Features

Deep Sea Time

19 Nov 2019 by Business Traveller India

It’s hard to think of a wristwatch genre that has a greater following than dive watches. Back in the day, these precision instruments were utilitarian tools above all else, which explains their charm even today.

In the years I have spent studying, following and collecting wristwatches, I have come to realise that there’s one element for which mechanical watches really don’t get their due — toughness. Well-constructed timepieces are incredibly rugged — far more than we can imagine — and dive (or diver’s) watches sit right at the top of that table. They were, after all, created with soldiers and the military in mind. Today, dive watches are a reminder of that historical association, and it makes them immensely popular with enthusiasts and collectors; even those who have nothing to do with the marine world.

Where it all began 

In the 1920s, watches on wrists were quite uncommon and most gentlemen preferred pocket watches. However, driven by the emergence of the wristwatch as a category and the need for more durable timepieces, Rolex laid the foundation for effective  water-resistant watches in 1926 with what they until date call the Oyster case. This invention set things in motion for further development of watches that could withstand the pressures of being underwater.

Forward to 1932, Omega created the first pressure-tested, certified dive watch, though this remains as one of the most overlooked and under appreciated pieces of trivia in horology. This was followed by Panerai, who was tasked with making watches for the commandos of the Royal Italian Navy in the late 1930s, at the time of the Second World War. While the stark, signature dial was Panerai’s own creation, Rolex supplied the water-resistant cases to them.

Both Omega and Panerai designs were very different from the archetypal dive watch as we know it today. Blancpain is a watch house, which actually deserves credit for that. Their iconic Fifty Fathoms wristwatch, released in 1953 for French combat swimmers, incorporated the (now ubiquitous) notched, rotating bezel. Combined with large, luminescent markers, this became the template for a quintessential dive watch, and has remained basically unaltered since then.

It’s worth noting that, at the time, these watches were the only instrument divers used to calculate the length of their stay underwater. Anything going wrong here meant a catastrophe in the making. The house of Rolex was at work too, continuing their efforts to create watches that could withstand the elements. Just a year after Blancpain, Rolex released its own take on a dive watch, the Submariner. While it wasn’t the first, it has ended up as, arguably, the most iconic wristwatch of all time and the posterchild of dive watches, in general.

As you can see from this evolution, dive watches were truly purpose-built tools, borne out of necessity for frogmen and marine explorers. They were worn in times of war, on special missions.

What makes a dive watch? 

A dive watch requires certain basic features in order to fulfil its job — water resistance (upto 100 metres is usually sufficient), legibility, luminescence, ability to calculate elapsed time from a defined point and an indicator that the watch is running. If you think about the conditions divers are subjected to, all of these make perfect sense. Ultimately, the watch has to accurately tell the time spent underwater, so the diver knows when to resurface and calculate decompression stops in the process, using the bezel.

In 1952, creators of the French combat swimmer unit took this very brief and design idea to Blancpain. The watch was to have a rotating bezel, a sparse dial and large, legible hour markers, which are all functional and aesthetic traits shared by today’s dive watches. This is testimony to how right Blancpain got it with the Fifty Fathoms.

Now if you’ve gone diving recreationally, you would have strapped a dive computer onto your wrist. But dive computers only started to be accepted widely in the 1990s, and until then, a watch was the only tool you could use underwater. Therefore, given its criticality, official criteria for a dive watch was codified by the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) in 1982. Known as the ISO 6425 standard, it provides specific testing requirements before a watch can be labelled as a ‘dive watch’. They are largely an extension of the features mentioned above, but also include resistance to magnetism, shocks and saline water, among other specifications.

Not all manufacturers get their watches ISO-certified and hence, cannot say they are dive watches. So while many may not carry the tag, per se, the visual cues are an easy tell about the intended purpose. But in the hallowed company of brands like Rolex, Omega, Breitling and Seiko, which are renowned for their proficiency in making watches that can be worn while diving, you can rest assured that their internal tests for robustness and chronometry are quite rigorous and exacting.

The ISO guidelines, combined with the substantial R&D carried out by watch manufacturers result in dive watches being over-engineered to the point where they can handle much more than anything you could possibly throw at them. Omega’s Planet Ocean watches, for example, are rated to withstand pressure at depths of around 600 metres below sea level! And that’s not even close to being a record.

An anachronistic object’s sustained popularity 

With an incredibly rich history tied to exploration and military use, it’s no wonder that dive watches have such powerful emotional appeal; allowing you to vicariously live those adventures. They are a time capsule, a symbol of ingenuity and an ever-dependable tool, all at once. That last reason also explains why most of James Bond’s choices over the years have been dive watches, most notably the Omega Seamaster.

