We’ve gotten so used to today’s overachieving sports watches that it’s easy to forget that watches are, by nature, extremely fragile, high-precision instruments. Indeed, for most of their history, they have been fussed over with such care that as late as the 1930s, the very idea of wearing a watch on the wrist instead of safely stashed in a waistcoat pocket, was mocked as a deplorable and hopefully temporary fad.

In the past, buffering a watch against the entry of dust and water usually meant using beeswax to seal the snapback cases ubiquitous on the pocket and early wristwatches. Still, it was a habitual ritual for a man washing his hands to remove his watch and set it safely to one side before doing so and rare is the vintage snapback watch without at least a few specks here and there of corrosion on the steelwork.

Enhanced Water Resistance

In 1926, water resistance in timepieces took a leap forward when Rolex founder Hans Wilsdorf patented the Oyster case, featuring screwed-down crown and caseback which are as ubiquitous among dive watches today as the name Rolex is recognizable around the world.

Magazine ad extolling the waterproof capability of the Oyster case
Magazine ad extolling the waterproof capability of the Oyster case

The original Rolex Oyster notwithstanding, Wilsdorf’s intention in creating the patented case wasn’t to create a dive watch per se. Neither was it the intention of another manufacturer — the luxury house of Cartier — to create a dive watch, although it did manufacture one of the world’s first really water-resistant watches as well, the Cartier Tank “Étanche” (waterproof) model of 1931.

The often repeated story that Cartier’s first water-resistant watch was the “Pasha”, and that the Pasha was inspired by the Pasha of Marrakesh’s request for a water-resistant watch to use while swimming, is just that — a story. At the time (the mid-1930s), according to brand historian Franco Cologni, the Tank “Étanche” was the only water-resistant watch in the Cartier stable — the Pasha didn’t debut until 1943.

The Tank a Vis, a 2001 re-edition of the very rare Tank Etanchée (© George Cramer)
The Tank a Vis, a 2001 re-edition of the very rare Tank Etanchée (© George Cramer)

First Dive Watches

The leap from a water-resistant watch, which would defy splashes, to a dive watch, can probably be credited to a firm whose name was intended to literally imply the last word in precision — Omega. In 1932, Omega came out with the Omega Marine. The Marine, it might be argued, is not a purpose-built dive watch in the modern sense either, with no rotating timing bezel, no screw-down crown and caseback. But it solved the issue of water resistance in a way that no other watch before had managed to do. It had a rectangular case that slid into an outer case, with a lever that created a hermetic seal between the two. The Marine also had a sapphire crystal, one of the first watches to do so. And it was tested to depths no watch had ever been taken to before — 73 meters in Lake Geneva, and then in a pressure chamber at a laboratory in Neuchâtel to a pressure corresponding to 135 meters depth.

Omega Marine (Image: auction.catawiki.com)
Omega Marine (Image: auction.catawiki.com)

The Marine went diving in the Pacific with pioneering oceanographer Charles William Beebe, and was worn by Aqualung pioneer Yves Le Prieur, whose early proto Aqualung was the standard for the French military before the adoption of the Gagnan-Cousteau invention in the postwar years. An iconic watch for Omega, and the immediate ancestor of the modern Seamaster 300 diver’s watches, the Marine has even been reissued by Omega in recent years in a limited edition of 135 (as part of its Museum collection), in gold and stainless steel, and like the original, still water resistant to 135 meters, or 450 feet.

Marine 1932, Omega’s re-issue of the Marine watch in a 135-piece limited edition in 2007
Marine 1932, Omega’s re-issue of the Marine watch in a 135-piece limited edition in 2007
Marine 1932, Omega’s re-issue of the Marine watch in a 135-piece limited edition in 2007
Marine 1932, Omega’s re-issue of the Marine watch in a 135-piece limited edition in 2007

A sad fact of life is that technology advances rapidly during wartime. In this regard, the Second World War put dive technology on a Darwinian fast-forward that led to the development of frogmen units, underwater demolition teams, and mini-sub units which were essentially crewed steerable torpedoes. For much of the war, if watches were worn by frogmen units, they tended to be simply highly water-resistant watches. In addition, there were a plethora of so-called “canteen” watches made, among others, by the then USA-based Hamilton Watch Company, which had screwed-down crown covers, rather like the lid of a Thermos bottle.

Hamilton USN BuShips (US Navy Bureau of Ships) “Canteen” watch (Image: liveauctioneers.com)
Hamilton USN BuShips (US Navy Bureau of Ships) “Canteen” watch (Image: liveauctioneers.com)

But the single dive watch destined to become, through a series of unlikely twists of fate, one of the world’s most famous, was made in only a few hundred models by an obscure Italian naval instrument maker: Panerai. The original Radiomir, named for the luminous material that actually gave a frogman a fighting chance at reading the dial in murky water or during night-time operations, was prototyped in 1936; by 1938, full production had begun.

