A Guide To Dive Watches
With origins going back to the first water resistant watches of the 1920s, dive watches are one of the most popular kinds of timepiece in the world today.
Whether or not they are used for serious diving, modern dive watches offer an iconic, take-almost-anywhere style. They represent an evolution of various technologies that makes them functional, highly durable and reliable. At the same time, thanks in part to their associations with various larger than life characters over the years – both real and fictional – dive watches evoke a sense of action, ruggedness and adventure.
The Rolex Submarine uses an external case that screws together around a standard style wristwatch. This completely seals the watch inside, however it means that it cannot be adjusted without completely removing the case.
Rolex uses a patented screw down crown design in its Oyster model; a year later the watch accompanies swimmer Mercedes Gleitze as she swims the English Channel. The feat is picked up by the press and brings the water resistant Rolex to the attention of the public.
Cartier produces the first Pasha de Cartier upon request from the Pasha of Marrakech. It features an additional crown cover that seals the watch, attached to the case with a small metal chain.
Omega produces the Marine; a watch that uses a hermetically sealed two part case and the first watch capable of surviving greater than swimming depths. The watch is tested in Lake Geneva to a depth of 70 metres.
Officine Panerai provide the Radiomir for Italian Special Forces divers. Radium is used to provide luminous markings, making the watches extremely legible under water, however is later found to be dangerously radioactive.
Panerai develops its Luminor model, introducing their trademark bridge design which locks the crown down securely, ensuring a tight seal. The watch also has an 8 day power reserve.
Omega introduce the Seamaster to mark the brands centenary. Designed to appeal to people who wanted a smart yet capable timepiece, it lead to Omega’s now famous Professional range which launched the following year.
Blancpain collaborates with elite French Special Forces divers to develop the Fifty Fathoms. It features the first use of a rotating bezel to monitor elapsed time, a specially designed crown seal, fully automatic movement and anti-magnetic properties.
Rolex launches the Submariner with 100m water resistance. Whilst having evolved over time, current models retain many of the unmistakeable design characteristics that debuted in early production.
Well known for its aviation watches, Breitling enters the dive watch market with the Superocean. Guaranteed to survive depths of 200m, the watch uses a monohull case construction.
Jaeger-LeCoultre launches the Memovox Deep Sea; the first diver’s watch equipped with an alarm. It’s function is to indicate to divers when they need to return to the surface for air.
Rolex creates the Deep Sea, which features a huge bubble shaped crystal, and the watch accompanies Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh to a depth of over 10,000m.
IWC launches the Aquatimer; with a 200m depth rating, the first model included an innovative rotating inner bezel which is a feature still found on modern Aquatimer pieces.
Rolex launches the Sea Dweller which features a helium escape valve, developed alongside French commercial diving company COMEX and rival watch brand Doxa. This innovation prevents helium trapped inside the watch at significant depths from building in pressure and breaking the crystal.
The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) sets out a number of criteria that a watch must fulfil in order to be defined as a true diver’s watch. They relate to water resistance, durability, legibility and the inclusion of features such as a unidirectional rotating bezel.
Rolex designs the Deepsea Challenge to accompany movie director James Cameron to the bottom of the Challenger Deep trench, the deepest place on earth. The watch is designed to reach 12,000m and has a diameter of over 51mm (for perspective, the modern submariner is 40mm).
The range of modern day diving watches is huge, with most of the leading watch brands offering at least one model in their collection and many offering significantly more. The features available therefore are numerous, however there are some core elements of a dive watch to be aware of:
It goes without saying that a diver’s watch should be able to function under water. However the depth to which different watches can be taken varies greatly. Some are designed for hobbyist scuba divers, whilst some are focused towards professional deep sea divers. Whatever their intended use, dive watches will have a depth rating that lets you know how deep the piece can be taken to safely, usually signified in metres, and also often feet.
For modern watches, a rating of 200-300 metres is considered to be the minimum for a model that wants to be thought of as a serious dive watch. However for vintage pieces, depth ratings usually won’t be as extreme. It’s also worth remembering that vintage models may not be able to go as deep as they could when new if they haven’t been serviced correctly.
