For many collectors, the history of diving watches begins in 1953 with the launch of the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms and the Rolex Submariner. However, divers had to rely on waterproof watches decades before two of the category’s most iconic models were commercialized. We delve into the connection between the history of underwater exploration and the development of the wristwatch.

In 1942, the German trade publication Uhrmacher-Woche (Watchmakers’ Week) began an extensive article on waterproof watches with the following opening paragraph: “Fifteen years ago, when waterproof watches hit the market, market, many people expected it to be just a gimmick. or a passing fashion fad, as wearing a watch while swimming is not really necessary.” The author then quickly concludes that “the development of airtight clocks became a technical necessity and was important to the outcome of the war, because in rooms with lead storage batteries, in factories, on submarines, the air is filled with air.” acid fumes.”

From pockets to wrists and into the waters of World War II

What makes this article from 80 years ago remarkable is the combination of several misconceptions about the development of the waterproof wristwatch that eventually culminated in the invention diving watch. First, Rolex clearly made an impact “15 years ago” by placing its famous full-page advertisement on the front page of London’s Daily Mail on November 24, 1927, proclaiming the success of its watch. first waterproof wristwatch and chronicles “the launch of the Rolex Oyster and its triumphant march around the world” after the then 26-year-old British professional swimmer Mercedes Gleitze, swam across the English Channel with a Rolex Oyster, thus spending more than 10 hours in the frigid waters between France and England. Second, not a single word is mentioned about divers or diving, even though helmet diving had become an established industry by that time. Other application areas seem to be much more important than diving or “swimming,” which ironically also happens to many of the innovations that helped shape diving. For example, Charles Deane’s idea for a smoke helmet in 1823 led to the development of the first successful diving helmet (which resulted in Augustus Siebe, an engineer and former watchmaker, making create a helmet that fits the entire body). long watertight canvas diving suit in 1830). The same is true of the oxygen ventilator, which was designed to be an emergency escape device for submarine crews, mine workers or firefighters, as it finally allowed divers to wear helmets. The diver operates more independently without the need for air supply from the surface through the diver’s umbilical cord.

With the Marine Corps since 1932, Omega introduced in 1932 a watch with a double-case structure dedicated to “sportifs, marins et Coloniaux” (athletes, sailors and soldiers).
Ironically, those first helmet divers came up with a fairly practical way to tell how much time they had been underwater: the first diving watches were simply pocket watches. Ordinary bag, attached inside the diving helmet. One reason for this solution: back then, “wristwatches” were “considered more or less a joke by Americans,” according to the New York Times from July 9, 1916. However, like Uhrmacher- Woche of Germany, The newspaper also concluded in the same article that “telephone and signal services, which play an important role in modern warfare, have made it mandatory for soldiers to wear watches.” Looking at the first field watches, wearing one underwater, over a thick wetsuit and thus completely exposed to the whole water, pressure and potential shocks was much riskier (and expensive). than just mounting a pocket watch on a (hopefully) dry shelf. inside the helmet.

Two years after the New York Times article on wristwatches, on June 11, 1918, the New York-based “high-end specialty manufacturer of Waltham watches,” Jacques Depollier & Son was patented in the US for “waterproof and dustproof”. watch.” In an advertisement the same year, Depollier also reached the same conclusion as the New York Times. “With the common use of wristwatches for soldiers, sailors, airmen and others participating in operations outdoor activities, the demand for waterproof watches is becoming more and more demanding and the fact that the demand is still not being met is a sign that a reliable waterproof watch has not been available until now. is produced.” Depollier’s “DD” marine and field watch is equipped with a double bezel that promises to keep out “water, dust and gases.” Again, Depollier, like the New York Times, did not mention the watchmaker. diving is their intended target audience, even though their watch is “fully submersible” and is advertised with a picture of it placed in an aquarium.

Thanks to the invention of Philip Van Horn Weems, the watch industry began using rotating bezels in the 1930s (pictured is a LeCoultre from 1941), Longines was the first watchmaker to use the patented innovation. license of invention.
On the other hand, Rolex made its first attempt at a waterproof and dustproof watch, the Submarine, in 1922. According to Rolex, this turned out to be an impractical design because the watch “relies on a second outer shell to protect the main watch body. The outer case must be opened daily to wind the watch, thereby also weakening the metal gasket sealing the opening.” Four years later, two key technical innovations from the company made the single-case wristwatch waterproof: the screw-in caseback and bezel, as well as the newly patented winding crown. mechanism, can be screwed down to seal the housing. Rolex advertises the Oyster as a “miracle watch.” Mercedes Gleitze provided proof (and also became the brand’s first endorsement).