Panerai Radiomir, circa 1942. (Image: Christie’s)
Panerai Radiomir, circa 1942. (Image: Christie’s)

Postwar Era: Rolex Submariner and Blancpain “Fifty Fathoms”

In the postwar era, scuba diving gradually became more and more popular both in industry and with the general public. The competition to go deep produced the deepest diving vessel ever to carry a human crew, the bathyscaphe Trieste. The Trieste was more akin to a hot air balloon than a conventional submarine. Basically, it was a spherical pressure hull — a bathysphere — suspended below a huge gasoline-filled float which gave it buoyancy. It took humans deeper than any submersible before, or since, had done — all the way to the bottom of the Challenger Deep, one of the deepest spots in the ocean, at over 10,000 meters deep.

The bathyscaphe Trieste in dry dock
The bathyscaphe Trieste in dry dock

The Trieste also has the distinction of being one of the few submersibles to wear a watch — a specially designed Rolex “Deep Sea” attached to its exterior. As a dive watch, this “Deep Sea” is of debatable utility, what with its massive overbuilt case and half-hemisphere crystal. It’s just not meant to be worn, even considering today’s appetite for oversized watches. But as proof of a concept — that a dive watch can be built to tolerate the worst the ocean deeps could throw at it — it remains unchallenged. It dove first with the Trieste in 1953, to 3,150 meters, but its greatest triumph was in 1960, when it accompanied the “deep boat” on the record dive into the abyss of the Challenger Deep, to a depth of 10,916 meters!

The Rolex Deep Sea that descended beyond 10,000m in 1960. (Image: Rolex)
The Rolex Deep Sea that descended beyond 10,000m in 1960. (Image: Rolex)

The year after the first Rolex Deep Sea went deep with the Trieste was the year that the Rolex Submariner debuted at the spring Basel Watch Fair — 1954. Not only in case construction but in other details as well, the Submariner was the dive watch, with its high visibility hands, uni-directional timing bezel, fliplock bracelet, and bracelet extension allowing it to change sizes easily to fit either directly on the wrist, or over the sleeve of a wetsuit.

Rolex Submariner Ref. 6205, circa 1954 (Image: Christie’s)
Rolex Submariner Ref. 6205, circa 1954 (Image: Christie’s)

Another watch launched at virtually the same moment also remains an icon of the dive watch in its first modern form. In 1952, Commander Robert Maloubier of the French Special Forces Combat Swimmers unit was given the task of designing a purpose-built dive watch that could operate at a depth of 50 fathoms, or 91.44 meters, then considered the safe limit of operational depth for a diver breathing normal composition compressed air. While Rolex research and development clearly had prototypes in the pipeline by then, there were no commercially available watches that fit Maloubier’s requirements, and so, the French officer found himself in discussion with Blancpain Rayville S.A., in Switzerland. To launch the design in France, Blancpain signed a deal with Lip in 1953 to distribute the watch, which finally went on sale in 1954.

Blancpain Fifty Fathoms, circa 1953
Blancpain Fifty Fathoms, circa 1953

Famously, the watch — officially dubbed the “Fifty Fathoms” — was worn by Jacques Cousteau in his Palme d’Or winning film, The Silent World, in 1956. The fortunes of the Fifty Fathoms were more mixed than the Submariner, though — it was adopted by military units the world over, including the US Navy’s SEAL teams, but it never quite caught on in the civilian market to the extent of the Submariner. Recently, however, it was revived by Blancpain, and now, with an in-house automatic movement, Commander Maloubier’s tool watch, with its functional purity of design, has become one of the most flat-out beautiful dive watches in the world. With the benefit of hindsight, 1954 could almost be remembered as “The Year of the Dive Watch” in the minds of modern enthusiasts.

Blancpain Fifty Fathoms Automatique in red gold
Blancpain Fifty Fathoms Automatique in red gold

In the late 1940s, Panerai had produced a further evolution of the Radiomir watch with the lever actuated crown guard for the new model — named the Luminor, for the luminescent material used on the dial, as the Radiomir had been. And in 1954, Panerai made 50 units for the Egyptian Navy that came to be remembered as some of the most collectible vintage Panerai models of all time. Interestingly, though these “Egyptian” Panerais used the Luminor-style case, the dial reads “Radiomir”, as the company’s naming system was based on the type of luminous material used, and the Egyptian Navy had asked for the old-style radioactive material to be employed.

Panerai dive watch with Luminor crown guard made for the Egyptian navy, 1956 (Image: Christie’s)
Panerai dive watch with Luminor crown guard made for the Egyptian navy, 1956 (Image: Christie’s)

The People’s Ocean — the Modern Dive Watch Era

The diver’s watch took on the classic shape we know today in the 1950s, and in the ’60s the undersea world became everyone’s world. Diving went from being a sport practised by a few hardy souls — many of whom were building their own regulators out of spare valve parts meant for other industrial uses — to a sport that, as equipment got cheaper, thousands and then millions of people around the world enjoyed.