When comparing different watches, it’s not always necessary to opt for the model with the highest depth rating. The depth rating should always be deeper the watch will ever go, but this doesn’t need to be the deepest available unless you plan on using it for extreme deep sea diving. Look for a watch that also meets other criteria you may have such as style, design and budget. For example, a watch rated at 200-300m will be more than adequate for swimming, snorkelling and most leisure scuba diving.
First introduced by Blancpain in the 50s, on its iconic Fifty Fathoms model, the rotating bezel is now ubiquitous with watches designed for diving. Its purpose is to allow the wearer to record the time when entering the water by rotating the bezel anti-clockwise and setting against the minute hand. This enables accurate monitoring of how long the wearer has been submerged for, providing an indication as to how much oxygen remains in their tank.
The bezel on a dive watch will usually be uni-directional; this means it cannot be turned the wrong way (clockwise) by accident; something that could be dangerous as it would indicate to a diver that they have more oxygen remaining than they actually do.
Modern divers will typically use specialised dive computers to monitor a range of information, including dive time, and so a rotating bezel may not technically be required, however it remains an integral part of the style.
Whilst not all dive watches exhibit this feature, with some manufacturers opting to use specialised seals, gaskets or valves instead, a crown that needs to be unscrewed to operate the watch settings is designed to prevent water or dust entering the mechanism. As it is screwed in, the hole through which the crown stem attaches to the mechanism is completely closed. This also significantly minimises the chance of the crown becoming unscrewed or pulled out whilst underwater – particularly important if there aren’t also other forms of water resistance around the crown stem.
Screw in cases are widely used on dive watches; they mean that the mechanism inside the watch can be more reliably sealed against moisture entering than other forms of cases used in watch making, such as pop in case backs. Dive watches must also be able to resist corrosion from sea water and so are usually made from high quality stainless steel, other alloys or specialised ceramics and plastics. Some dive watches use monobloc cases as an alternative, in which the case is completely closed on the back. In these cases, to access the mechanism it’s necessary to remove the crystal and dial.
One of the main factors that contributes to the depth rating of a watch is the pressure that it can withstand. As a diver descends, the water pressure increases, and so the pressure that the watch can withstand will need to be greater. Part of withstanding this pressure comes down to the quality of crystal used to face the watch. For a dive watch, in most cases this will be sapphire crystal of a good thickness. A thinner crystal may crack under pressure.
Dive watches by their nature are considered tool watches, and in the environments in which they are intended to be used, visibility is often significantly reduced. To remain usable therefore, dive watches need to be clearly legible in a range of conditions.
Watches in this category often feature simple, uncluttered dials with easy to read numerals or indicators. Another big part of ensuring the watches are legible underwater is the luminescence; special paint, coatings or materials are applied to hands and markers so that they glow in the dark and dim world beneath the sea.
Whilst the use of clear dials and highly luminescent markers ensures dive watches remain legible under water, these properties are also useful on dry land; for example at night time when there is no light available. Many styles of watches use luminescent markers and dials, however the feature is usually best demonstrated and most commonly associated with dive watches.
The type of strap on a dive watch is not necessarily the most important feature, as it is something that in most cases can easily be changed. However if you actually intend to use a dive watch in the sea, the choice of strap becomes more important.
The most common materials used on dive watch straps are rubber and stainless steel. Both of these materials are resistant to water and can be taken to significant depths without an issue. If the watch will be worn over a wetsuit or diving suit then this should also be factored into the strap. Rubber straps can often be easily adjusted, whereas some stainless steel bracelet style straps will include a specially designed ratchet mechanism, allowing them to be extended to fit over a wetsuit when required.
Some types of leather straps are designed to be water resistant using special coatings or linings, however most leather straps would be unsuitable for prolonged exposure to sea water.
Another popular choice for diving watches are military or NATO straps. These fit the watch by passing under both spring bars and so mean that the watch is less likely to be lost if a spring bar should fail.