As the hobby of collecting watches has become somewhat more widespread lately, and as the popularity of dive watches has soared, an often used phrase one comes across is ‘desk-diver’. A desk-diver is someone who loves a good dive watch for its ruggedness and reliability, although has not acquired it for use in diving. Rather, they spend most of their time behind a desk, but with a watch capable of withstanding the most extreme conditions of the ocean. Since people dress more casually now, it also allows for a sportier watch on the wrist, aiding the growing cult of the dive watch.

I plead guilty to the desk-diver tag too. But tell me of another type of mechanical watch you can be this carefree with, and I will succumb. I wear it to work, on holiday, take it to the beach and can head to the bar after a swim without having to worry about changing my watch. It’s a robust, versatile, smart looking accessory after all. I just feel ready to take on a challenge when I have it on. Not surprisingly, I also use the bezel to time how long my tea has been brewing. It’s these little things clubbed with a dose of nostalgia that keep the charm alive. Because between mobile phones and dive computers, there is no reason dive watches should exist at all. But out of everything on your person, if there’s one thing that won’t fail you, it’ll be your dive watch.

Due to their intrinsic nature, these watches also tend to be simple. Made with sturdy metals like steel or titanium (over gold), their complications are also kept to a minimum. No frills or fuss, their only job is to keep ticking no matter what. Which brings me back to the point I first made about toughness — that is in my opinion a dive watch’s most underrated trait. They’re truly built to last a lifetime and there needn’t be an ounce of worry with one on your wrist. I say this from personal experience.

One of the most succinct lines I heard in this context was in an interview with musician John Mayer, who is also a prolific and celebrated watch collector. In the context of his vintage Rolex Submariner, originally issued to the British Royal Navy, he remarked, “People were crawling through the mud wearing that watch. So you can wear it and hit a door jamb with it. You’re going to be fine.” That’s enough said.

Rolex Submariner

No conversation about dive watches is complete without a hat tip to the Submariner. It helps that it can slip from boardroom to bar to beach quite effortlessly. It is made with a special steel alloy rarely used by brands other than Rolex. rolex.com

Omega Seamaster 300

This watch is inspired by vintage design but packages it with thoroughly modern engineering, in true Omega fashion. With ceramic bezel for scratch resistance, it also features a silicon balance for anti-magnetism upto 15,000 gauss and a chronometre-certified movement with co-axial escapement. Simply put, it is extremely handsome. omegawatches.com

Oris Divers 65

No dive watch has made more waves in recent times than the Oris Divers 65. Since its launch in 2015, it has evolved into a full-fledged collection, offering pared-back design, top-notch construction and exceptional value. There are lots of colours, sizes and materials to choose from, but you won’t go wrong no matter what you pick. oris.ch

Panerai Radiomir PAM00610

You’ll notice the lack of a notched bezel here, compared to the others, since the Second World War (when they were originally made) predated the appearance of a rotating bezel on dive watches. But because the first Panerai watches were made exclusively with Italian naval commandos in mind, it is as true as a dive watch can be. Complete with large Arabic numerals and hand-winding movement having an 8-day power reserve, it is another nod to the brand’s history. panerai.com

Blancpain Fifty Fathoms Barakuda

A Fifty Fathoms always makes it to the list of every serious dive watch guy. This year’s limited edition release is a recreation of a variant made for the German Navy around 1970. The way they have executed it is worthy of applause. With modest sizing at 40.3mm, it features a beautifully finished self-winding movement. blancpain.com

Amish Behl 

BTI PICKS

The Longines Legend Diver Watch is a stunning reinterpretation of a brand classic dating back to the 1960s. This new edition is available in a 36mm version and houses a self-winding movement in a chic steel case. The dial comes in many different versions like mother-of-pearl, brown and black. The back of the case features the stamped image of a diver. The overall design of the watch is simple, clean and elegant.

longines.com

The notable Tag Heuer Aquaracer automatic watch, in this striking blue version boasts water resistance of upto 300 metres and a stylised, sporty dial. The watch is housed in a titanium black case. Its titanium and ceramic unidirectional bezel is eye-catching as is the black and blue dial with luminescent indexes.

tagheuer.com

The nifty IWC Aquatimer Chronograph Edition “Laureus Sport for Good”, available in a limited edition of 1000 watches,  makes it to our list. This sporty model boasts an IWC-manufactured chronograph movement, with a flyback function. The watch features a rubber-coated stainless steel case, while the back of the case features an engraving of a drawing by 15-year-old Melan from Sri Lanka.

iwc.com

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