If you have explored the luxury watch industry and acquired a balanced collection of wristwatches over the years, you may have come to own a dive watch or two. You may also own a grand complication watch, a dress watch, a pilot’s watch or a chronograph? But there is something remarkably appealing about owning a dive watch. In many cases, one style of watch is often preferred over another, but why are dive watches in particular so popular?
Could it be that a dive watch is more durable, more reliable – more dependable than a non-dive watch? Could it be that dive watches are more primed for daily life compared to other styles of watches? Could the popularity of a dive watch be something to do with the fact that its design promises more versatility when it comes to wearing it? After all, a dive watch can be enjoyed for its use underwater, as a sports watch or for something dresser if desired. It could be argued that a dive watch is rarely worn for underwater exploration these days. In that case, the obvious presumption to make is that a dive watch is not purchased for diving alone. Neither is it sought after solely for its dressy style or its sports watch aesthetics – but moreover, a mix of all qualities rolled into one.
There is much more to owning and collecting diver watches than meets the eye and there is no denying that they have become a mainstream fashion statement. Many like to own and wear a timepiece that harks back to the dive watch styles of the 1940s, whereas others require a rugged tool for wearing as a daily companion during the week. To appreciate some of the appeal behind a dive watch, it is with taking a look at its history…
It was not until the end of the 19th Century that wristwatches became a thing. At first, the transition from a pocket watch into a wristwatch seemed more directed towards the female market. Women would wear a wristwatch as a piece of jewellery. Later on, however, the military began tuning into the uses and benefits of wearing a watch on the wrist whilst on the frontline. Robustness and longevity were the qualities needed for this line of work, thus many German and Swiss watchmakers began manufacturing tool watches exclusively for the industry. Then came the dive watch. When we think of the birth of the dive watch we immediately recall the likes of Rolex’s iconic Submariner. Although born in 1954, the history of the Rolex Submariner really began back in 1926 when the brand invented a hermetically sealed case called the Oyster case, followed by the world’s first self-winding mechanism with a perpetual rotor.
There were, however, other contenders within the industry during this time who deserve credit for their developments. Blancpain released the Fifty Fathoms watch after working with the French Navy on its design. Underwater combat divers were able to utilize the watch’s unidirectional rotating bezel with 60-minute markings for measuring elapsed time underwater. Before any of this, Panerai’s collaborative effort with Rolex and Italy’s naval diving force led to the Panerai Radiomir 2533. It featured a trademark crown guard system, sealing the crown and preventing water from seeping into the case. It would be sinful not to mention Omega’s role in earlier dive watch history too. Omega developed a case-within-a-case concept in the 1920s. An improved version of this watch was later released in 1939 called the Omega Marine Standard.
Without a doubt, it is the fascinating history of diver watches and how they have evolved over the years that resonates with many a collector. But some key dive-specific qualities and features define a modern-day dive watch. Residing in Geneva is the International Organization for Standardization (aka ISO), which looks at the water-resistant capabilities of a watch, how well it reads in dark conditions, and its pressure-resistant qualities to name but a few examples. Although these qualities must all be present in a dive watch (albeit to varying degrees), many brands have been keen to invent new styles of diver watches and equip them with innovative features that enable them to stand out within an already saturated market.
For this reason, some watches may fulfil the guidelines of the ISO 6425 certification but lack a certain dive watch spirit. Other brands stick to what they know works best and, as a result, their dive watches have become the bread and butter of their catalogue. ISO standard 6425 requires a dive watch to be readable from a distance of 25 meters. It must also feature a “time-pre-scaling device” such as a rotating bezel and must have an indicator (such as a second hand) that shows that the watch is constantly running. Although only 1% of dive watch owners will actually use their watch to dive with. Many functionalities will come into use on a regular or daily basis, thus adding to the appeal of a dive watch as an investment and a collectable piece. Let’s take a look at some of the most appealing features of a dive watch…
Dive watches are popular because they have a distinct style. Often, they feature black or dark-coloured displays with contrasting date apertures at 3 o’clock and luminous-coated hands and hour indexes. The lollipop second hand is a signature look for many a luxury dive watch, including those made by Omega, Tudor, and Seiko. But this genre of watch is also popular for its water-resistant capability. You can take a dip in the pool or a swim in the sea (not to mention partake in a myriad of water sports, scuba diving, sailing and yachting etc) safe in the knowledge that a dive watch will hold up in the water. For a decent dive watch, you should look to those that offer a minimum of 300-meter water resistance. Other leading watch manufacturers have equipped their dive watches with superior water-resistant capabilities. These extreme dive watches include the Rolex Sea-Dweller Deepsea with 3,900-meter water resistance, the Breitling Superocean Chronograph M2000 with 2000-meter water resistance, the Ball Engineer Hydrocarbon DeepQUEST with 3000-meter water resistance, and the 4000-meter water-resistant Hublot Oceanographic 4000.
To assist with water-resistant capabilities, some dive watches will feature cases with a screw-in back and crown, an O-ring which seals the crown, a thicker sapphire crystal glass front for holding up under pressure, and a helium escape valve that prevents critical damage to the internal environment of the watch (by releasing the gas during decompression and equalising the pressure both inside and outside of the case).
No watch can be considered a true dive watch unless its dial offers superior legibility to match the depth of its capability underwater. Many watches feature bright white luminous-coated indexes that are shaped into the circular, rectangular or baton style, along with a set of chunky, highly visible central hands. Modern dive watches have often been treated with Super-LumiNova which is non-radioactive. Earlier dive watches like the original Radiomir watches by Panerai used radiomir – a material that was later discovered to be dangerous. Super-LumiNova, however, works like a light storage battery, absorbing sunlight and artificial light by day and glowing richly by night. Many bezels equipped with printed dive scales also feature luminous-coated markings to identify each of the 60 minutes around the track whilst under deep dark depths of water.
A rotating bezel on a dive watch will let a wearer know how long he has been underwater. This function is useful whether you’re going on a recreational dive or not because it also enables you to measure elapsed time up to an hour on dry land too. Most well-built dive watches will turn only in a counter-clockwise direction to ensure that time can never be accidentally reversed. This could outstay a diver’s welcome underwater. The first 15 minutes on the bezel is often highlighted too.
There is a wide choice of straps and bracelets to choose from on the dive watch market. Most models feature a rubber strap or a metal bracelet. The classic style of the dive watch is often defined as a black rubber strap with either a pin buckle or folding clasp, or a bracelet made from stainless steel. Some metal bracelets are integrated with a diver’s extension feature, enabling it to fit over the top of a diving suit. The advantage of a rubber or bracelet band over a NATO or leather strap is that both offer a quick-drying solution when in and out of the water.
The watch industry is churning dive watches out at a remarkable rate and it’s not hard to see why. Durable, robust and authentic in design, dive watches, whether chosen from the high-end price bracket or the more affordable end of the market, are suitable for almost every kind of occasion. The bezel of a dive watch is a low-tech solution to a timing problem, whereas the rest of the design has matched the tough conditions experienced underwater by evolving with the industry’s exploration of new materials. At the same time, they look classic, well-balanced and timeless. Dive watches are tougher and even more capable than we need them to be underwater, constituting a non-essential but desirable instrument to own. On the wrist, however, they continue to serve as versatile, stylish additions to casual, smart or professional attire, making them worthy collectables for many reasons.