Some dive watches are ISO certified, which means that they exhibit various standards and features required by the International Organisation of Standardisation. These include a minimum of 100m water resistance, a unidirectional bezel with markers at least every five minutes, a clear and distinguishable face that is visible in total darkness and a number of other features relating to chemical, shock and magnetic resistance.
Diver’s watches are incredibly popular and there have been many fantastic models and variants released over the years. Every good collection should include at least one great diver’s watch. Here are some to look out for:
An iconic design and one which is often used as the benchmark against which other dive watches are judged. Whether vintage or modern, the submariner is instantly recognisable.
Blancpain Fifty Fathoms
Pioneering a number of features which are now standard on almost all dive watches, vintage models are highly sought after. Modern interpretations have evolved the design and introduced greater choice in materials specifications.
The Seamaster is one of Omega’s oldest ranges and there have been a wide range of models released over the years. Offering a great choice of size, dials, colours and features, the Seamaster was also worn by James Bond in a number of 007 films.
One of the first watches designed for elite special forces, the Radiomir has an unmistakeable design and great presence on the wrist.
Rolex Sea Dweller
The Sea-Dweller takes the classic Rolex diver’s design to even greater depths than the Submariner. Tweaks since it’s launch in 1967 mean that contemporary models are rated at 4,000 feet, or 1220 metres.
Cartier Pasha de Cartier
Whilst not necessarily considered a true dive watch, the Pasha de Cartier has a look all of its own with a screw down crown cap that is attached to the case with a small chain.
Launched in 1967, the Aquatimer collection from IWC includes dive specific features like depth gauges and inner rotating bezels, with some models using strong yet light titanium cases.
The ProDiver range includes innovative features such as a rotation safety system, in which the bezel needs to be lifted before being turned. The collection makes use of titanium and ceramics, with the flagship ProDiver Chronograph measuring 51mm in diameter.
Jaeger-LeCoultre Master Compressor
Launching in 2002, the Master Compressor uses a compression key crown to achieve robust water resistance. The Master Compressor Diving was released in 2007 with a depth rating of 1000m, and in 2009 the brand started making special models for the US Navy SEALS.
Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Offshore
Launched in 1993, the Royal Oak Offshore is a generously proportioned range that combines high-tech materials such as ceramic and carbon fibre with luxury metals and jewels.
The Breitling Superocean range is a technically capable, professional grade collection with heritage going back to the 50’s. A wide range of models have been released over the years, with some capable of surviving depths of 2000m.
Hublot King Power
The King Power Oceanographic from Hublot is rated as water resistant to 4000m and uses high tech materials and construction. It shares a similarly angular, masculine style as other Hublot watches.
With models that can withstand depths of 2000m, the Supermarine range from the English brand also includes anti-magnetic and anti-shock cases.
If you’ve decided that you want a diver’s watch, the first step most people take is to do some research into what’s available. You may have a favourite brand, require certain features or like the style of a particular model; these are all good places to start in narrowing down your search.
Once you’ve identified the model or models that you like best, the next step is to find pieces available for sale. For newer models this may be reasonably straight forward, and buying a nearly new watch can often be a great way to save money over a brand new piece.
If it’s something vintage that has caught your attention, tracking one down can sometimes be a little more difficult, particularly for the rarer models.
It’s also a good idea to try and get a feel for the market so that you can spot a good deal when you see it, and equally importantly spot a deal that might seem too good to be true – which in most cases it will be.
As with any pre-owned watch purchase, it’s always a good idea to look for a reputable dealer. This will ensure that the watch is genuine and as described.
A good dealer will also include a warranty with most sales so you can be confident that your investment is protected against any faults that may arise after purchase. The dealer will likely have a good knowledge of the model you’re interested in, or be able to help you find something specific if you’re hunting for an unusual or rare piece.
You may want to arrange to visit the dealer or speak to them on the phone about any watches you’re considering buying. Also look out for reviews and experiences that others have had buying from the company.