanical timepieces as the go-to tools for underwater exploration, the popularity of the dive watch remains strong. Today, dive watches are typically worn to denote a certain lifestyle and personal tastes. From utilitarian roots to attractive accessories, the dive watch is here to stay.