Like Rolex before it, Omega came up with the similar idea of a double case construction for a watch specifically targeted at “sportifs, marins et coloniaux” (athletes, sailors and soldiers). In 1932, the Omega Marine “élégante” used a patented case sealed with cork to “keep water and components away from the center of the watch.” The rectangular watch even had an adjustable clasp and was tested in Lake Geneva to a depth of 73 meters (subsequent laboratory tests showed that the watch was water-resistant to 73 meters). 135 meters deep).

In the 1950s, Rolex began developing its most water-resistant watch to date, the experimental Deep-Sea Special that would eventually reach the bottom of the Mariana Trench (here one of many re-creations). later creation of the above-mentioned watch).

New type of watch, sturdy enough to be worn underwater

In 1935, the paths of the watch industry and underwater activities were finally fully intertwined, when the director of G. Panerai e Figlio in Florence, Giuseppe Panerai, was approached by the Italian Navy to develop Developed waterproof compass and operator watch. its newly developed manned torpedoes. Although Panerai had been a supplier of specialized naval equipment, the company had never produced wristwatches. Therefore, on October 24, 1935, Rolex sent Panerai a Ref. 2533 with a large 9k gold cushion case for testing, this same watch later evolved into the Radiomir, used by Italian special forces (and later by the Germans after confiscating several this clock during the German occupation of Italy which lasted until May 2, 1945).

While members of the Decima Flottiglia MAS commando frogman unit were initially equipped with Rolex watches supplied by Panerai, the United States Underwater Demolition Team (UDT), the forerunner of the Navy’s current SEAL teams USA, equipped with “canteen clocks” from Hamilton. and Elgin (with a screw cap for the crown held in place by a small chain). Like the watches offered by Panerai, these significantly smaller canteen watches are not equipped with a bezel but only display the time with luminous hands.

Like Blancpain’s Fifty Fathoms and Rolex’s Submariner, the company’s Turn-o-Graph also introduced a rotating bezel.
For the rotating bezel, clearly the most visually distinctive element on a diving watch, the watch industry first looked to the sky. On July 31, 1929, Philip Van Horn Weems applied for a patent for a “method and apparatus for measuring navigator time” using a rotating bezel. The patent was granted in 1935 and was quickly applied to many pilot’s watches, the most important of which was Longines’ legendary Weems watch. It would be several years before the watch industry began to realize the potential for its diving customers. More precisely, with the development of automatic diving, based on open-circuit, pneumatic devices, such as the invention of Yves Le Prieur from 1925, and more importantly the regulator of Émile Gagnan and Jacques-Yves First patented by Cousteau in 1943 (and mass-produced by La Spirotechnique after the war), the Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus (SCUBA) revolutionized diving and thereby increased demand. demand for reliable underwater timekeeping equipment.

Blancpain began in the early 1950s with the development and testing of the brand’s first wristwatch specifically for divers. Fifty Fathoms (a reference to a depth of 300 feet or 91.4 meters) was the brainchild of Jean-Jacques Fiechter, then CEO of Blancpain, who was also an avid diver. In an interview conducted in 2018, Fiechter recounted that he was diving off the coast of France when he lost track of time and ran out of air, forcing him to immediately rush to the surface without stopping to decompress. capacity, and thus put him in danger of being bent. His solution, and ultimately Blancpain’s “first modern diving watch,” was commercialized in 1953 and came with a new location for the case back and crown gasket to protect the case and movement. Better water resistance, resulting in patents for both designs. More importantly, Fiechter also introduced a unidirectional bezel with the Fifty Fathoms that allows the watch wearer to better monitor the amount of time spent in water. In short, Blancpain has both improved the waterproof case and added a bezel solely for the purpose of tracking time spent underwater.

