In the years I’ve spent studying and collecting wristwatches, I’ve come to realise that there’s one thing for which mechanical watches really don’t get their due – toughness. Well-constructed timepieces are incredibly rugged – far more than we imagine – and dive (or divers’) watches sit right at the top of that table. They were, after all, created with soldiers and the military in mind. Today, divers’ watches are a reminder of that historical association, and it makes them immensely popular with enthusiasts and collectors; even those who have nothing to do with the marine world.
Where it all began
In the 1920s, watches on wrists were quite uncommon and most gentlemen still preferred pocket watches. However, driven by the emergence of the wristwatch as a category and the need for more durable timepieces, Rolex laid the foundation for effective water-resistant watches in 1926 with what they call the Oyster case. This invention set things in motion for further development of watches that could withstand the pressures of being underwater.
Forward to 1932, Omega created the first pressure-tested, certified divers’ watch, though this remains one of the most overlooked and under-appreciated pieces of trivia in horology. This was followed by Panerai, who were tasked with making watches for commandos of the Royal Italian Navy in the late 1930s, at the time of the Second World War. While the stark, signature dial was Panerai’s own creation, Rolex supplied the water-resistant cases to them.
Both Omega and Panerai’s designs were very different from the archetypal dive watch as we know it today. Blancpain is the brand which actually deserves credit for that. Their iconic Fifty Fathoms wristwatch, released in 1953 for French combat swimmers, incorporated the (now ubiquitous) notched, rotating bezel. Combined with large, luminescent markers, this became the template for a quintessential divers’ watch, and has remained basically unaltered since.
It’s worth noting that at the time, these watches were the only instrument divers had to calculate the length of their stay underwater. Anything going wrong here meant a catastrophe in the making.
Rolex were at work too, continuing their efforts to create watches that could withstand the elements. Just a year after Blancpain, Rolex released their own take on a dive watch – the Submariner. While it wasn’t the first, it has ended up as arguably the most iconic wristwatch of all time and the poster-child of dive watches, in general.
As you can see from this evolution, diving watches were truly purpose-built tools, borne out of necessity for frogmen and marine explorers. Worn in times of war, on special missions and journeys to the depths of the unknown.
What makes a dive watch?
A diving watch requires certain basic features in order to fulfil its job – water resistance (100 metres is usually sufficient), legibility, luminescence, ability to calculate elapsed time from a defined point and an indicator that the watch is running. If you think about the conditions divers are subjected to, all of these make perfect sense. Ultimately, the watch has to accurately tell the time spent underwater, so the diver knows when to resurface and calculate decompression stops in the process, using the bezel.
Creators of the French combat swimmer unit took this very brief and design idea to Blancpain in 1952. The watch was to have a rotating bezel, sparse dial and large, legible hour markers – which are all functional, aesthetic traits shared by today’s dive watches. This is testimony to how right Blancpain got it with the Fifty Fathoms.
Now if you’ve gone diving recreationally, you would have strapped a dive computer onto your wrist. But dive computers only started to be accepted widely in the 1990s, and until then, a watch was the only tool you had. Therefore, given its criticality, official criteria for a divers’ watch were codified by the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) in 1982. Known as the ISO 6425 standard, it provides specific testing requirements before a watch can be labelled as a divers’ watch. They are largely an extension of the features mentioned above, but also include resistance to magnetism, shocks and saline water, among other specifications.
Not all manufacturers get their watches ISO-certified and hence, cannot say they are divers’ watches. So while many may not carry the tag, per se, the visual cues are an easy tell about intended purpose. But in the hallowed company of brands like Rolex, Omega, Breitling and Seiko, which are renowned for their proficiency in making watches that can be taken diving, you can rest assured that their internal tests for robustness and chronometry are quite rigorous and exacting.
