‘Having stemmed out of military endeavours, these rugged timepieces demonstrate the most advanced technologies that luxury watchmaking have to offer.’
The history of diving watches is directly linked with the innovative developments of naval warfare in the 1930s. Having stemmed out of military endeavours, these rugged timepieces demonstrate the most advanced technologies that luxury watchmaking have to offer. Here, we take a look at the most significant milestones in the diving watch evolution.
Although not a diving watch per se, Hans Wilsdorf’s famous Rolex Oyster was the very first ‘splash-proof’ timepiece. Introduced in 1926, it was built to withstand shallow submersion, enabling it to be worn while swimming. The watch featured a screw-down crown, screwed-in caseback, and securely sealed crystal. In 1927, the watch was successfully tested by the English swimmer, Mercedes Gleitze, as she swam across the English Channel.
A military top-secret until recently, Panerai may well be considered the manufacturer of prototypical high-performance diving watches. The brand’s work with the military dates back to the mid-1930’s. In 1936, Panerai was tasked to create a watch that would address the particular demands of the Italian Royal Navy. That year, they launched their first Radiomir prototype, designed in collaboration with Rolex. While Rolex supplied the timekeeping mechanism, Panerai developed the robust case. The extra durable Radiomir became the official watch worn by Italian frogmen during the Second World War. It played a crucial role in clandestine missions, piloting manned torpedoes and planting limpet mines on enemy ships. These heavy-duty watches could not only withstand deep immersion levels but also offered unprecedented luminescent dials, which made it possible to read time even in absolute darkness of the sea.
Blancpain Fifty Fathoms
In 1953, Blancpain released its famous Fifty Fathoms watch. Water-resistant to 100 metres, this was the first true purpose-built scuba diving watch. It was created by Blancpain in response to the request from Captain Bob Maloubier, a British secret agent during WWII, and a later leader of the French military combat diving corps. To satisfy his particular demands, the watchmakers produced a timepiece with a black dial, large Arabic numerals, clear indications and a rotating bezel. Fifty Fathoms was unique primarily for its trademark uni-directional bezel. It also featured a luminous dial and a screw-in crown. Today, the watch maintains its vintage-inspired look, which is reminiscent of the original model and preserves the quintessential features of a diver’s watch.
In the following decade, IWC began developing its own diving super-watches. This culminated with the IWC ‘Aquatimer’. The original Aquatimer from 1967 featured a surprisingly slim case that was watertight to a depth of 200 metres and a rotatable bezel for adjusting the diving time. Since then, the watch has undergone numerous updates and is now available in a wide variety of finishes. Furthermore, in 2017, IWC celebrated the 50th anniversary of its diver’s watches and launched the Aquatimer Perpetual Calendar Digital Date-Month Edition ’50 Years Aquatimer’. This became the very first wristwatch to be made out of the innovative, super light and durable Ceratanium.
Also in 1967, Rolex reasserted its position at the forefront of the most technologically advanced watchmaking. This was made possible through the launch of the first Sea-Dweller watch. Then waterproof to the impressive depth of 610 metres, it was a prime-quality divers’ watch, designed with professional deep-sea diving in mind. To this end, it was equipped with a helium escape valve, which was patented by Rolex in 1967. The model was revisited in 2017. The brand introduced a larger, 43 millimetre case and the new calibre 3235 movement. The updated model is now water-resistant to 1,220 metres, while the remarkable Rolex Deepsea is watertight to 3,900 meters.
Omega Seamaster 600 ‘Ploprof’
The 1970s saw the launch of Omega’s first commercial diving-watch, the Seamaster 600 ‘Ploprof’. As its name implies, the watch was water-resistant to 600 metres. Unlike the Rolex Sea-Dweller, the Omega ‘Ploprof’ has no helium escape valve. Instead, the brand devised a chunky, impenetrable case consisting of multiple layers of crystal mounted over each other. It also has a steel ring screwed from above, which helps resist pressure rising from within the watch. With this in mind, it is easy to see that the Ploprof case was all about function. As such, its high-performance and durability established it among the favourites of professional divers.
Clearly, diving watches have come a long way to their present state of durability and reliability. Watchmakers continue to push boundaries of technological innovation by perpetually advancing the features of their diving watches. As a result, we are increasingly drawn to their unparalleled functionality and impressive history.