Omega’s Seamaster 600 “PloProf” (Ref. 166.077) was tested in 1968 with COMEX (Compagnie Maritime d’Expertises) and commercialized in 1970 to meet saturation diving requirements. According to Phillips, who sold the watch in 2021, this particular model with the red nut was “actively used during the Janus test dive.”
On the other hand, Rolex had implemented the bezel on the Zerographe watch and was now working on the best waterproof watch case at the time with a test watch, the Deep-Sea Special, attached to the outside of the Piccard. Trieste during its first deep-sea testing at a depth of 3,150 meters (10,245 feet) off the island of Ponza in 1953 (Jacques Piccard himself was seen wearing the Longines Chronograph 13ZN while diving outside the submarine). In 1960, Don Walsh, Jacques Piccard and another Rolex reached the bottom of the Mariana Trench (10,916 meters, 35,814 feet). Almost simultaneously with testing the Deep-Sea Special, the company introduced the Submariner in 1953, a diving watch equipped with a rotating bezel. In 1954, the watch industry trade publication Europa Star first briefly mentioned the Submariner as a watch “specially designed for deep-sea diving” and like the Rolex Turn-O-Graph, the Submariner “has a time recording bezel,” “allows for easy control of air consumption in a self-contained diving device.” According to Europa Star, the Submariner has been “tested on 132 sea trials in the Mediterranean and declared an essential accessory for diving equipment.”

While Blancpain and Rolex defined the form and function of the modern dive watch, they both approached the problem from the same angle: a rugged, highly water-resistant wristwatch equipped The bezel can withstand external pressure. What they didn’t count on: the rise of saturation diving, first in the military sector, then in commercial applications. Dr. George F. Bond, a scientist with the United States Navy, introduced the concept of saturation diving in the late 1950s. Previous experiments had shown that divers could live and work underwater. water for days or weeks before implementing a relatively short period of depressurization. Bond’s work is considered not only the beginning of saturation diving but also marked the beginning of the U.S. Navy’s Man at Sea Program. Since 1964, a trio of saturation diving experiments allowing divers to work and live in undersea habitats (Sealab) have been deployed and supported by the United States Naval Experimental Diving Unit (NEDU). With the ill-fated Sealab III, the habitat was lowered to a depth of 610 feet (190 m) off San Clemente Island, California, on February 15, 1969, a depth that would have nearly reached a standard Submariner. to its limit. But it’s not just depth that poses new challenges; helium gas causes the weakest part on some watches, the crystal, to pop out during decompression. And this doesn’t just happen to divers in the Navy. In 1968, Japanese watchmaker Seiko received a letter from a saturation diver from the city of Kure, Hiroshima Prefecture. In that letter, the diver also complained that Seiko’s diving watch lost its crystal during the decompression process. While some divers simply unscrew the crown before compressing it, Rolex wanted to offer another solution for its Sea-Dweller diving watch introduced in 1967. From an advertisement from 1974: “However, Rolex The Sea Dweller is equipped with a patented air release valve.” Rolex applied for a patent for this valve on November 6, 1967. “In practice, this meant that the watch would depressurize when a diver was present,” said T. Walker Lloyd, then is an oceanographic consultant for Rolex in the same ad, explains. The Sea Dweller then became standard equipment for the Compagnie Maritime d’expertises (COMEX) staff (and replaced the previous partnership between Omega and COMEX).

It took Seiko seven years to develop a 600m professional diver’s watch intended for saturation diving. This watch introduced more than 20 innovations when it was launched in 1975.
Diver’s tools

However, Omega and Seiko chose a very different approach to solving the helium problem: instead of improving an existing watch, they both went back to the drawing board. One result was the Seamaster 600 “PloProf” (Plongeur Professionel) from 1970 that was built to perform harder than any other watch from the company before it. From an advertisement from that period: “We also tested the 600’s helium. Helium, having much smaller molecules, can penetrate places where water cannot. So if a watch can resist helium, it can also resist almost anything else. This test shows that the 600 is 100 times more air and water tight than the Apollo spacecraft.” Another Omega ad explains three major innovations like this: “we carved the Seamaster from a single block of stainless steel; There is no rear joint. Then we made it a hard, heavy, screw-capable mineral glass. We built it with a timed rotating bezel, with its own lock to prevent accidental movement. We equipped it with an extremely secure double locking crown.” Seiko also used monobloc case construction for its professional diving watch introduced in 1975, the 6159-7010 with guaranteed water resistance to 600 meters (a watch, like the PloProf, in fact It’s actually much more water resistant than this one). However, it took Seiko seven years to develop and received 20 patents. The 6159-7010 is also built in such a way that it can withstand pressure differentials without having to rely on an additional opening in the case, but comes with a protective cloth, taking into account heavy work under customer’s country. On the other hand, both the Seiko and Omega have designs, sizes, and prices that keep many consumers from wearing it, while the Sea-Dweller looks more like a conventional watch both underwater and on land.