The ISO guidelines, combined with the substantial R&D carried out by watch manufacturers result in dive watches being over-engineered to the point where they can handle much more than anything you could possibly throw at them. Omega’s Planet Ocean watches, for example, are rated to withstand pressure at depths of 600 metres below sea level! (And that’s not even close to being a record)
The sustained popularity of an anachronistic object
With an incredibly rich history tied to exploration and military use, it’s no wonder that dive watches have such powerful emotional appeal; offering a chance to vicariously live those adventures. They are a time capsule, symbol of ingenuity and ever-dependable tool, all at once. That last reason also explains why most of James Bond’s choices over the years have been diving watches, most notably the Omega Seamaster.
As the hobby of collecting watches has become somewhat more widespread lately, and the popularity of dive watches has soared, an often-used phrase one comes across is ‘desk-diver’. A desk-diver is someone who loves a good dive watch for its ruggedness and reliability, though has not acquired it for use in diving underwater. Rather, they spend most of their time behind a desk, but with a watch capable of withstanding the most extreme conditions of the ocean. Since people dress more casually now, relatively speaking, it also allows for a sportier watch on the wrist, aiding the growing cult of the dive watch.
I plead guilty to the desk-diver tag too. But tell me of another type of mechanical watch you can be this carefree with. I wear it to work, on holiday, take it to the beach and can head to the bar after a swim without having to worry about changing my watch. It’s a robust, versatile, smart looking thing after all. I just feel ready to take on a challenge when I have it on. Oh, I also use the bezel to time how long my tea has been brewing. It’s these little things clubbed with a dose of nostalgia that keep the charm alive. Because between mobile phones and dive computers, there is no reason dive watches should exist at all. But out of everything on your person, if there’s one thing that won’t fail you, it’ll be your dive watch.
Due to their intrinsic nature, these watches also tend to be simple, with usage of sturdy metals like steel or titanium (over gold) and complications kept to a minimum. No frills or fuss, their only job is to keep ticking no matter what. Which brings me back to the point I first made about toughness – a divers’ watch’s most underrated trait. They’re truly built to last a lifetime and there needn’t be an ounce of worry with one on your wrist. I say this from personal experience.
One of the most succinct lines I heard in this context was in an interview with musician John Mayer, who is also a prolific and celebrated watch collector. In context of his vintage Rolex Submariner, originally issued to the British Royal Navy, he remarked: “People were crawling through the mud wearing that watch. So you can wear it and hit a door jamb with it – you’re gonna be fine.” Enough said.
A few classic divers’ watches
The classic, the legend, the icon. No conversation about dive watches is complete without a hat tip to the Submariner. It helps that it can slip from boardroom to bar to beach smoother than honey. Made with a special steel alloy rarely used by brands other than Rolex.
Omega Seamaster 300
This watch takes vintage design inspiration but packages it with thoroughly modern engineering, in true Omega fashion. Ceramic bezel for scratch resistance, silicon balance for anti-magnetism upto 15,000 gauss and a chronometer-certified movement with co-axial escapement. Extremely handsome.
Blancpain Fifty Fathoms Barakuda
A Fifty Fathoms always makes the list of every serious dive watch guy, because it’s where it all started. You just can’t help it once you know the back story. This 2019 limited edition release is a recreation of a variant made for the Germany Navy around 1970. The way they have executed it is worthy of applause. Modest sizing at 40.3mm with a beautifully finished self-winding movement.
Oris Divers 65
No dive watch has made more waves in recent times than the Oris 65. Since its launch in 2015, it has evolved into a full-fledged collection, offering pared-back design, top-notch construction and exceptional value. Lots of colours, sizes and materials to choose from, but you won’t go wrong no matter what you pick.
Panerai Radiomir PAM610
You’ll notice the lack of a notched bezel here, compared to the others, because the second World War (when they were originally made) predated the appearance of a rotating bezel on dive watches. But since the first Panerai watches were made exclusively with Italian naval commandos in mind, it is as true as a dive watch can be. Complete with large Arabic numerals and hand-wound movement having an 8 day power reserve – another nod to the brand’s history.
This article first appeared in the print edition of Business Traveller India.