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Horology, part 3 - The History of Diver Watches

Updated: Nov 12, 2023

In the realm of horology, diver watches are usually the most beloved. It is hard to pinpoint what made them rise above other categories, but it definitely has something to do with their versatility and style (the bezel certainly has a unique appeal).


The genesis of diver watches can be traced back to the early 20th century. With the rise of underwater exploration, particularly in the realm of scientific research and military operations, there was an urgent need for timekeeping devices that could withstand the harsh conditions of the deep.


In 1926 Rolex launched the first reliable water resistant watch - the Rolex Oyster - that featured a hermetically sealed case. This innovation marked a significant leap forward in watchmaking technology and laid the foundation for future diver watch designs. Even though it was an impressive technological achievement, it didn't take long for Cartier to release a model with equivalent capabilities.


Rolex_Oyster
The Rolex Oyster

In 1932 it was Omega's turn. Thanks to an external case, the Marine model could resist the equivalent of a depth of 135 m, which was more than enough for what was needed at the time. The watch was small, rectangular, and had no bezel - quite different from the image we have of diver watches today.


War Time

The start of World War II and the invention of the Aqua-lung breathing apparatus in 1942 pushed the watch industry to innovate. Military units engaged in amphibious operations required timepieces that could withstand the rigors of combat, both on land and underwater.


In response to this demand, renowned watchmakers like Blancpain, Doxa, Panerai, and Rolex introduced purpose-built diver watches for naval units, such as the Panerai Radiomir used by the Royal Italian Navy. The American company Hamilton also played a role by producing what became known as “canteen” watches, models that had screwed-down crown covers.


The Dawn of Professional Diver Watches

The post-war era witnessed the emergence of professional diver watches. In 1953, Blancpain unveiled the Fifty Fathoms, often regarded as the first modern diver watch. Water-resistant up to 50 fathoms (approximately 91 meters), it set a new standard for underwater timekeeping.


Shortly thereafter, in 1954, Rolex introduced the Submariner, a watch that would go on to become one of the most recognized and coveted dive watches in history. Its robust construction, water resistance, and timeless design established a benchmark that still resonates with watch enthusiasts today.


Blancpain_Fifty_Fathoms
The Blancpain Fifty Fathoms Pic That Everyone Uses

The 1960s saw the advent of saturation diving, which used helium in the gas tank mix. This innovation affected the watch industry in an unexpected way, as helium atoms are small enough to actually penetrate and build up inside the case. During decompression, the accumulated pressure could shatter or pop off crystals. To solve the problem Rolex patented the release valve in 1967, but Doxa claims they were the first ones to release a watch with the feature. Soon other brands followed, but both Omega and Seiko approached the problem differently by creating new cases so robust that helium couldn't get in. Near the end of the decade, most watch brands of all sizes offered dive models. It wasn't hard to find from skin divers, made for the water enthusiast, to timepieces that were able to survive the deepest regions of the ocean.


It all changed in the 1970s with the advent of quartz technology, which drove some brands to bankruptcy, but allowed the creation of more affordable and feature heavy models for the masses. Another blow to dive watches came with the release of diving computers in the 1980s, as they were more reliable and effective. Despite all, mechanical dive watches endured, cherished for their craftsmanship, robustness, and design.


In 1996 the ISO 6425 was introduced to clearly define what a diver's watch should contain. However, the industry usually accepts the "diver" label if a watch has: a one side rotatable diving bezel; water resistance of at least 20 bar; screw-down crown; and decently long lasting lume.


The Contemporary Diver Watch Landscape

Today, dive watches remain as popular as ever. A rich diversity of brands, from heritage watchmakers to innovative newcomers, offer an array of options catering to both professional divers and enthusiasts seeking a piece of the aquatic legacy (whatever that means).


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