All three models have certainly also helped to significantly improve the quality of diving watches. In 1966, the British Sub-Aqua Club (BSAC) established a committee to investigate diving equipment, including diving watches, which at the time were considered little more than “a important” part of a diver’s equipment but also seems to be the most troublesome one. In 1968, BSAC member Geoff Harwood concluded that “the vast majority of complaints and allegations about defective equipment and unsatisfactory dealings with manufacturers and distributors relate to diving watches” – citing to the decision to “conduct a survey to determine”. extent of the problem.” Harwood’s conclusion is not as encouraging as the industry might have hoped, “because so few products were represented we cannot conclude a ‘best buy’ or certainly not recommend one certain watches.” And added, “[E]ven if you buy an internationally famous watch that costs over £50, you still stand a chance of finding it full of water when you arrive to start the reduced schedule my pressure after diving deep.”

Citizen’s Aqualand was officially launched in 1985 and was the first diving watch equipped with a digital depth indicator.
Or, as Robert R. Springer wrote in Skin & Scuba Diver’s Digest in 1975, “It has been a strange thing that today, specially made waterproof and pressure-resistant watches have become a symbol status statues among those considered beautiful — even though most of them never reach greater depths than the bottom of a martini glass. However, the practicing diver needs something that is functional rather than impressive. And when looking for an underwater watch, you have to be very selective.”

Become an ambassador of the sea

In 1983, while the watch industry was slowly starting to recover from its worst crisis to date, the Orca Edge was launched as the first commercially viable diving computer. . Watch brands at the time were mainly focused on making diving watches more water resistant (for example, the IWC Ocean 2000 from 1984 was the first mass-produced diving watch with 2,000-meter water resistance), multi-function quartz watch and quick-start dive computer. intended to transform the mechanical diving watch first into the role of a backup tool, then primarily as a status symbol, as Springer observed in 1975. In 1990, Seiko launched the “watch world’s first computerized diver”, equipped with a water sensor and a depth sensor that displays dive time and depth. Five years ago, Citizen introduced the first Aqualand and also the first quartz watch to incorporate an electronic digital depth gauge. Despite the existence of a more versatile (and often less expensive) option, diving watches have become one of the most successful categories for luxury watchmakers in recent years. For example, Rolex’s Submariner ranked at positions 2 and 5 on Chrono24’s most popular list from 2020. Even at Breitling, a brand traditionally synonymous with pilot’s watches, the Superocean dive watch has become the brand’s most popular watch category. It is difficult to imagine Tudor’s recent popularity without the Black Bay diving watch introduced in 2016, or Rado’s success among collectors and watch enthusiasts without the Captain Cook. reintroduced in 2017. Even Seiko has built much of its recent global success on Prospex. diving watch collection. And Panerai, the former supplier of the Italian Navy, was revived in 1993 exclusively as a watch brand. Last but not least, since 1995, Omega has equipped the world’s most famous spy with a Seamaster diving watch and in doing so created one of the most recognizable luxury watches best in the industry.

In 2020, Ulysse Nardin introduced the Diver Net, a concept watch “designed to limit its environmental impact and promote sustainability at a level of excellence.”
But perhaps more importantly, diving watches have become ambassadors for the importance of the ocean. For example, Blancpain has become a force for protecting ocean biodiversity. The Blancpain Ocean Commitment (BOC) initiative established in 2014 is a unique program in the watch industry that has helped a number of successful environmental initiatives (some of which were conducted before when the BOC is implemented). Oris also believes “passionately in conservation and is committed to sustainable action” and has released a number of limited edition watches to support various conservation efforts. Others, like Luminox, Breitling and Ulysse Nardin, have begun promoting recycling methods with their products.

From a quality and performance standpoint, today’s mechanical dive watches are better than ever. They have repeatedly reached the deepest parts of the ocean and offer any type of extras one can dream of. In recent years, they have become symbols of sustainability and conservation, and offer a nostalgic look at how humans simultaneously conquered the abyss. In other words, the dive watch has stood the test of time and proven that an analog product can coexist with a digital alternative.

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