The sheer variety and number of dive watches began to boom — Tudor, Enicar, Eterna (with the classic Kon-Tiki model), Eberhard and many others fielded watches intended for divers and, increasingly, also for those who wanted something bold, tough and bulletproof on their wrist to announce their endorsement of high-risk, tough-guy values. Favre-Leuba developed a real milestone, however — the famous and now nearly impossible to find “Bathy 50”, the first dive watch with a functional mechanical depth gauge, also sold as the “Bathy 160” with a dial calibrated in feet rather than meters, first sold in 1966. And yet another milestone was reached by a company whose name has likewise been largely forgotten outside the group of genuine dive watch history fanatics — the Jenny Caribbean was the first diver’s watch to be rated to the magic number of 1,000 meters.

Favre-Leuba Bathy 50. (Image: liveauctioneers.com)
Favre-Leuba Bathy 50. (Image: liveauctioneers.com)

At the same time, technical diving and industrial diving were breaking new ground as well. A better understanding of how long it takes for the body to become saturated with breathing gases led to the increasing use of saturation diving, both in experiments by the US Navy (such as the SEALAB undersea habitat experiments from 1964), and in industry by firms such as Westinghouse, and, famously, the French firm Comex (Compagnie Maritime d’Expertise) whose collaboration with Rolex led to the development of the first watch specifically designed for the world of saturation diving.

Saturation divers typically work in a heliox rather than a nitrox atmosphere, which can create problems for a dive watch as the helium atoms are small enough to actually penetrate the seals and gaskets of a dive watch, and build up inside the case. The problem was, during decompression, the built up pressure could shatter crystals, or pop them off the watch entirely. The solution to this was the second iconic Rolex diver’s watch, the Sea-Dweller, which was launched in 1971.

Rolex Submariner featuring the helium escape valve developed with COMEX for saturation diving
Rolex Submariner featuring the helium escape valve developed with COMEX for saturation diving

Omega, whose research labs had not been idle since the Marine made a big splash in the 1930s had, in the meantime, come out with its Seamaster 300 series of watches in 1957, which were instantly and enthusiastically accepted by both professional and amateur diving communities — and which, in a huge variety of incarnations continue down into the present day with the co-axial escapement-equipped Seamaster Planet Ocean.

The list of technical Seamaster watches is a long one, but the big kahuna of the lot was and remains the Seamaster 1000, which outsizes and can outdive even Omega’s other big contender in the dive watch derby, the asymmetrically shaped “PloProf” 600 meter watch, with its signature bright orange button for locking the dive bezel. The Seamaster 1000 is another one of the extremely small club of diver’s watches to have been worn by a submarine as well as by human divers — in 1973, the American firm International Underwater Contractors strapped an Omega Seamaster 1000 to a manipulator arm on their Beaver Mark IV deep sea submersible, and took it to a real-world test depth of 1,000 meters. Multiple tests confirmed the performance of the Seamaster 1000, which looked back out at the undersea world through its 5-mm-thick crystal with imperturbable aplomb.

Omega Seamaster 600 Ploprof
Omega Seamaster 600 Ploprof

The Seamaster 1000 represents, in a way, the apotheosis of the practically engineered diver’s watch, though there were other notable brethren as well: Jaeger-LeCoultre, with their line of astounding undersea alarm watches, and of course the advent in the late 1960s of the professional line of diver’s watches from IWC, especially the original and seductively clean-lined Aquatimer. And as the 1960s closed, some of the most successful, robust and affordable dive watches of all time appeared — the Seiko diver automatics, worn by professionals and amateurs around the world and in the millions.

Seiko also had a high-tech, high-mech first in 1975, with the world’s first titanium production watch, the Seiko 600 meter Pro Diver, with a gasket system sophisticated enough to prevent helium from entering the watch in the first place — their massive (51mm) answer to the other purpose-built saturation diving watches, the Omega Seamaster 600 and 1000, as well as the Rolex Sea-Dweller.

Seiko Ref. 6159-7010, the company’s first watch designed for saturation diving, introduced in 1975

With the advent of the electronic dive computer, with its ability to calculate body tissue gas saturation on the fly, thus freeing divers from the need to rigidly adhere to pre-scheduled dive profiles, it might seem as if the dive watch has become obsolete. And yet, the dive watch has flourished.

Modern watches that take water and corrosion resistance to new heights and depths, like the submarine steel-crafted Sinn U1, or its contrastingly light and lively counterpart, the titanium (and 3,000-meter water-resistant) Breitling Aeromarine Avenger Seawolf, continue to give divers that extra edge they need in the delicate chess game of gases and pressures that ensures survival in the deep. And increasingly, it’s a game that has advanced beyond the fundamentals of staying alive to yield a golden harvest of diver’s tourbillons, minute repeaters, and other complications protected by sophisticated case and gasket systems that would do a physicist proud.