With the plethora of dive watches available today, it can be easy to forget just how far the timepiece has come. In the beginning, most watches were not made to withstand the elements, let alone be worn hundreds of metres below sea level. They were mostly fragile instruments that had to be well taken care of. But technological advancements and competition between various watchmaking companies have led to the birth of some of the most important breakthroughs in the evolution of dive watches over the years.
Once upon a time
Widely recognised as the first waterproof and dust-proof wristwatch made, the Rolex Oyster from 1926 is not exactly a dive watch, but definitely paved the way for the dive watches of today. It resembles a standard wristwatch of that era with an onion crown, smooth polished case and narrow lugs, but it was the world’s first ever hermetically sealed watch with a sealed case. It was a mark of innovation at the time for the fact that its crown, caseback and bezel were all screwed-down, which provided optimal protection for the movement by preventing dust and water from entering the case. A year later in 1927, the watch was famously worn by a young English swimmer named Mercedes Gleitze who swam across the English Channel with the watch, which stayed in perfect working condition. The feat made the news and was a testament to the first waterproof watch. However, while the Rolex Oyster was successful in resisting moisture, it was not made for or tested to resist any sort of water pressure, which is a basic requirement of a modern dive watch.
Rather, it was the Omega Marine introduced in 1932 that was the first watch specifically tested and approved for diving at significant depths, and holds the title of the world’s first commercially available divers’ watch. Thanks to an inventive patented double case sealed with cork where its rectangular case could slot into an outer case creating a tight seal around it, the watch was able to resist water and pressure. It was tested to depths no other watch had gone before, having reached 73 metres in Lake Geneva and then 135 metres in a laboratory test in Neuchâtel, Switzerland, five years later in 1937. The Omega Marine was the choice of many diving pioneers, and was the predecessor to the Seamaster collection of dive watches so synonymous with the brand today.
Two big advancements in dive watches were made by Italian watch manufacturer Panerai. In 1936, Panerai created the prototype of the now legendary Radiomir. Developed for the Italian Navy’s special diving forces, the cushion-shaped Panerai Radiomir had a 47mm Rolex Oyster case and started being produced in 1938. The highlight of the watch, as well as its namesake, was the luminescent material radium on the dial, which allowed for better legibility in the murky depths of the sea. The second advancement was a crown- protecting bridge Panerai patented in 1956. Now a trademark design element of the Luminor, the bridge has a locking cam lever that secures the crown so that it fits tightly between the crown’s seals. This also allows the crown to be wound even in a secured position. With these developments, watch manufacturers were able to slowly increase the water resistance of watches from about 60 to 80 metres at the time up to a now standard 200 metres.
Still, up until this point, most dive watches did not quite resemble the modern versions yet. It was only in 1953 that the first modern diver’s watch was introduced, in the form of Blancpain’s Fifty Fathoms. It was the first diver’s watch that met the multiple requirements of specialised divers, making it the archetypal dive watch. As its name suggests, it was water-resistant to a depth of fifty fathoms – about 91 metres, which was the approximate depth a diver could safely reach at the time. The uni-directional rotating bezel, while common in most dive watches now, was first seen on the Fifty Fathoms. It enabled the diver to easily track the number of elapsed minutes underwater and at the same time prevented the possibility of the bezel being accidentally adjusted in a way that would indicate a shorter dive time. Another feature the Fifty Fathoms was equipped with that was a first in dive watches was an automatic movement. Having a self-winding movement ensured that divers would not need to unlock the crown as often, hence reducing the wear on the seals of the crown. Lastly, an anti-magnetic movement protector inside the case helped to maintain accuracy around military equipment.
A year later in 1954, Rolex debuted the Submariner – probably the best known dive watch today. It was the first watch with a water resistance of up to 100 metres with an iconic design that was also made famous by James Bond. Soon after in 1967, the Rolex Sea-Dweller was introduced as the first-ever watch equipped with a helium escape valve, through which helium that has entered the case during a dive can be released. Further, it was water-resistant up to 1,200 metres.
Wet & wow
From here on, dive watches advanced at a rapid speed with modern dive watches having even better capabilities like the ability to go to depths further than the human body can manage and features that allowed for safer dives. For example, in 2014, IWC refreshed its Aquatimer collection and introduced a sophisticated SafeDive System, with an inner unidirectional bezel that is operated by an outer bidirectional bezel. This made the watch much easier to use and increased the level of safety during dives.
Fast-forward to today, dive watches are the wonderfully reliable, robust and not to mention stylish companions we know them to be. The year 2019 alone has seen some incredible creations, with many of course taking inspiration from their legendary predecessors.
Blancpain, for one, reinterpreted the 1953 Fifty Fathoms with a new precious case in satin-brushed red gold. And for the first time in the collection, the Fifty Fathoms Automatique comes in blue ceramic, making it even more hardy. The brand also launched a limited-edition Fifty Fathoms Barakuda, of which the original was intended for military use. The 500-piece 2019 edition has similar aesthetic codes but with an added unidirectional bezel and self- winding movement.
Another 2019 novelty made in a material with added resistance is Panerai’s Submersible Carbotech. Based on carbon fibre, carbotech is lighter than steel and titanium but highly resistant to external shocks and corrosion.
This year, Rolex introduced yellow gold to the Sea-Dweller range for the first time in the Oyster Perpetual Sea-Dweller in yellow Rolesor, which combines Oystersteel and yellow gold. Water-resistant to a depth of 1,220 metres, the new Sea-Dweller has an enlarged case of 43mm, up from 40mm, and is also equipped with the in-house calibre 3235. The self-winding movement bears several patents and features that ensure higher precision, power reserve, resistance to shock and magnetic fields, as well as convenience and reliability.
Apart from being higher-performing, watch manufacturers are also making dive watches more inclusive. Breitling updated its modern dive watch collection with the intention of creating one for every wrist. The new Superocean Collection comes in five different sizes from 36mm to 48mm, each running on the Breitling Caliber 17 and with cleaner, simpler dials with clear indications.
Evidently, the evolution of dive watches has seen progress in leaps and bounds. Given how far the timepieces as well as the sport of diving have come in a relatively short amount of time, it will be exciting to see how much further watchmakers and technology can continue to push the boundaries from here on.